Massive potential

Print edition : December 02, 2011

Chhagan Bhujbal in Shivaji's headgear at the inauguration in Nagpur of the play 'Janta Raja' based on the life of the warrior king. A file picture. - PTI

Interview with Chhagan Bhujbal, State Tourism Minister.

CHHAGAN BHUJBAL, Maharashtra's Minister for Tourism, has grand plans for exploiting the State's tourism potential. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

What are the State's strengths and focus areas in the tourism sector?

Our State is blessed with almost everything except snow-clad mountains and deserts. We are proud to have the highest number of forts and caves in the country. The white sand and blue waters of the Konkan beaches are remarkable. The State has about 169 tigers, apart from other wild animals, in its 34 wildlife sanctuaries. It has five of the 12 Jyotirlinga temples [dedicated to Siva] in the country, the Ashtavinayak temples, three and a half Shaktipithas [temples dedicated to Parvati] and the shrine of Sai Baba in Shirdi and the Shani Shinganapur [dedicated to Saturn]. Naturally, these are our focus areas.

Do you think Maharashtra has lagged in the tourism sector in spite of its strengths?

Maharashtra enjoys a leading position in the industry and commerce sectors. It is true that our focus remained on these sectors and also infrastructure in the past. There is great potential in tourism, particularly for employment generation. It is not that we had not paid attention to tourism in the past; it was not a priority area.

How do you plan to utilise your strengths?

An aggressive marketing strategy is the key. The State government has earmarked a budget of Rs.25 crore for the current year and will put in more resources in the future to build Brand Maharashtra. When people find Maharashtra an interesting place to visit, the demand for services will increase, which in turn will provide opportunities for entrepreneurs. Our target is to create demand, the other things will follow.

It is said Maharashtra does not have the required infrastructure. How do you plan to overcome this?

Maharashtra has very good infrastructure in terms of roads and airports. Most districts have an airstrip and there are regular flights to places like Nagpur, Pune, Aurangabad, Nanded, Latur, and Kolhapur. The major roads are now four-lane highways. National Highway 17 from Mumbai to Goa is our next priority.

In terms of tourism infrastructure, we have a long way to go. This has to be done in a phased manner depending on the availability of resources and needs. At present we have undertaken sector-specific projects, such as eco-tourism in the Vidarbha region, coastal tourism in the Konkan area, and the Ajanta and Ellora tourism project. Work is also in progress at Elephanta Caves, Harihareshwar [Raigad district], Kunkeshwar, Mithbav [Sindhudurg district], Bhandardara [Ahmednagar district], and Toranmal [Nandurbar district]. The first phase of development of tourist facilities at select forts and at the Ashtavinayak sites are going on. The government has released Rs.10 crore per project. Tourism signage will be in place in six months.

Can you outline the specific plans for developing beaches, forts, wildlife areas and religious tourism?

We have identified the gaps and have plans for the specific development of these areas. To promote wildlife tourism, the MTDC is establishing tourist resorts at places such as Sakoli, Khindshi, Chhaprala, Pench, Bor, Tadoba and Chikhaldara. Forest trails, camp sites and nature interpretation centres will be developed by the Forest Department.

Around 36 beaches have been identified for development. The roads leading to them are being improved. Integrated beach facilities and beach safety will be in place soon. The MTDC has plans to upgrade its beach resorts in addition to creating new ones.

The State has around 350 forts, of which some are historically important. A fort circuit plan will cover the districts of Pune, Satara, Ahmednagar, Kolhapur, Raigad and Sindhudurg. We are also planning to launch package tours on these routes.

What actually drives domestic tourism in the State is religious tourism. Health and hygiene are major concerns at most religious places. We will work out a model in coordination with local bodies and temple trusts.

What is the response to Kalagram, an exhibition of art and culture that opened recently in Aurangabad?

With the help of the Union Ministry of Tourism, we started the Aurangabad Kalagram to showcase our rich art, craft and culture. There are 106 stalls and an open-air theatre here. Many artists and craftsmen have taken advantage of this facility. In the past two or three months, more than one lakh people have visited the kalagram.

Inside the Daulatabad fort, situated on a 183-metre-high hill.-COURTESY: MTDC

Around eight acres have been earmarked in Filmcity, Mumbai, for a similar project there. We also plan to set up a shilpgram (artists' village) in Majalgaon in Andheri East, for which land has been reserved.

Why is the State not promoting agro-rural tourism?

I agree that agro-rural tourism has great scope in Maharashtra, as its agriculture sector is well developed and the rural connectivity is good. This will be an interesting experience for urban dwellers. Many farmers have successfully started rural tourism centres. We have a Mahabhraman scheme under which service providers can register with the MTDC. Wine tourism in Nasik and Pune is gaining popularity with foreign tourists.

What about your dream project relating to the Raigadfort?

I have a dream of making Raigad fort a prime tourist destination as it was built during the time of Chhatrapati Shivaji. We have written to the Union Ministry of Culture to hand over this fort to the State government for restoration and conservation. Once we get permission, we will make Raigad fort a monument of national pride in two years' time.

Is the luxury train Deccan Odyssey back on track now?

In order to attract foreign tourists, I have planned to resume services of this luxury train. For this, I have held several discussions with the Union Railway and Tourism Ministries.

From 2004 to 2008 this train was doing regular tours in Maharashtra. But following the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008 and a sudden change in the Railways' policy things changed. Now, in addition to regular tours in the State, the train makes pan-India tours with the help of private operators. We are planning to operate a Mumbai-Shirdi tour from this season once the formalities with the Railways are completed.

Could you tell us about Sea World in the Konkan?

We have decided to take up this project in Sindhudurg district. The Konkan area is most suitable for such a project owing to the water quality and marine life. This integrated project is proposed to be implemented under the public private partnership model. This will be the biggest tourism project in India and will have the capacity to divert tourist flow from West Asia and other Asian countries.

How will your government help private players who have innovative tourism projects?

Tourism Policy-2006 aims at attracting private investment in tourism. Fourteen tourism projects have been identified for fiscal incentives under this policy. If an entrepreneur comes with an innovative product, it will be considered on merit. Many hotels and entertainment parks have taken advantage of this scheme. All necessary support envisaged under the policy will be provided to potential investors.

We are planning to develop MTDC properties under the PPP mode. Consultants have been appointed to suggest specific projects. Private investors looking for opportunities in Maharashtra are most welcome to participate.

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