Interview with Manabendra Mukherjee, West Bengal Tourism Minister by Surhid Sankar Chattopadhay published in FRONTLINE, Issue 06 :: Mar. 13-26, 2010
WEST Bengal Tourism Minister Manabendra Mukherjee has come up with a number of new projects to promote tourism in the State, unique among them being the concept of river tourism. Mukherjee became a Minister for the first time in 1996 in the Jyoti Basu Cabinet. Known for his innovative approach in handling issues relating to the various departments he has headed over the years, Mukherjee feels that with greater effort the tourism sector in the State can attract more foreign and domestic tourists.
Excerpts from an interview:
What is the tourism situation in West Bengal today?
I would say it is okay; not very satisfactory. As far as foreign tourist arrival is concerned our State is ranked sixth. In the domestic tourism sector, we are ranked eighth. While the rankings are not quite bad, it is still far from satisfactory. We have to push hard to attract more foreign and domestic tourists.But West Bengal has practically all that is required to make it a top tourist destination.
It is correct that West Bengal has practically everything to make it a tourist hub. In fact, it is a mini-India in itself. It has everything except the result [smiles]. But I must say that it is also a question of perception. After the 1960s, there has been a deliberate attempt to portray West Bengal in a negative light and that has deterred a lot of tourist inflow. Now that is changing. Every year the number of tourists coming to West Bengal is increasing. If we push hard, we can disprove the wrong perception of the State.
What are your thrust areas for promoting tourism?
There are some category-wise thrust areas and those dictated by geographical considerations. Our immediate thrust areas are very specific: first develop north Bengal, particularly the Doars as a major tourist destination; second, the river Ganga; third, the metropolitan city of Kolkata; fourth, Murshidabad, the old capital of Bengal; and finally, the district of Birbhum.
We are looking at the Doars, because it is one of the most beautiful places in West Bengal. River tourism is a new concept for us. The Ganga flows through the State. That is why we are trying to promote the Ganga as a major tourist attraction. Already quite a few river cruises are operating. We are developing the infrastructure along the river so that we can attract and accommodate more tourists, particularly international tourists. This is a completely new initiative and we are getting a positive response.
Now, let us look at Kolkata. We believe Kolkata has the potential to be a huge tourist attraction. It is just that it has never been marketed properly. Heritage tourism is another aspect that has been neglected slightly. The best place to promote this kind of tourism would be Murshidabad, which is also on the bank of the Ganga. We have a plan to promote a tour along the river, starting from the Sunderbans [at the mouth of the Ganga], through the city of Kolkata, right up to Murshidabad. We have already made a suggestion to the Centre for a tour route along the river from Sagardeep to Allahabad – a route with 5,000 years of the history of Indian civilisation behind it. As I have already mentioned, the response to the idea of river tourism has been very encouraging. We are also concentrating on developing tea tourism and rural tourism.
Are you looking at private participation in the projects that you have mentioned?
Most certainly. As far as economic planning is concerned, no government can afford to spend a huge amount only on tourism. If you take the priorities into consideration, it is more important to put a blackboard in a school than set up a tourist lodge or a hotel. As far as our declared policy on tourism is concerned, the State government’s focus will be mostly on the development of infrastructure to facilitate tourism and on the introduction of new tourist destinations; the rest will be done by private investors.
Can you tell us something about the new areas that you have introduced in the tourist map of West Bengal?
We are going to develop Ahiron Beel in Murshidabad and Ballavpurdanga in Birbhum. Everybody knows Murshidabad and Birbhum but very few people know about these other places. These are beautiful places but still largely undiscovered by tourists mainly owing to lack of proper infrastructure there. We have now set up a rural tourism centre at Ballavpurdanga, which is near Shantiniketan. What attracted Maharshi Debendranath Tagore and his son Rabindranath in Bolpur (where Shantiniketan is located) can no longer be found. Shantiniketan is beautiful, but it is not what Rabindranath saw when he first came to the region.
Ballavpurdanga, which is largely untouched by tourism, still retains the old charm of the region. The local tribal populations are directly involved in the project.
We are going to promote Chinatown in Kolkata as a tourist spot. Nowhere in India can you find a place like Chinatown [where the Chinese had settled over 150 years ago and still retain their culture and cuisine and celebrate their festivals].
Initially the people of Chinatown were a little hesitant about the whole project, as no one had really taken the initiative of putting the people of Chinese origin of Kolkata in the forefront of society. But now they are very enthusiastic about it and are participating actively in the project having understood that the government is serious about it and that they will benefit as the project will get them good business.
Some of the important tourist destinations in Bengal have been witnessing a bit of unrest – the Darjeeling hills, traditionally the most popular tourist spot in the State, with the secessionist movement launched by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha; and Bankura and Purulia districts where the Maoist menace is spreading. Has tourism been hit in the State because of these factors?
This is part of the game. The most attractive place in India is Kashmir, and for the past three decades that region has been a disturbed one. While it is true that we have to solve certain problems in the State, it is also a fact that the number of tourists coming to West Bengal has been increasing in spite of the problems that you have mentioned.
Definitely tourism in the State has been hampered to some extent in the sense that if the situation in Darjeeling were absolutely normal we could expect a far greater number of tourists. I was recently reading an article which said that the maximum number of transport strikes in the world takes place in Paris; does that deter tourists from going to Paris?
What are the areas that require more attention?
Basically, developing infrastructure and attracting more private investments in the tourism sector. Owing to the economic recession, investors have been a little shy to come forward and invest in tourism; but good days will return and they will come forward again. Meanwhile, we will have to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place.