In the third week of November 2015, our daughter Reshmy and grandson Vihaan went on a short vacation to Hong Kong. My wife Sudha and I had not planned any outing during the Deepavali vacation.
I had not visited Lonavala, in Maharashtra, and my ‘awareness’ about that place was limited to just chikkis (for which the place is famous) and its waterfalls. Not being very comfortable with online booking practices, I went and booked a two-day stay at a hotel there, through the nearest travel agent in Bhandup, Mumbai. Also reserved two seats in a bus leaving Chembur at 9 a.m. on November 17.
We reached the hotel by 11.30 a.m. With just 50-odd double rooms, the hotel had a majestic, palace-like look. They served only Gujju/Rajastani/Chinese vegetarian food.
The package for two persons for two nights, included all meals, and for Rs. 10,500, at the present level of prices, it looked inexpensive.
Day one, in the afternoon we hired a car and went around. Covered almost the entire Lonavala and some parts of Khandala. Chikki shops were everywhere. Waterfalls were conspicuous by their absence! They say you should visit during rains to enjoy the waterfalls. Did they mean rainfalls?
About tourist spots. We skipped the Karla Caves and Bhaja Caves, as the driver of the car we hired told us, “aap log senior citizens hai. Udhar chadhna mushkil hoga”(you people are elderly. Can’t climb up the steps there). The MTDC Boating Club, another tourist spot, was closed. Skipped Wax Muzeum, as we had seen enough of celebrities in wax formations, some deformed due to heat, in other places.
We visited a couple of dams, a lake, a temple (Narayani Dham), a couple of ‘view points’, Sunset Point and Reywood Park. A word about Reywood Park. Several trees, a children’s park and a pathway in a vast area make it a nice spot where one would love to spend some evening time. But, it was shabbily maintained (I should say, there was no maintenance), waiting for someone to buy the area at a throwaway price and convert into a ‘resort of sorts’.
That reminds me our Wayanad tour of 2013. That district had been converted into a nice ‘tourist village’ in Kerala, by developing half a dozen spots including Pookode Lake, Edakkal Caves and Kuruva Dweep with international-standard cleanliness and facilities. When we visited Singapore ten years earlier, I had wondered why India, which has several resource-rich geographical areas with tourist attractions much better compared to what Singapore packaged and served us, was not taking advantage of the rich tourism resources. What we saw in Wayanad convinced me that just one District Collector with government support can do wonders in the tourism sector.
In India, I have had a glance of most of the State capitals in southern, central and northern India. From the tourism angle, I have visited parts of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan. Outside India we have visited Dubai, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.
I believe India has not exploited even 10 per cent of its potential in the tourism industry. I am not against the private sector or public-private sector partnership in any area. But in the Indian context, the nation has to have a vision about the kind of infrastructure that it needs, priorities about geographical areas that could be made attractive tourism spots, and the extent of support the government can give through guidance and policy support. Conscious government involvement is necessary to protect the interests of the local population and the environment.
Unfortunately, like posh multi-specialty hospitals in India which care more for the comforts of patient-attendants, tourism is being marketed in India as posh stay arrangements and guided visits to certain spots developed with the inflow of tourists in mind, some ‘heritage tourism’, and lately several good and bad practices in the name of ‘health tourism’. There is no holistic approach.
Here also Kerala stands out as a model, that can be further improved. Though blessed with a long sea coast, several rivers and waterfalls, backwaters, pleasant weather round the year and a number of spots where tourists from outside the country and many from the other States of India would like to spend their days, the infrastructure available to provide stay and travel arrangements is not very impressive. Guidance from the government as to the standard facilities to be provided in different categories of stay arrangements is conspicuous by its absence at the ground level.
When we go as tourists to other countries, joining conducted tours or reaching there on our own and availing the help of guides, chances are that we will be going to places that have been developed to attract tourists and may not see the places which the host country is not proud of. In India we give the choice to tourists and many of them land in places that are not very attractive or are not maintained with visitors in view.
In countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Dubai, tourism is not about staying in big hotels or resorts and swimming or playing games. Though the countries offer good hotel facilities for stay, they ensure that visitors move out and enjoy whatever natural and ‘created’ tourist attractions they can provide. In some of these countries, dead butterflies to tamed elephants and dolphins, all sorts of birds and wild animals, and traditional dances of the respective geographies and large aquariums attract tourists much more than the large shopping malls and long beaches, which continue to be the main attraction in some other countries.
Countries that are dependent on or are aware of the revenue prospects of tourism, market the tourist spots by providing necessary travel linkages, stay arrangements and above all keeping them neat and tidy with all basic facilities around. They provide advance information to the tourists about the options they have to select the kind of places they may like to visit.
The Indian media are not very generous in telling you about the history and heritage of neighbouring nations. China is painted in red and described as a ‘communist’ country. But those who have visited China or at least Hong Kong and places in the vicinity of Hong Kong will tell you the respect the local people there have for churches, temples (many of them Buddhist) and heritage spots.
I am an old-timer. Naveen Tandon, who did a project on ‘Developing a branding approach to overcome the negative image perception of Chhattisgarh’ last year, as part of his Post Graduate Programme at IIM Ahmedabad (2016 batch), is all praise for the Kerala Model of tourism development: “When it comes to branding for tourism in India, the runaway success is Kerala and we could learn a few things from the Kerala story to have an idea about how States have rebranded themselves to occupy enviable spots on the tourists’ map. Kerala went from being a budget travel destination to being the biggest tourism brand in the country. Branding has played an important role in this transformation with the tagline ‘Gods Own Country’ and a strong campaign focussed on targeting the affluent. The building of the brand preceded the building of necessary infrastructure. The building of the brand created the necessary demand for good hotels and other facilities for the tourists and other players.”
Within Kerala, there is a need to formally promote ‘Festival Tourism’. The Onam celebrations at the district and State levels, the Thrissur Pooram, the Aattukaal Pongala, Sabarimala pilgrimage, Theyyams in the Malabar area and several other Hindu/Muslim/Christian festivals are examples. If transport and stay arrangements improve, tourists will make it a point to link festivals in their travel plan.
Kerala has some artificial water parks. But we do not have a theme park of international standards. A couple of parks/entertainment areas will be useful additions.
Aranmula has all the linkages and resources necessary to grow into a large modern ‘Herbal Tourism Village’. The concept could include participation of major Ayurveda entities. There should be facilities for stay and treatment for different economic classes including the Indian middle class and ‘rich’ outsiders. Development of medicinal plantations in adjacent villages is a possibility. Aranmula has the additional advantage of having two international airports within a distance of 150 km.
Kerala could indeed go places — provided a carefully charted out plan is put into place.