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2 Jun, 2008

Indian Buddhist Sites Slated For Upgrade

The Buddhist pilgrimage sites of Bodhgaya, Varanasi and Nalanda are among the 20 “mega-destinations” and “mega-circuits” prioritised for infrastructure investment by India’s Tourism Ministry in the next few years.

With foreign visitor inflows having crossed the five million mark in 2007 and domestic tourism booming, thanks to improved air, road and rail linkages, the ministry now sees it as being imperative to upgrade the infrastructure and support facilities at key tourist destinations/circuits of national importance.

Among these are the Agra (home of the Taj Mahal); Varanasi – Sarnath; Bodhgaya – Rajgir – Nalanda; the monuments of Delhi; the Charminar area in Hyderabad; the churches of Goa; the River Ganges Heritage River Cruise Circuit; the Ajanta-Ellora caves in Aurangabad; and Amritsar, home of the Sikh holy spot, the Golden Temple. Numerous other spots have been identified in each of the states.

The Ministry of Tourism is to provide financial assistance up to Rs.250 million for development of each mega-destination and Rs.500 million for a mega-circuit. A Ministry spokesman said the Rs.1.02 billion has already been sanctioned for mega projects at Agra, Varanasi-Sarnath, Bodhgaya-Rajgir-Nalanda, and monuments of Delhi, Mahabalipuram, Kurukshetra and the Charminar area.

The Ministry says it is also working with other central government ministries and state governments to link the developments with other programmes in order to maximise the impact of investment on these destinations. One of these is the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, a nationwide project designed to upgrade urban civic infrastructure.

Said Tourism Ministry Secretary S. Banerjee, “It has been recognised that the infrastructure bottlenecks related to air, rail and road connectivity as well as hotel accommodation will also have to be addressed to ensure that identified circuit / destinations develop to their fullest potential.

“The Ministry has also taken up these issues with the Ministries of Civil Aviation, Railways and Road Transport and Highways for upgradation / modernisation of airports, increasing of air seat capacities, improving and modernisation of railway stations, improved rail connectivity and improved linkage of these places with national / state highways.”

At the same time, Mr Banerjee said that rural tourism is also being given priority in order to ensure that benefits of tourism trickle down into the countryside.

“Rural tourism not only has socio-economic benefits, it also gives support to languishing arts and crafts while showcasing the rich culture and diverse cuisine of the sites,” he told a workshop on the subject last week. He urged rural tourism stakeholders to step up their marketing arrangements with the travel trade at the regional, national and international levels.

“Rural tourism products all over the country have now received a fresh, wider projection with the readiness of 14 further rural sites after the first 15 of the Ministry’s 36 UNDP-partnered rural sites became ready last year,” Mr Banerjee said.

Under a Ministry directive, all rural tourism sites are now expected to meet the following development deadlines in preparation for the start of the high season in October 2008:

(i) Full implementation of both ‘Software’ and ‘Hardware’ workplans by 31 August 2008.

(ii) Fine-tuning and convergence of all site operational systems by 30 September 2008.

(iii) Formal site launch and inauguration from the season starting 1 October 2008.

Careful attention is being given to both visitor and community requirements of hygiene, sanitation and waste management. At least one site in Karnataka state claims to have success in designing improved toilet facilities for visitors, a major problem for Indian tourism.

Furthermore, each rural tourism site is being supported with creation of its business plan to enable market reach and revenue optimisation.

Joint Secretary Mrs Leena Nandan referred to the Project website www.exploreruralindia.org which was re-launched last year, with creation of the Explore Rural India sub-brand, as a constituent of the Incredible !ndia mother brand.

Mr. Vijay Thakur, President of the Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO), has confirmed that IATO will launch Rural Tourism packages at their coming annual convention in Bhubaneshwar in August 2008.

The workshop on rural tourism organised by the Ministry of Tourism included, for the first time, principal stakeholders of Village Tourism Committees which have been set up at each of the rural tourism sites. The focus is on promoting tourism that is sustainable, in harmony with the surroundings and promotes art, craft and culture.

“The target is not just foreign tourists but the domestic segment which is now experiencing a trend shift as Indians travel in search of one’s roots, especially among youth,” Mr Banerjee said.

Many State Departments of Tourism have taken up the Rural Tourism initiative with help from the UN Development Programme’s Panel of Architects in terms of advising, guiding and providing design inputs.

The Ministry has also initiated marketing campaigns to promote Rural Tourism at global trade shows such as the World Travel Mart and ITB. This has been backed by community participation through site artisans’ involvement in national, regional and international events, Mr Banerjee said.

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