A state known for its industrial capabilities, Maharashtra is aggressively adopting ways and means to put the state on the world map for tourism. While work has already begun, there is a lot more that the state has to do. In order to understand the state’s activities surrounding ways to improve tourism, The Free Press Journal (FPJ) organised a panel discussion on ‘Innovations in Maharashtra Tourism’.
On the panel, which was moderated by R N Bhaskar, were Nimai Lila Das, Chief Sustainability Officer, ISKCON Govardhan Ecovillage; Neeraj S Dev, Senior Vice President – Ebusiness, Thomas Cook (India) Limited; Abhimanyu R Kale, MD, MTDC; Dhananjay D Sawalkar, Joint Director, Directorate Tourism, Maharashtra; and Amod Thatte, Head—CPO (MICE), TM (Holidays and MICE), Foreign Exchange and Trade Relations, SOTC.
Below are edited excerpts:
Nimai Lila Das, Chief Sustainability Officer, ISKCON Govardhan Eco Village (GEV): The history behind the evolution of tourism sector began with the concept of exploration. Over time, exploration gradually changed to the field of entertainment.
Today, the country as a whole is still stuck in that exploration-entertainment mode, while the world has moved ahead to the third component - education.
This is what GEV has been focussing more on. GEV is offering education-centric tourism. Now, travellers are looking for purpose-driven travel. Travel is not just about splurging money or indulging in comfort but about looking for an experience and an educational experience.
Neeraj Dev, Senior Vice President (EBusiness), Thomas Cook (India) Limited: In most advanced and developing countries, tourism contributes the highest in terms of employment, foreign exchange and revenues in that particular country.
India has one of the largest consumer bases, dominated by youth. These Indian travellers believe in the concept of spending money on experiences rather than owning physical assets.
Amod Thatte, Head—CPO (MICE), TM (Holidays and MICE), Foreign Exchange and Trade Relations, SOTC: Now travel has become much wider and much more diverse.
In fact, it has become an integral part of one's lifestyle. And experiential travel is one of the fastest evolving concepts. People are wanting to travel with a very specific objective.
Neeraj Dev: Looking at Maharashtra tourism, it has three facets- heritage sites, Sahyadris and its vast coastline.
The state is home to varied heritage sites – from a modern destination like CSMT station (formerly VT station) to centuries-old Buddhist Caves. Maharashtra is known for its art, music and dance forms too.
The Sahyadri range is an underrated and under-promoted tourism product in India. During the monsoon season, the Sahyadris are the best of places to be in.
Maharashtra is the financial gateway to India, but it is time for it to be promoted as a natural tourism hub as well. This is possible as the state has a long coastline stretching around 700 plus kilometres.
I see the coastline as a great tourism product. Due to its vast coast, the state can easily become a cruise hub of India. The government is also focussing on setting up cruise terminal hubs in Mumbai, which will be a popular product.
Nimai Lila Das: Maharashtra is a powerful monsoon destination. This can be affirmed when you enter GEV as you are welcomed by the beautiful Sahyadris. During monsoon, the experience at the eco-village is mesmerising.
Abhimanyu R Kale, MD, MTDC: Maharashtra is growing in different ways in case of tourism. The sector was never the focus in the state even though a large number of tourists arrived in Mumbai and then travelled to other states in the country.
There was this myth that Maharashtra did not have good tourist destinations. But if you look around Maharashtra you will know what the state can offer.
For instance, ten years’ ago, MTDC started a scuba diving centre in Sindhudurg. In the past, the state lacked basic infrastructure and facilities for adventures sports. But today, this centre trains Indian Air Force as well as Indian Navy personnel.
Now Maharashtra is entering into a new arena—tourist submarines. The first tourist submarine will be stationed at Vengurla coastline. Maharashtra is also looking at promoting the state as a destination for corals on the sea bed. So, we are focusing on that area as well.
MTDC is also focusing on forts, especially warrior forts. Maharashtra is home to most warrior forts which are rare not just in India but around the world. Normally the standing forts are residential forts. There are 300 major forts in the state.
We have also begun promoting wildlife tourism in the region. Nowadays, Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve is famous not just in India, but all over the world.
In Tadoba, the maximum number of tiger-sightings happens. This is not limited to Tadoba alone but can be found in other reserves in various districts like Gondia, Gadchiroli, Bhandara, Nagpur etc.
These reserves are some way interconnected which allows for themovement of tigers. In the next 5-10 years, Eastern Vidarbha will be on the world map to become one of the best destinations to sight tigers.
Tourism was a priority sector for the state but the first priority was industry. After the formation of Maharashtra in the 1960s, the focus was on industrialisation. So, tourism in a way took a back seat.
Neeraj Dev: If you go to Tadoba, there are 8 out of 10 times that you will sight the tiger. In the case of Jim Corbett Park, 9 out of 10 times, you will not sight a tiger. This is a less known fact among Indians.
Amod Thatte: To enhance the travel or the holiday experience of the traveller, there is a need to improve on the infrastructure side. Basic infrastructure like roads has seen huge development and improvement. But there are some challenges during heavy monsoon which everyone is aware about.
Other than roads, other infrastructure requirements would be the availability of hotels and the right kind of accommodation; and availability of functioning airports. In the case of former, Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) is doing a lot of activity in terms of introducing a lot of hotels.
But in case of availability of airports, the state has to work rapidly on it and increase the number of the airport. Maharashtra would see the benefit in terms of more holiday or tourist destinations opening up because of the central government's scheme, UDAN, which connects tier two and tier three cities.
Infrastructure development should aid this latent demand (to travel). If Maharashtra can offer the same infrastructure like other tourist destinations, maybe many people would prefer travelling in the state for their holidays.
Abhimanyu R Kale: Maharashtra has the maximum number of national highways (in kilometres). However, due to the increased traffic, any improvement in infrastructure appears to remain inadequate. The government is still working towards adding more roads and highways in the state.
In case of rooms under MTDC in Maharashtra, we have around 1,000 rooms. We have seen an increase of 12 per cent. Soon, we will have around 1,150 rooms.
We have a good inventory. And if MTDC finds that there is no cleanliness in the rooms, or any slippage, then the penalty is imposed on the manager, who is monitoring it.
Neeraj Dev: Compared to many other states in India, Maharashtra has better infrastructure. But there is room for improvement.
Dhananjay D Sawalkar, Joint Director, Directorate Tourism, Maharashtra: Under the central government, there is a Tourism Development Scheme—Swadesh Darshan — that funds the state governments to improve on the infrastructure that supports the tourism sector.
For the development of Sindhudurg Coastal Circuit, Rs 90 crore is allocated (under Swadesh Darshan scheme) and work is in progress. Every year Maharashtra government makes a budgetary provision of Rs 170-180 crore for tourism development (which is excluding central government’s funds).
Nimai Lila Das: Even though GEV is a five-year-old institution, we have seen an increase in the number of visitors. This increase is not limited to individuals with spiritual inclination but has seen casual travellers visit GEV.
At present, the ratio between visitors with spiritual inclination and casual visitors is 60:40. These 40 per cent of visitors come through reviews from social media. In a way, social media has been a big boon for us.
Last year, we had around 10,000 visitors coming on day visits and 30,000 visitors staying overnight (from two days to 30 days). In fact year-on-year, we have seen 20 per cent growth in the number of visitors and we expect to maintain that pace.
This growth was driven mainly by the introduction of various courses like yoga, organic farming, green building technology, animal care among others.
In the initial years, a majority of our audience were visitors who came to GEV as a weekend getaway. But now the audience is more of those that are signing up for the courses. Going back home with a certificate and learning on a weekend gateway works for our visitors.
In ISKCON fraternity, GEV is a unique project which is focusing on sustainability, spirituality, rural development and all are tied together through education.
In Hungary, we have a project that is showcasing community living, but not in terms of a destination or a tourism product. It is about time spiritual organisations get into the experience part.
Abhimanyu R Kale: There is a lot of vandalism that takes place in the heritage sites. This is mainly because of the ignorance of people about the cultural heritage of the country. There is a need to sensitise people about these sites.
In most sites, it is difficult to develop any structure to protect it. These sites fall under the strict regulations of the Archaeological Survey of India which makes it difficult to develop any structure in such locations. But MTDC will not shy away from its responsibility –- for instance, we will ensure that the missing placards/signs below each fresco at Elephanta Caves are restored, and ensure that tourists are not denied basic information about such sites. We will also try ensure that vandalism is dealt with.
Agritourism: Connecting urban with the rural populace
Dhananjay D Sawalkar: In the state, there are around 300 operational agritourism centres. There is no clear policy to help this space grow. At present, we are working towards creating one.
Directorate Tourism has already given a presentation to agriculture minister and tourism minister. Now, views of other stakeholders are called for, to strengthen the draft policy.
The idea behind agritourism is to showcase the culture of the rural, agrarian side of the state to the urban population. Along with this idea, we want the farmers to benefit too. In the proposed policy, we have allowed them to have eight rooms on their farm.
Other than showing farming techniques, these farmers will also take the visitors for a tour to the nearest tourism destination and can also sell their farm produce to their guests directly. We have put all this down in our draft policy.
The policy also allows the farmers to appoint a manager, if needed, to act as a guide and translator. The policy is looking at incentivising these centres by giving waiver in lodging license, providing electricity at agriculture rate, etc. The regional offices are delegated to look into these centres.
Involve locals to tackle safety issue
Dhananjay D Sawalkar: We have introduced a concept called ‘Tourism Police’. The pilot for the same was carried out at Girgaon. But we cannot introduce it everywhere as there are manpower constraints.
Maharashtra government is looking at introducing an act on tourist protection and safety like the Safety Act in Goa. This act will also include helping the tourists in case they are cheated by their tour operators. Work on this aspect is underway.
Amod Thatte: Based on my personal experience, I would state that community or locals should be involved in tourism activity. So the concern factor around the safety of tourists dies out.
The minute locals understand the importance of tourism in their community and the positive impact it brings, then an ecosystem is developed to keep mischief mongers away.
Neeraj Dev: Security concerns should not be limited to foreign tourists alone but the security of Indians travelling in India should also be considered. It is found that Indians travelling within India feel much safer compared to any foreign destinations.
It is not just the host but guests have to act responsibly as well. Travellers have to ensure the local culture of the place of visit is respected. Educating all stakeholders is crucial. I think here the social media is playing a very good role.
Neeraj Dev: There is a need to promote sustainable tourism. Tourism should not be viewed as a one-time opportunity or seasonal opportunity. This applies both sides. On the one hand, during peak season, boat riders charge exorbitant rates from tourists.
On the other hand, Goa’s beaches are spoilt by tourists, who dump bottles and waste in the waterfront. That is not the concept of sustainable tourism. Sustainable Tourism is about enjoying the local experience without spoiling it.
Nimai Lila Das: At the policy level, there is a need to have a plan or strategy which focuses on sensitising locals about the value of tourism.