The State government is sparing no effort to tap the rich tourist potential of West Bengal.
WEST BENGAL is one those unique States that have practically everything to make them important destinations for tourists. Apart from historical and heritage sites, there are mountains, the sea, forests and wildlife. In other words, the medium-sized State has in it almost all the diversities of the Indian subcontinent. There are the Himalayas in the north and just below that the beautiful forested Doars; in the south are the vast swampy forests of the Sunderbans and beyond them the Bay of Bengal; in the west are the arid districts famous for their red soil, immortalised in the works of Rabindranath Tagore; and there is always the presence of the river Ganga. But still the State accounts for only 5 per cent of the total tourist movement in the country. This is despite the fact that the State is well connected with the international and national air network and has major railway and road networks connecting it to the rest of the country.
To address this situation, the Department of Tourism, Government of West Bengal, has taken up an aggressive publicity campaign, informing people about the State's tourism potential. In 1996, the West Bengal Incentive Scheme, 1993, (for medium and large-scale industries) was amended to give industry status to the tourism sector.
The Department's intention is to promote not only the most famous tourist spots, but also the lesser known ones. The hill stations of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong are popular tourist destinations. But tourists generally overlook the green foothills with their dense forests because of the lack of information. Although there are guesthouses in picturesque locations, they largely remain unoccupied throughout the year. Having realised this, the State government is now promoting tea-garden tourism and forest tourism in the region. Last year, the Centre approved a proposal from the State government to promote tea-garden tourism in the Doars and Terai regions of north Bengal. A sum of Rs.80 crores was approved for the project, in which the private sector will also be involved.
The government is focusing on developing tourism in the rural areas outside the main centres of tourist attraction. For instance, tying up with the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, it is planning to set up tourist complexes in the interior hill areas, and is looking at private sector participation in some of these projects. Recently, the government launched an awareness programme to promote eco-tourism in the hills and foothills.
The coastline of West Bengal is a major attraction for tourists. For years, the most popular seaside retreat has been Digha - "the Brighton of the East" as Warren Hastings put it in a letter to his wife. Situated less than 200 km from Kolkata, Digha is accessible by road and by rail. Another lesser-known beach resort is Bakkhali, located about 130 km from Kolkata. This has for long been an isolated place with limited accommodation facilities. However, it has steadily gained popularity, particularly among the people of Kolkata. Another famous seaside spot is the Sagar Island, though it is more of a pilgrimage site than a holiday retreat. This island, situated near the point where the Ganga enters the Bay of Bengal, is considered one of the important Hindu pilgrim centres in the country. Every year, in mid-January, thousands of pilgrims assemble there to take a dip in the waters during the Gangasagar Mela.
The State government is working towards making the Sunderbans a major tourist destination. Spread over 54 islands and two countries - India and Bangladesh - the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans form a World Heritage Site of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). It is known not only for its unique ecosystem, but also for being the natural home of the Royal Bengal Tiger. The Sunderbans Tiger Project was started in 1974 and covers an area of 2,585 sq km. The total area of the Sunderbans within India is around 4,262 sq km. The Sunderbans Development Board has chalked out schemes to improve infrastructure and tourism in the Sunderbans. It has taken up schemes to renovate the tourist bungalows set up by the Zilla Parishad, and as many as 19 jetties will be constructed from where tourists can hire boats.
With its rich history, West Bengal is an ideal destination for tourists interested in history. Several structures in Malda in north Bengal bear testimony to the dynasties and religions that have been part of the region's history. Gaur in Malda was the capital of Bengal, ruled by the Buddhist Pala dynasty and the Hindu Sena dynasty until the Muslims gained power in the 13th century. Although the city was destroyed in 1537 by Sher Shah Suri, many old structures still remain - the Bara Sona Masjid built in 1526, the ruins of the Gaur fort, Kadam Rasul and Feroze Minar. Pandua was the other capital of early Bengal. The chief attraction here is the Adina mosque built by Sikandar Shah in the late 14th century.
Similarly, Murshidabad is another place steeped in history. It was the last capital city of independent Bengal, before the British East India Company took it over, defeating Nawab Siraj Ud Daullah in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The town still has an old world charm about it, with its quaint buildings and the graves of the nawabs and their families. The chief attraction here is the Hazarduari Palace built in 1837.
The city of Kolkata itself, with more than 300 years of history, has a lot to offer. One of the thrust areas of the Department of Tourism is the preservation of historical sites and buildings, and promoting them as tourist destinations. Another favourite getaway spot close to Kolkata is Santiniketan, the university township established by Rabindranath Tagore.
The Tourism Department along with the State Sports and Youth Services Department and various non-government sports organisations, regularly organises national and international sports meets. These events are not just restricted to Kolkata, but take place at Durgapur, Kharagpur, Siliguri, and so on in such a manner as to beckon domestic and foreign sports tourists throughout the year. Efforts are also on to develop golf villages of international standard in the Doars and on the outskirts of Kolkata.
The festival season is one of the best times to visit the State. The whole of West Bengal, particularly Kolkata, bursts forth in ecstasy and colour during the `Puja season'. For almost seven days during the Durga Puja, Kolkata gets a complete makeover. Ornate pandals (structures where the image of the Goddess Durga is worshipped) erected all over the city compete with each other in their extravaganza. The Department of Tourism has come up with a unique package to give a feel of the pujas to visitors from outside the State and country.
In a three-day-long exhibition organised by the Department in Kolkata towards the end of 2005, Tourism Minister Dinesh Chandra Dakua said that in the last five years the State's tourism sector recorded an astonishing growth of around 300 per cent. However, he maintained that there was no scope for complacency as still a lot had to be done. According to Dakua, in 2004 more than one crore domestic tourists and nearly eight lakh foreign tourists visited West Bengal. This only goes to show that with a little will and initiative, governmental plans can be translated into exciting realities.