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Bengal tourism pitch lacks teeth

Bengal sought to flex its tourism muscles by setting up a giant pavilion that stood next to Gujarat’s at the Travel and Tourism Fair and boasting an increase in its budget allocation for the sector.

But while the western state flaunted wi-fi connectivity in the middle of the Rann of Kutch and handed out visiting cards with QR codes on them, an enquiry at the Bengal desk revealed the same old brochures and a guest book from a disinterested official.

Ei gulo pore nin aar naam o number likhe din (Read these brochures and write your name and contact number in the guest book),” said an official manning the Bengal pavilion at the 25th edition of the fair at Netaji Indoor Stadium.

In contrast, the official at the helpdesk in the Gujarat stall rattled off various package rates to anyone who cared to ask. Laid out on the desk was a giant map of the state, along with detailed itineraries.

“(Narendra) Modi and Amitabh Bachchan are taking me to Gujarat this time. We have already booked our tickets and got all the other cost related information we needed from the stall,” said businessman and Baguiati resident Prashanta Ghosh, who came to the fair on Sunday with wife Rakhi Ghosh.

A few stalls away, Chhattisgarh slashed its rates by half for senior citizens and Uttarakhand was busy hardselling itself as a bird lover’s paradise to lure back tourists. The mountain state has actor Victor Banerjee as its ambassador for the Bird Watching Programme.

The Bengal stall, painted in blue and white, hogged prime space and matched the Gujarat pavilion step for step on the exterior. Both were spread across 800sq ft. If Gujarat had dandia dancers in traditional costumes, Bengal had Chhou dancers from Purulia. From flat screen televisions to leather couches, Mamata Banerjee’s state locked horns with Modi’s in terms of visibility.

However, while the 20-strong group at the Gujarat stall tried to lure visitors to their state with smooth roads, last mile connectivity and special discounts, Bengal stuck to its “Darjeeling to Sunderbans” rhetoric.

“We are now trying to promote eco-tourism in Gajoldoba in Jalpaiguri and the Sunderbans through public-private partnership. We have everything, from the mountain to the sea, and can beat all other states,” said Bratya Basu, the new tourism minister of Bengal.

A senior official in the state tourism department later confessed that it was only recently that the government had realised the importance of religious and cultural tourism. “We have just discovered that Bengal has 13 Shakti peethas (shrines) apart from Kalighat. We had paid no attention to the peethas. Look at the number of tourists Vaishno Devi or Kedarnath draws every year,” said the official.

While Bengal’s budget allocation for the tourism department increased from Rs 120 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 278 crore in 2014-15, Gujarat’s stood at over Rs 600 crore. Kamleshbhai Patel, the chairman of Tourism Corporation of Gujarat Limited, had said last October that their government had spent Rs 1,200 crore over the past five years on tourism infrastructure development.

“Transport and tourism go hand in hand and we have increased rail and road connectivity to the last possible point on our tourism circuits. Moreover, tour operators can now register themselves online and avail themselves of 10 per cent discount through e-bookings,” said Soman S. Pathy, the liaison officer of Gujarat Tourism.

Uttarakhand, with the largest pavilion spread across 2,500sq ft, was hard at work to allay tourists’ fears a year after floods ravaged the state. From 50 per cent discounts during Durga Puja, free food and accommodation on pilgrimage routes to increased number of helipads for emergency transportation and biometric registration, officials outlined the importance of the Bengal market.

“There is no doubt that Bengal is our most important market. We are back this year to take them back to Kedarnath, Chaar-dham, Rishikesh and Hardwar. We are even promising Bengali food,” said Dinesh Dhanoi, Uttarakhand tourism minister.

If Gujarat offered a flat 20 per cent discount to senior citizens across its tour packages, Chhattisgarh came up with 50 per cent for senior citizens and 25 per cent at state-run lodges on spot bookings.