West Bengal, a State where industry is often perceived to be in decline, plans to tap into tourism by hard-selling its festivals, starting with Durga Puja.
“I have written to every single diplomat in the country, I have written to hotels and travel writers, inviting them all to Bengal during Durga Puja,” State Home Secretary Atri Bhattacharya, who is also in charge of tourism, told The Hindu.
“We Bengalis need to unlearn our British sense of understatement and learn hype from the Americans. We don’t realise how big Durga Puja is. There are some 28,000 pujas across Bengal — that makes the festival the largest art installation in the world, with 50 million people visiting them over 10 days. It culminates in the mega parade on Red Road, a practice our Chief Minister started in 2016. Durga Puja is, quite simply, the greatest public festival on earth,” Mr. Bhattacharya said.
West Bengal has a high population density — 1,029 persons/sq km, as of 2011 — and setting up heavy industry here invariably comes with issues of resettlement of the local population and environmental concerns. Celebration, on the other hand, comes easily to the State — Bengal is known as the land of “Baro mashe tero parbon” or 13 festivals in 12 months!
Tourism presently contributes close to 12% of the State’s GDP. The ruling Trinamool Congress government plans to raise that to 20% by 2025.
In 2017, West Bengal hosted over 81 million tourists. However, only 1.6 million of them were foreigners — a figure the State government wants to substantially improve.
“My personal belief is that tourism creates up to18 times more jobs than heavy industry for the same amount of investment,” said Mr. Bhattacharya. “Even globally, tourism is today the largest industry after retail. And tourism is driven by festivals.”
The Tourism Department is putting together a calendar for visitors, starting with Durga Puja, which begins in mid-October, and ending with Holi on March 21. The calendar includes the Kolkata International Film Festival (November), Bangla Sangeet Mela, Christmas Carnival and Bishnupur Music Festival (all in December), Kolkata Book Fair (to begin late January), and the first-ever Kolkata River Festival (also to begin late January), which will see cultural performances at the Millennium Park in the inaugural year but will also spread out to other venues on both banks of the Hooghly.
The department is also upgrading its 43 properties across the State, with 25 of them expected to reach 3-star standards before Durga Puja. Also on the cards is an app for crowd-sourced rating of every tourism facility in the State — hotels, homestays, restaurants, tour operators. The most highly-rated among them would, in turn, be recommended to tourists by the government.
“Samuel Goldwyn once said he wanted a story that ‘starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax’. We plan to do just that with Bengal’s tourism industry,” said Mr. Bhattacharya.