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For your eyes only, the very best of Bengal

Increase international flights to and from Calcutta, repair roads, check taxis that are “falling apart”, improve Bagdogra airport… Those were just some of the suggestions put forward at the 18th Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO) conference in Calcutta, that concluded on Sunday.

Since the region where the conference is held is specifically promoted, the thrust this year was towards developing the east and Northeast. The West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (WBTDC) had organised city tours for the visiting delegates, numbering over 800. The tourism boards of various states have tied up with West Bengal, but a lot remains to be done.

As IATO president Maharaj I.S. Wahi put it: “You have to advertise better and put into prominence what is good here. For example, the ride along Red Road and the Maidan area is simply beautiful, but I didn’t know how much till I came here… Similarly, we know very little about the beauty of north Bengal, and yet, in many ways, it is unparalleled.”

The IATO conference aimed to “change all that”. The Bengal government, felt tour operators, has taken a step in the right direction by bringing the conference to Calcutta and extending administrative support.

“Many tour operators have now caught a glimpse of what is on offer. Certainly not everything is perfect… You have to work towards cleanliness and sprucing up various areas of the city, and developing the tourist spots in the state,” said Wahi.

Most tour operators agree that a fair chunk of their domestic clientele — “about 20-25%” — comprises Bengalis. So, the biggest challenge the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government faces in the fight for tourists is getting “the footloose Bengali” to stick to home country.

To that end, the WBTDC has come up with a number of packages to attract customers — from adventure holidays in Darjeeling, with mountain-biking and white-water rafting, to Ganga cruises and excursions galore.

“Take a leaf out of Kerala or Goa’s book,” suggested Wahi, while a spokesperson from the WBTDC stall said they had received a good response from operators. “We are ready to make a strong sales pitch to spread awareness about the best of Bengal… But there is nothing we can do about political unrest in certain areas,” she admitted.

“The Calcutta conference is the most significant one in the past five decades, in light of the recently-announced national tourism policy,” said Wahi. Represented by around 20 states, national carriers, tourism and hospitality companies, the Indian Tourism Fair, held as part of the conference, was displayed in attractively laid-out stalls, showcasing the highlights of each state.

Organisers stressed that the industry is now slowly but surely putting the “bad months” behind it. “At the moment, we are targeting domestic and short-haul tourists from neighbouring areas like Singapore, Thailand and China, and not going too far. But we are much better off now than we were even two months ago,” said Wahi.

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