The last census report revealed that the process of urbanization has resulted in the mushrooming of as many as 113 cities in West Bengal in the last 10 years. In order to balance the development of industrial society with that of ecology, it is necessary to introduce the concept of eco-tourism in the state.
The people of West Bengal are probably more fond of travelling than people from any other region in the country. It is strange that the tourism sector should be so neglected in a state which can boast of the most travel-friendly people. Particularly when West Bengal demonstrates almost all the geophysical features of the country. For instance, Darjeeling and Purulia, with their heights, offer the scope for adventure tourism, a considerable part of Siliguri, Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri, with their sub-Himalayan forests, as well as the Sunderbans, can be used for wildlife tourism, while Bankura, Birbhum and Murshidabad, rich in archaeo-historical wealth, are attractive spots for both domestic and foreign tourists.
With 200 kilometres of coastline extending from the Sunderbans to Digha, 2,585 square km of mangrove forests, 4.59 lakh hectares of terai forests and 4.30 lakh hectares of dry deciduous forests, West Bengal is a virtual paradise for tourists. Add to this 20 snow-capped peaks and mountain ranges, numerous hill stations and a few well-protected sanctuaries, and you have enough to offer for a proper eco-tourism industry. There are also a large number of historical monuments across the state, some of which date back to 12th century AD.
Any programme for the development of eco-tourism would have to concentrate on some basic infrastructural facilities. The West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation has woken up to this and made some facilities available to both foreign and domestic tourists. In Darjeeling, for instance, along with a tourist lodge, the WBTDC provides a well-planned schedule including river rafting, trekking, rock-climbing and so on. Yet, wildlife tourism is altogether absent from the list. In other forests of the state too, the facilities are hardly up to the mark.
A couple of years back, a scheme to provide infrastructural and other facilities to the tourists visiting Purulia had been initiated by the state government. However, the WBTDC had to shut down all its rest houses owing to severe fund crunch. Package tours for middle-class families or students are also absent.
The last state budget has alloted more money than before to the village panchayats. If at least one rest house along with an information centre is built in each panchayat region, it would be possible for the local bodies to run the entire tourism network on their own. All the panchayat bodies have to come under a single active network for this plan to be successful. The panchayats have to maintain a detailed map of the region along with information on the historical and natural resources. The network of private hotels and the panchayats has to be consolidated as well.
The panchayats could cater to foreign tourists wanting to have a taste of the rural lifestyle of a region better than any other organization. If foreigners are charged Rs 500 per day and domestic tourists Rs 300 for accommodation, the local bodies would be able to earn a substantial amount, which they could spend for the development of the region.
Some revenue could also be earned through the sale of local handicrafts. Most tourists are interested in local cultural activities. Special cultural shows could be arranged twice or thrice a week. A well-equipped sanitation and water-supply system would go a long way in boosting the tourism industry in any region. Most important, the West Bengal chapter of eco-tourism can add more tourist spots to the map, generate more employment, fetch revenue and also act as a catalyst in local self-development.