Do the authorities slake the thirst of wide-eyed visitors from far and near?

World Tourism Day (September 27) is upon us. Naturally, it calls for a review of the state of tourism in Madurai.

B.S.G. Musthafa, president, Travel Club-Madurai, says the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple, the biggest attraction for domestic and foreign tourists, continues to be the face of Madurai. No doubt, the temple complex is reasonably well maintained. And keeping traffic off the four Chithirai streets leading to the complex has helped.

But tourists want to shoot pictures of the temple and the present ban on taking cameras into the complex is unpopular with them. The ban came in the wake of the twin blasts in Hyderabad in February. “ There is no point in visiting the temple if we are not allowed to take pictures. How else will we carry the memories back to our State?” asks Preeti Jain from Gujarat. The temple’s main doors close from 12 noon to 4 p.m. daily. This irks tourists. Preeti’s niece Janvi Jain suggests that the precincts housing the sanctum sanctorum alone could be closed during the afternoons leaving the rest of the temple premises open to tourists and devotees without a break from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Reacting to these two issues, a Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department official agrees that the curb on cameras has disappointed tourists apart from causing monetary loss to the temple management which was charging Rs. 50 from every person using a still camera and Rs. 250 for the use of video cameras inside the complex.

“On the one hand, tourists are disappointed and, on the other, locals choosing to perform weddings on the temple premises are forced to undergo the hassle of seeking prior police permission for photographing the ceremony. We had represented these issues to the police, but nothing much could be done because such restrictions are imposed for the purpose of security, which takes priority over all other issues,” he points out.

Assistant Commissioner of Police (Intelligence Section) Krishnan says the curbs on carrying cameras inside the temple was imposed in view of the high threat perception around the temple and specific intelligence inputs. However, he hopes his department will consider relaxing the rules after the baggage scanners are installed at the four (north, east, west and south) entrances to the temple.

The issue of keeping the temple open between 12 noon and 4 p.m. is less flexible. The agama sastras (ancient Hindu scriptures relating to temple administration) are sacrosanct. No part of a Sivasthalam (abode of Lord Shiva) should remain open in the afternoon.

Other good places

Tour operator S. Arumainathan points out that apart from the Meenakshi Temple, Madurai has a number of heritage sites such as the Thirumalai Naick Palace and the Jain abodes at Yanamalai, Kongar Puliyankulam, Keezhavalavu, Aritapatti and Keezhakuyilkudi. But most of these sites have fallen victim to vandals owing to local apathy and lack of effective supervision.

Foreign tourists, who are not allowed to enter the precincts housing the sanctum sanctorum in popular temples on the ground that only Hindus are allowed to enter them, can easily walk up to the idols of Lord Murugan and his consort Deivanai at the eighth century Ladan Temple at Narasingam near here. However, poor upkeep keeps them off. Though declared a historically ancient monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1966, and brought under the Archaeological Department, the rock-cut temple on the foothills of Yanamalai is flanked by a garbage dump and a drainage channel.

Residents drying their clothes on the iron railings put up by the Archaeological Department at the entrance to the temple is an eyesore. C. Santhalingam, former Archaeological Officer, blames the paucity of funds. “The department can establish offices and deploy permanent staff at every heritage site. But there are no funds for that,” he points out.

Contract staff appointed by the Archaeological Department at some of the sites are routinely assaulted by locals who use these sites for drinking, playing cards and so on. “Facilities such as western toilets and shops could be established near ancient monuments for the benefit of tourists but that would require permission from the government,” he says.

Nowhere near Kerala

Hanish N. Lalan of Supreme Travels feels the State government is not doing enough to promote Tamil Nadu. “When it comes to tourism, Tamil Nadu is nowhere near Kerala. Tamil Nadu has amazing heritage sites but it is unfortunate that we have failed to project and promote them properly,” he says.

Tamil Nadu seldom makes an appearance at tourism fairs held in other States. “Recently I had been to Mumbai and Pune. Every other State tourism department had put up stalls there except Tamil Nadu. The government should enter into public-private partnerships for the promotion of tourism,” he suggests.

But District Tourist Officer K. Dharmaraj says the State government has undertaken several tourism-related projects such as the creation of an eco-park at Tirupparankundram, another park at Alagarkoil, infrastructure development work at Narasingaperumal Temple at Narasingam and the establishment of parks outside the Thirumalai Naick Palace. He says the government has promoted tourism in the State through its ‘Enchanting Tamil Nadu’ campaign. As per a policy note of the tourism department for the year 2013-14, domestic tourist arrivals in the State have increased from 10.30 crore in 2010 to 18.41 crore in 2012, while the number of foreign tourists has increased from 28.05 lakh in 2010 to 35.62 lakh in 2012.

It also claims that Tamil Nadu stands second (next to Maharashtra) in the country in foreign tourist arrivals and third (next to Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh) in domestic tourist arrivals. However, when asked if the State government had sanctioned Rs. 5 crore as announced by it last year for tourism-related projects at Alagarkoil and Tallakulam, Mr. Dharmaraj denied receiving any funds.

Open-deck bus

He says an open-deck bus proposed to be introduced by the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC) last year to enable tourists to have a panoramic view of major tourist spots was yet to reach Madurai.

A government order permitting introduction of such buses, costing Rs. 32 lakh each, in Chennai, Tiruchi and Madurai was passed on June 20, 2012.

Poor air connectivity

Tour operators in the city also blame the Centre for delaying the introduction of international flights to destinations such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Dubai from the Madurai airport. They feel the Centre remains unmoved despite the best efforts made by them as well as trade bodies such as the Tamil Nadu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (TNCCI) and Tamil Nadu Foodgrain Merchants Association.

Says S. Rethinavelu, senior president, TNCCI, “Recently, the Union Civil Aviation Ministry convened a conference of State aviation ministers to discuss issues concerning the civil aviation sector.

Tamil Nadu remained unrepresented because we do not have a separate Ministry for Civil Aviation. It is crucial that such a Ministry is set up soon. Only then our State will also fly high.”

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