These days, every August, one gets to read about the state government’s resolve to use Durga puja as a carrot to draw tourists. Notwithstanding the irony of a communist government’s attempt to commercialise a socio-religious festival, one cannot really fault the planners for their resolve. The Pujas , after all, is West Bengal, or more specifically, Calcutta’s only ‘mass festival’.
It is with some interest, therefore, that one had followed the statements made by the tourism minister, secretary and the director during the past three years. There was not much variation, though, in what they had to say. In 2001, they spoke of a special package for the ‘Pujo’. The next year, the statements got a little more sophisticated and the planners spoke of turning the ‘Pujo’ into a brand. This year, some of them have started talking of the ‘Pujo package’ as a product that requires hardsell.
This is also the time of the year when tourism minister Dinesh Chandra Dakua wings his way to other states to address tour operators and hardsell West Bengal.
Like all government action, tourism policy, too, involves very little participation by the people and is finalised practically by a handful of bureaucrats. Though organisations like Concern for Calcutta have, on their own, been making an effort to make the event memorable for tourists, the state government’s strategy to involve private participation in tourism promotion remains unclear.
While private initiatives have been hamstrung by shortage of resources and manpower, the department’s action, predictably, has been confined to organising ‘package tours’ in buses, trams and a river cruise in the evening. The response, if one dares to say so, has been less than encouraging . The few tourist buses put out were seldom full; the professional guides were often listless and there was very little to cheer about, if accounts of tourists are anything to go by. Inadequacies of the public toilet system, incidentally, have been one of the sore points during these tours. There is nothing to suggest though that the authorities have learnt their lesson and sought to improve the facility, specially during the mad rush at pandals.
While tourism is one of the fastest growing industries and has the potential of generating considerable employment, one searched in vain for a proper tourism policy for the Pujas. Neither the government nor the universities seem to have done any meaningful study of the various aspects related to a possible influx of people during the festival. Such a study, one would have thought, would be the starting point for any policy.
In sharp contrast, and to cite just one example, one can take the University of California’s ‘Small Farm Centre’, which has been actively helping small farmers promote ‘agri-tourism’. Outside Reedley, a small steam engine takes tourists round a five-acre plantation; tree houses have been set up and a Nature trail developed for trekking; swings, hanging bridges and miniature homes add to the ambience.
Tourists have a choice of fresh fruit, juice, buy souvenirs with agriculture products as themes. The endeavour, suggests the university’s website, has opened a new opportunity to farmers to supplement income.
West Bengal also needs to learn from the Kerala model, which ignored the policy of promoting large hotels and ostentatious lifestyle and encouraged, instead, a clutch of small, specialised resorts. Some of them have audaciously done away with air-conditioning, television, swimming pools, hard liquor and non-vegetarian food — which are usually considered unavoidable sops to give the tourist a good time.
“Be yourself” is the mantra that is prompting a paradigm shift in tourism management and the city will have to be both innovative and imaginative to draw tourists.
Sadly, the department of tourism has failed to do the most obvious things. There must be, for example, several thousand families in the city that would be happy to host tourists for a week during the Pujas. They, of course, get paid for it, say anywhere between Rs 7,000 to Rs 20,000, for providing board, lodging and company for a week.
There would be, similarly, a large number of both Indian and foreign families willing to put up with families during the festival. All that the department needs to do is to promote the idea, be the facilitator, arrange for publicity and help register the families and classify accommodation provided by them.
There are reasons to believe that the strategy would lead to a more organised flow of tourists and help generate ‘income’.
Yet another obvious strategy is to induce the organisers of different Pujas to host tourists, for a consideration. Durga can drive the tourists, no doubt, but she needs quite a lot of help from the planners.