Interview with Goutam Deb
Tourism Minister, Government of West Bengal
Keeping Durga Puja as its focus, West Bengal tourism is planning a new international promotional campaign, targeting mainly the European clientele. As Durga Puja is not just spiritual but also the biggest cultural festival in West Bengal and one of the biggest in the country, the state tourism hopes to attract tourists from all over, including the Bengali diaspora.
Presenting Durga Puja in the form of a mass carnival for international tourists and bringing home the Bengalis settled abroad seems to be the new strategy of West Bengal Tourism. What is your objective in the international market?
Durga Puja is one of the largest festivals in the world attended by tourists from all over. We are now showcasing Durga Puja internationally, by promoting the very ambience of the puja (rituals) especially the carnival on the last day in the form of visarjan (idol immersion). It has been a very successful event in the last two years, and hence we are planning to focus on more foreign tourists. We are especially inviting them to visit West Bengal to see the grandeur, to experience how Goddess Durga’s homecoming as daughter of the entire land sparks the festive mood of the season.
West Bengal has been a little missing-in-action for some time in the international market. How do you plan to catch up?
Yes, but West Bengal is coming up again in the international scenario and now our place is fifth in terms of foreign tourist arrivals in India. We are targeting the SAARC countries and tourists from the other ASEAN countries in addition to the European nations. We are also expanding our digital platforms so that people can get information at the click of a mouse.
We are now holding B2B (Business to Business) meetings with potential buyers whom we are hosting as our guests and conducting familiarisation trips for them in the state. We are initiating our strategy to take part in various B2B events across the world, especially in European countries. We are also planning to participate in big and important tourism events this year with more force. With a new zeal, we are trying to create the atmosphere, ambience, mutual trust, confidence and a sense of security, so that not only tourists, but also global investors and big industry players can come and invest in West Bengal. We look forward to investments not only in tourism, but also in every other sector of the industry that will directly or indirectly boost the tourism and economy of our state.
There is a big tourism market next door sharing the same language, same ethos and same culture. What is your strategy for attracting more Bangladeshi tourists?
Now the connectivity has improved between the two Bengals, with bus and rail connectivity, immigration checkpoints, all operating smoothly. The two governments have already agreed upon the system connecting Kolkata to Dhaka through the waterways. Another border tourism option similar to Attari-Wagah is coming up at Phulbari (India side) where ceremonial parade will take place very soon (the Bangladesh side is called Banglabandha). A large number of people from Bangladesh visit West Bengal for educational and medical purposes on a regular basis, so we are bound to take special care of them.
The worldwide trend is experiential tourism. Other than Durga Puja, what other top projects are you currently looking at and what experiential angles do they have for the foreign tourists?
We are working on three PPP model eco-tourism projects. First one is at Gajoldoba, the largest one of its kind in the country with 208 acres of land readily available. We are investing on infrastructural development in road and rail connectivity, constructing the bridges, ensuring safe drinking water, electricity, internet connectivity – everything that a smart traveller may need in a jungle trail. The second one is at Jhorkhali where 175 acres of land is being built as a niche destination within the Sundarbans with all modern amenities. The third one is at Sabujdwip in the district of Hooghly. We have a successful track record of homestays in the Dooars region and are working to register these home-stay units in the Government of India’s bed and breakfast campaign (through the Incredible India website) and trying to link them with our website once they are registered for a better publicity and coordination.
Since you are targeting to increase the number of foreign tourists in the state, what is the overall status of hospitality infrastructure?
We are keen to exploit our waterways that are still under-utilised. Now we have two cruise boats that are ready and we have ordered for six more. We are trying to develop this like the backwaters of Kerala. These cruise boats will have conference facilities and four-five exclusive rooms with suites. These cruises will travel across waterways through river Ganga and foreign tourists can experience the state through the water route. On the other hand, all major luxury hotel brands are investing in our capital, Kolkata and its surroundings. We have 42 properties of our own, out of which we have already outsourced 10 for better management. We are going to construct another 30-35 new properties.
Most importantly, now we have a world-class convention centre, Biswa Bangla in Kolkata. We are going to create the second one at Digha near the sea beach with the support of Digha Shankarpur Development Authority. The third one will be coming up near the mountains at Bagdogra as it is well connected via flights. With three MICE tourism centres, we are going to focus on wellness, medical, education, as well as village and adventure tourism.
Are you ready to host an international standard tourism event?
We are consulting with our chief minister and our plan is at a very primary stage at the moment. We will thoroughly discuss every matter and come up with something very interesting so that we can host such a thing as soon as possible. But we need to be totally ready for that.
To plan the above successfully, good air connectivity is most important. Are you doing anything to improve the scenario?
Bagdogra got 46 pc surge in traffic, which is the highest in India, hence we have already handed over 26 acres of land to facilitate night landing there. Now the Airports Authority of India (AAI) has asked for another 116 acres to convert this airport into a truly international airport. We are working on it and our chief minister is very keen to hand over the 116 acres of land to AAI. Investment is also being arranged for the same. Our government has already invested money towards airport buildings at Cooch Behar and Andal. We are planning for another two-three small airports, so that planes can land over there.
You have a plan to connect the mountains of Darjeeling and the beaches of Bay of Bengal through the state?
The entire state is now connected with well built roads. Another road down south starting from Midnapore passing through Burdwan will connect North Bengal. The entire stretch of Bengal will be connected seamlessly through one road. West Bengal comes with a rich scenic beauty – a wide range of Himalayas; other mountain ranges such as Ayodhya and Susunia; the cultural heritage of Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan; colonial legacy and spiritual abode of Mother Teresa in Kolkata; the mangroves in the coastal Sunderbans nestling the Royal Bengal Tigers; and the beautiful river Ganges passing across the state before immersing into the Bay of Bengal. There is no other state in the entire country that can offer this kind of tourism diversity.