Top: A misty wintry morning on the banks of river Hoogly
Middle: An adult rhinoceros ambling toward a water pool at Calcutta Zoo
Above: A clay ‘demon head’ being dried at Kumortuli
I still think it was a historic blunder. Because such an opportunity does not come often. ~ Jyoti Basu (in an interview to Sekhar Gupta in May, 2004) ~
Post-Independence, Bengal has had several trysts with destiny. Social meltdowns like the mass influx of people from erstwhile East Bengal and later during Bangladesh freedom struggle, and political upheavals of the 1970s are just two momentous events that affected the state.
But neither had as far-reaching an effect as the decision to stop teaching English in schools before sixth grade, meddling in the education system by political parties and the driving away of the industrialists.
Looking back, it would seem that these troubling occurrences have systematically reduced a proud, intellect-driven, open-minded, knowledge-based state into a people of paupers, with no glory left to claim.
People are resilient, they can weather out adverse situations, but if there are deliberate political machinations at play to curb spontaneity, you can do very little except stare helplessly at the abyss of decline.
This article though is about hope. Hope for a great future for Kolkata tourism. Hope for turning Kolkata into a major international tourist destination.
I am going to explain how 2017-19 is a vital window of opportunity in a long, long time to bring back glory to Kolkata, and Bengal.
In a sheer coincidence, several things are happening to Kolkata at the same time, which together hold a lot of promise.
Before I go to the meat of why Kolkata tourism is a potentially untapped wonder, it’s perhaps a good idea to understand why people visit other countries, and what they actually want to see.
This is important, because many of us in India believe that ideal tourist destinations should be exotic locales like hills, dense forests, shiny beaches, or entertainment spots like amusement parks, shopping malls, etc.
But these are not the places where most international tourists go, as I found out a couple of years back, and from my visits abroad.
The story starts in New York
About two years ago, a close friend of mine was stranded in the Times Square when she found she didn’t bring her cards and didn’t have sufficient surplus cash to buy city sightseeing tours for two. It was late evening in Kolkata and she texted me to ask if I could book her a trip online with City Sightseeing New York City bus tours.
I haven’t been to the US, but I’ve used the City Sightseeing bus tours at other places like Cape Town, Dubai, Johannesburg and Rome. I mostly booked my tours online with Viator a TripAdvisor-owned travel booking site, so I went there to book the trip for my friend.
As I checked out the options, I was in for a surprise.
- Not only was there a plethora of bus tours to see the Big Apple in the day, evening and night, there was also a slew of companies offering the service – City Sightseeing Gray Line, Big Bus Tours and Open Loop New York, to name a few.
- Most tours were popular, and tourists lined up in queues for hours to get tickets. On Viator’s website, reviews were aplenty, pointing to the sheer number of people visiting the city every day.
I started to feel a bit intrigued by this huge rush to New York city as I always thought (fed by that notion since childhood) that picturesque tourist spots got more visitors than ‘congested’ cities.
I decided to look for solid data to support my prevailing thought. What I instead found was like, “Oh boy, was I so wrong!”
Here are my 3 startling findings.
- France is numero uno in terms of international tourist arrivals according to UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
France is followed by the US, Spain, China, Italy, Turkey, Germany, UK, Mexico, and Russia. This data belongs to 2015.
- At least 9 of the 18 most popular sites by number of visitors in France are in Paris including the top 7.
All the nine popular destinations in Paris are museums except Arc de Triomphe, which is a monument. They include the world’s largest museum, the Louvre, beside the river Seine.
Across the river, in close proximity, is another famous museum, Musée d’Orsay. I’ll be talking about this later in this article.
Mind you, there’s no dearth of natural attractions in France. To the east of Paris are the French Alps (under seven hours by train) that beckons tourists to its lavish ski resorts. To the southeast are the famous Mediterranean beaches on the French Riviera.
And yet, more tourists flock to Paris than they do to exotic locales.
- Love Home Swap, a home swap company, in an extensive research on the most visited tourist attractions in the world, found that almost all of them are in cities.
Click on the image to see the full list of top-50 tourist places.
I dug out more information, and nearly all of them unmistakably point to cities attracting far, far more tourists than exotic locales.
Why do international tourists love cities?
I don’t have confirmed data on this, but based on my experience, I’ve come to the following conclusions, which corroborate the Quora screenshot above:
- A large majority of tourists travel on a budget, so for them it is important to economize in terms of both time and money. Cities tend to cost less where food, moving around and staying are concerned – the last one thanks to the popularity of homestays – than faraway destinations.
- Many tourists travel solo, or in small groups, and prefer exotic locales only on special visits like honeymooning, camping, adventuring, etc.
- Unlike us (meaning Indians), tourists from other countries are interested in the history and culture of the people and the place they are visiting. Cities and museums are the best destinations for that.
- Seasonal and occasion-based tourists are a large number. They come for a few days to large cities that host sporting events, festivals, conferences, official engagements, etc. They stay on for a couple of days more to look around before returning.
As you read this, let me put it to you that it makes a lot of sense to focus on Kolkata tourism as a major international destination for tourists.
But, does Kolkata have what it takes to attract international tourists in hordes?
The answer is a resounding yes.
If so, is Kolkata ready as of now to attract and retain the interest of international tourists?
Unfortunately, the answer is a big ‘No’.
They simply don’t cut the ice.
There must be a new approach to the whole idea of raising Kolkata’s class as an international tourist destination.
Fortunately, there are a lot of pluses for Kolkata tourism. And I’m going to reveal some powerful but hidden ones this city can truly boast of, and if implemented in the right way, they can easily get international tourists throughout the year.
Why do I think of 2017-19 as a window of historic opportunity?
3 concurrent events provide a rare coincidence
They are seemingly unconnected, which is true, but with a stroke of luck all present a golden opportunity to boost Kolkata as a major tourist destination.
- The seat of power shifting from Writers Building to Nabanna
All that people know of Writers Building is the statue of Binoy, Badal and Dinesh opposite the building. The grand edifice has been the seat of power since the Independence, but it’s a place of great political significance and memories of the Indian Independence Movement.
Bengal has been at the forefront of the Independence Movement, but Bengal was also the torchbearer of the cultural, social, intellectual and artistic movement of the Indian subcontinent from the 19th century to the early 20th century, popularly called the Bengal Renaissance.
Now is the golden opportunity to turn a part or whole of Writers Building into a museum on Bengal’s history.
Let this museum be so brilliant as to hold visitors in awe. There can be more museums in the vicinity (coming to that shortly), but let the History Museum of Bengal situate on the precincts of Writers Building to command footfalls unheard of in any museum in India.
Is that possible, you may wonder!
Let me give you two instances where iconic edifices have been turned into museums, and a third quite similar.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Musée d’Orsay (picture below), the Impressionist museum holding mainly French art in the heart of Paris on the banks of the Seine, was earlier a railway station-cum-hotel, called Gare d’Orsay, built in 1900.
Eighty-six years later, it was converted into a museum while retaining the internal construct. Today, Musée d’Orsay enjoys footfalls exceeding three million a year, making it the 10th most popular art museum in the world.
Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore
Singapore’s historic Empress Place Building on the banks of Singapore River was built in 1827. More additions were made in later years to the building, and at one time it housed several government offices including the Secretariat, Audit, Registration of Deeds Office, Land Office, Public Works and Medical Department, Treasury, the Inspector General of the Police, and so on.
In April 1989, the impressive building became a national museum after extensive restorations. It underwent even more renovations, and opened as the second wing of the Asian Civilisations Museum in March 2003 (picture above), exhibiting Southeast, South, and West Asian collections.
Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg
A place owned by the Gold Reef City Casino in Johannesburg became the voice of the oppressed when the Apartheid Museum opened in November 2001 there.
It’s a stunningly remarkable museum that traces the brutality of the white regime and the resistance by the black populace that took place in 20th-century South Africa.
So, can’t Writers Building be turned into History Museum of Bengal? Yes, by all means, yes!
Kolkata’s Town Hall, currently under renovation, has some exhibits, but cannot possibly be turned into a grand history museum with options to scale up.
So this 104-year old historic place can be used to show light-n-sound programs of social gatherings during the British era (for which it was originally built).
- East-West Metro becoming a reality
In another two years, the East-West Metro will ferry passengers via Esplanade and BBD Bag. Esplanade is set to regain its old glory of the 60s and 70s, thanks to becoming a junction of three metro lines passing through it.
Why do I think it’s a great opportunity?
Since the construction of metro stations will entail removal of some present structures, like the tram lines and mini bus stand in BBD Bag, this is the IDEAL time to plan and create a downtown ambience, which will be large contiguous stretches of pedestrian-only zones, dotted with food kiosks and small stalls.
I am convinced we need this because of my experience at places like the Waterfront in Cape Town, La Rambla in Barcelona, and the gigantic Dubai Mall. They attract tourists in droves. So too Times Square in New York, though I haven’t been there yet.
You might say we have Millennium Park.
Sure, but a second, and a third letting-the-hair-down type pedestrian zone close to both BBD Bag and Esplanade stations will work wonders, especially if they are interlinked. Let us rack our collective brains and do some astute planning to make this happen.
- U-17 World Cup at Salt Lake Stadium
Long after the final whistle is blown at the finals of the competition, the reality will gradually start sinking in; the reality of the city having a world-class stadium where world-class sporting events can take place.
Start arranging friendly FIFA matches every 3-4 months like the one between Argentina and Venezuela in 2011. With every top-class match happening here, Kolkata’s position will climb one notch higher as a reliable host of international sporting events.
Add to that other venues like Eden Gardens, South Club, Tollygunge golf course, Rabindra Sarobar (the lakes), and the racecourse, and a range of options opens up.
Why not start regattas on the Hooghly river like the annual boat races on the Thames between Oxford and Cambridge students? Or organize electrifying races like the ones along the backwaters of Alleppey during Onam? Why not hold international badminton tourneys in the Indoor Stadium (badminton in India is hot now)?
All one needs are imagination and the resolve to make it happen. Let the renovated Salt Lake Stadium be the catalyst.
The enviable pluses of Kolkata tourism
As I noted above, all the popular destinations in Paris are museums. In fact, the big cities everywhere have lots of museums to attract international tourists.
It’s important to understand what will attract international tourists to Kolkata. They will not come for Digha, Santiniketan, Bakkhali, or Darjeeling. Yes, they may come for Durga Puja, but just that won’t change the scene.
There must be something compelling for them to spend three to four days in the city. And that space can only be filled by museums and special day-long tours. There must be a lot of offerings on the plate, each with a distinct flavor and a story to tell.
Kolkata is fortunate to have some unique enviable pluses. And they are about creating museums.
I have already mentioned History Museum of Bengal above, but Kolkata can easily have many more considering its distinct advantages.
Here are five more ideas:
- War Memorial Museum
Kolkata is not only the gateway to the east Asia, it also is the only Indian megalopolis to have the most important formation of Indian Army, the Eastern Command at Fort Williams. Many wars have been commanded from here, including the liberation of Bangladesh.
Kolkata is the best place to have a War Memorial Museum, not the kind one sees at the Red Fort in Delhi.
It can be built in Hastings where the Patton Tank, acquired from the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh war, is located. The army must have many more war memorabilia that can be exhibited at the museum.
Exhibits from the Kalaikunda Air Force Station, which was built by the British during the Second World War could also be shown.
The museum can become immensely educative for the public with the help of well-planned light-and-sound programs to tell eventful stories of the US Army operating 16-hour combat missions from Kalaikunda to attack the Japanese across east Asia during the war, the liberation of Bangladesh including the surrender of Pakistani army, and so on.
- Kolkata Maritime Museum
How many of us know that from 1838 to 1917, the British used the Kolkata Port to ferry over half a million people from all over India across the world, to places such as Mauritius, Guyana, Suriname, Fiji, Belize, and the Caribbean Islands as indentured laborers to work on sugarcane plantations?
The oldest operating port in India for the past 147 years, it is unique for other reasons too.
It’s a riverine inland port that depends on tidal flow to have ships come in and move out. The problem of silting and sandbars on the riverbed ensures that most ships make their journey from Sandheads to the port and back with the help of pilot vessels.
Incidentally, the port was bombed twice by the Japanese forces between December 20-24, 1942 during the Second World War since it played a very important role at that time.
Besides the port, Kolkata has one of India’s leading shipyards, Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers or GRSE. A profit-making public sector company, it is the first Indian shipyard to build 100 warships. It also builds and repairs commercial and naval vessels.
Kolkata Maritime Museum can come up in the port area to tell stories of shipping, shipbuilding, and its fascinating history.
In fact, the Kolkata Port Trust should immediately get hold of the wreckage, cannonballs, etc., which Indian Railways recently recovered while digging the riverbed for the EW Metro tunnel.
These items are too precious to lose, and can be exhibited at the maritime museum in addition to the collections the KPT and GRSE may already be having.
- Kolkata Postal Museum
I deliberately refrain from saying Kolkata Philatelic Museum because
- there is already one in the southwestern wing of the GPO, and because
- it reduces the scope of telling stories of the past that common people will understand even if they are not interested in stamps.
What about telling the story of the GPO being situated so close to the site of the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta where 123 of the 146 British PoWs allegedly died in one night after being captured by the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah?
What about the story of postmen who delivered letters on foot come sun or rain, rendered immortal by the 1950 song Runner by Hemanta Mukherjee?
As mail sinks into oblivion, I’m sure there will be many people who will be eager to know how postal systems worked in the past, how letters were sorted and delivered, how unclaimed parcels piled up and what was done with them later, how the advent of computers eased workloads, how postal customs work, and so on.
There are so many hidden stories to tell, and where else should the museum be, if not in the imposing dome-structured GPO itself?
The Kolkata Postal Museum can indeed come up in the GPO, very close to the History Museum of Bengal at Writers Building.
- Kolkata Mint Museum
Here is something you may find captivating.
→ Kolkata’s history of minting coins dates back 260 years, when the East India Company circulated the first rupee or sicca as legal tender in the Mughal province of Bengal.
→ After capturing Fort William on June 20, 1756, Siraj-ud-Doulah renamed Calcutta as Alinagar. A year later, between June 13 and July 28, 40,000 siccas were struck at the first mint here. On August 29, 1757, the siccas minted in Calcutta became legal tender. [Source: The Telegraph].
→ The first mint was in a building next to the Black Hole in the old fort — where the GPO is today. Later, Kolkata would have three more mints, the last being the Alipore Mint close to Majerhat Station, which was opened in March 1952.
→ The third mint, worked out of the iconic Old Silver Mint on Strand Road, which started operating on August 1, 1829, with a coinage production capacity of 300,000-600,000 pieces per day. This building, an imposing structure based on a design of the Temple of Athena in Athens, is supposed to be turned into a museum.
→ Kolkata’s mint was the first ever in India, and there is so much of history associated with it. Not only the mint, even the Central Office of the Reserve Bank of India opened in Kolkata on April 1, 1935 at the century-old Currency Building in BBD Bag (built in 1833). The bank moved to Mumbai in 1937.
These are historic moments that shaped our country. Yet, there are no efforts to recreate the stories of yesteryears.
We need to wake up to realize the tourism potential of a full-fledged Kolkata Mint Museum.
- Bengal Sports Museum
This should be a no-brainer.
Lest there be any doubt, here are some significant facts.
→ Established in 1864, Eden Gardens is the oldest stadium in India, and the country’s largest cricket stadium.
→ Memorable events, like hosting the first cricket World Cup final outside of Lord’s in 1987, or the match between Mohun Bagan and New York Cosmos in 1977 in which the legendary Pelé played for the latter; tragedies like the death of 16 football fans following a stampede during the derby clash between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in August 1980 have ensured their places in history.
→ The 97-year-old East Bengal Club, 128-year-old Mohun Bagan Club, and 126-year-old Mohammedan Sporting Club are three of the country’s oldest football clubs.
→ Their supporter base surpasses that of any other sporting club in India, and extends to nearly all the countries in the world. Between them, the clubs hold countless trophies and unmatched glories that you won’t find anywhere else in India.
Let me share a few pictures of sports museums I took at the Real Madrid and FC Barcelona clubs to stress my point about what a Bengal Sports Museum can do.
Museum at Santiago Bernabéu Stadium
Museum at Camp Nou
One wonders, why haven’t we tried so far!?
Let there be a unified sports museum instead of every entity carving out its own. Make it easy for visitors; there is no sense in having multiple small museums with little or no footfall.
A sports museum should ideally be located as part of a sporting arena like FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou or Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu.
In Kolkata, the ideal place looks to be the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan or the Salt Lake Stadium.
In fact, during the recent handover of the facility to the FIFA, the tournament director Javier Ceppi was exuberant. He exclaimed –
If you ask me, it looks like a museum, be the entrance or the inside. Or like the teams said, it looks the lobby of a seven-star property.
- More museums & attractions for Kolkata tourism
Wait, there’s more!
a. Art & Culture Museum
There is a smallish gallery on Bengal Art in the Indian Museum, but obviously there can be more. It makes sense to bring different crafts, cultural exhibits and artworks of Bengal under one roof. This can be thought of at the Town Hall along with other ideas, explained later.
There can be wax statues of peasants, artisans, folk singers, plantation workers, potters, honey collectors, village traders, moneylenders, and so on.
The museum can house the exquisite clay dolls made by the skilled artisans of Ghurni at the outskirts of Krishnanagar. Theirs is a talent passed down through generations, and has been acclaimed all over the world.
It’s remarkable how the visitors react after seeing Ghurni’s clay dolls. Here’s one from the Deccan Herald newspaper –
We have clay dolls, toys and even clay sculptures in different parts of India. But there has been nothing to match the clay doll artisans of Krishnanagar in the Nadia district of West Bengal. One look at the clay dolls and we are amazed at the reality with which the artist has displayed the character of the model. A horse rearing to gallop to a placid dog licking its lips after a hearty feed.
b. Science Museum
We do have the sprawling Science City as well as the Birla Technological & Industrial Museum. While I haven’t been to either lately, there is always a scope for more proactive planning and innovation by borrowing ideas from world-class museums elsewhere.
c. Aviary inside Botanical Gardens
I’m no expert on this but my awestruck experience at Singapore’s Jurong Bird Park, world’s largest aviary, will forever remain etched in my memory. It now has attractions like a nocturnal bird house, pelicans, African penguins, and more.
Of course, to reach Jurong’s standard, one not only needs money, but also lot of planning, a large enough space, and a lot of dedicated effort. But this is worth a try.
The Indian Botanic Gardens at Shibpur can be the right venue for an aviary within its premises. Jurong occupies 50 acres, and this area can be easily accommodated inside Shibpur gardens.
Even without an aviary, the Shibpur botanic garden can be uplifted to the standard of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew with little efforts and a bit of imagination.
After all, both were started by the British – Kew Gardens in 1847 by the river Thames covering 326 acres, and the Shibpur Botanic Garden 60 years before in 1787 covering 273 acres by the river Hooghly.
d. Zoological Museum
Has it ever occurred to the zoo authorities in Alipore to plan a museum where films/videos etc. on animals’ lives can be shown?
One sees the big cats, but how are they fed, how do they mate, what do they like? Wouldn’t we like to know how giraffes, zebras, birds, reptiles, monkeys, etc. live?
The zoo attracts a lot of visitors, can it not plan a museum too that can be educative for people of all ages?
If you notice, only a handful of people read the information plaques next to the animals’ enclosures.
e. Victoria Memorial
I haven’t spoken about Victoria Memorial because it’s already well known. However, it is treated more as a picnic spot and a place for morning strolls than as a place of historical significance.
I have also left out the Indian Museum because of its abysmal condition. An international tourist takes no more than a few minutes to visit the entire sprawling compound and galleries. I checked this! Isn’t that a shame?
f. The National Library
The National Library is believed to have been built in the 1760s. Known as the Belvedere House, it was the former palace for the Viceroy of India and later the Governor of Bengal. Warren Hastings stayed here at two different points of time. Unfortunately, there is no arrangement for tourists to visit and learn of its history.
g. Park Street Cemetery
Opened in 1767, the Park Street Cemetery was one of the earliest non-church cemeteries in the world, and probably the largest Christian cemetery outside Europe and America in the 19th century.
It was in use until about 1830, and is now a heritage site, protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). But, apart from the Feluda film Gorosthaney Sabdhan, there hasn’t been any attempt to showcase the stories of this historical place.
h. Howrah Station, Howrah Bridge, Tallah Tank, more
Howrah Station is India’s largest railway complex. It opened in 1854, and the East India Railways operated the first trunk route from Howrah to Benares (870 km) in December 1862. Just a cursory glance on history of this iconic railway station reveals a wealth of stories that the authorities haven’t cared to tell people.
The 74-year-old Howrah Bridge, the 108-year-old Tallah Tank (world’s largest overhead water reservoir the Japanese wanted to bomb, currently under repair, see stats below), Princep Ghat of 1841, the other historical ghats on the river Hooghly – there are simply too many places in Kolkata soaked in history that visitors to the city would love to know about.
i. New Market
Some of the most visited places in a city are its markets. Tourists invariably fall for local markets that are abundant in local items and cuisines.
Kolkata’s New Market opened on January 1, 1874 – that’s more than 142 years ago. It was the city’s first municipal market, and it was so famous that affluent colonials from all over India came here to shop at exclusive retail outlets.
Image below shows the New Market in 1945 [source].
Today, the market is surrounded by thousands of hawkers in the most haphazard way, but it still retains the attraction it once did.
Can we not decongest New Market and make it more tourist friendly? Can we also not plan some more street markets in a much more organized manner?
j. The canals
Kolkata is blessed to have a network of canals cutting across the city. However, urban planners and civic authorities have failed to evolve a sustained plan to make use of this unique gift to the city.
In a study on the canals of Kolkata, Dr. Chandani Bhattacharjee of Mumbai’s H.R. College of Commerce and Economics points out how the canals that were largely carriers of trading commodities in the past, have now become carriers of sewage and storm waters.
All hope is not lost though.
The Telegraph reports that a group of architects, who revived a canal in Gurgaon by working on the space around it, has a set of plans to revitalize Kolkata’s canals as well.
The NGO, IAmGurgaon, cleaned the place, built cycle and pedestrian tracks, and erected gates in such a way as to admit wheelchairs, but no vehicles (picture below from The Telegraph).
The simple makeover should be an eye-opener for civic authorities in Kolkata. Grand plans like exotic flower gardens, parks, etc. may not be necessary because they are hard to maintain given financial constraints.
Lest you think that’s a bad idea, here is something to ponder upon.
A long stretch on either side of the river Seine in Paris just has metal roads, dotted with occasional eateries. Vehicles are not allowed, so joggers and walkers have free space to themselves to enjoy the riverside (see image below).
The point is, gardens and parks are not bad, but have them when the civic authorities can afford to maintain them. Till then, simple walking tracks are just fine on the sides of the canals.
- Special day-long tours and walks
Museums are a great place to attract tourists, but so too are special tours. Here again, Kolkata can offer exciting variations, which visitors will find hard to resist.
i. A river trip to our colonial past
Across the Hooghly, from Srirampur to Bandel, a trip by boat can retrace the history of busy French, Danish, Portuguese and Dutch colonies when they set up trading outposts as early as the 14th century.
In Chandan Nagar, the French colony was established in 1673. Today, the museum at Dupleix House, Sacred Heart Church, and the French Cemetery are still there, but there is little to meaningfully connect them.
Up north, Bandel Church, founded by the Portuguese in 1599, is relatively better maintained, which may be because it was declared a minor basilica by the Pope in November 1988.
The image below shows the magnificent Jan 1, 1771 painting that depicts the attack and capture of the position of the French company of the Indies at Chandernagore in 1757 during the 7-year war by Britain’s Royal Navy.
Years of collective apathy has meant that these places are hardly interesting for us, except for occasional picnics. But can’t we make a fresh beginning? Can’t the Bengal government request the French to help restore some of the lost glories in Chandan Nagar, for example?
ii. River trip to Belur Math and Dakshineswar Temple
This already exists. One can think of a trip starting from Kalighat Temple early morning, proceeding next to Vivekananda House, before reaching Babughat.
iii. Other day-long tours
There is no dearth of interesting places to visit during day-long tours.
Some notable places worth seeing are the Town Hall, Birla Planetarium, Jorasanko Thakur Bari, Kumortuli (picture below), Mother House, Netaji Bhavan, Gandhi Bhavan in Beleghata, Princep Ghat, Parasnath Jain Temple, the Gurdwaras, Armenian Church, St John’s Church, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Jewish Synagogue, Thanthaniya Kalibari, Nakhoda Mosque, and others.
Then there also are the Buddhist Temple at the Dhakuria lakes, and the Santragachhi Jheel, famous for sighting migratory birds such as lesser whistling duck in the winter months, and so on.
The list is literally endless.
iv. Calcutta Walks
Calcutta Walks is a private initiative, and is quite popular among the international tourists because of specific targeting. Other than walking, the tours include visiting places by car/coach, bicycle, motorbike, river boat, and even public transport. Clearly, a lot of thought has gone into making the tours as realistic as possible to the international visitors.
A screenshot of the well-designed website is as under:
What happens when you have many museums?
International tourists look for bargains. They want to get the feel of a city at minimum cost. There can be 2/3/4/5-day museum passes to make things easier and cost-effective.
When there are many museums to visit, one can offer different options, so that visitors can chose the ideal one to suit their budget and length of stay.
Further to that, since all the museums will have distinct stories to tell, the visitors will get hooked to them wanting to know more, increasing the possibility of more tourist inflows.
Most European cities have museum passes. Paris for example has so many passes to see the city landmarks that it is easy to get baffled as to which one to buy.
In a similar way, the authorities can consider issuing passes to see museums in Kolkata with additional benefits like a river cruise, or a stage performance at the historic Star Theater or elsewhere, or anything similar that is natural to the city’s culture.
Is India a top tourist destination?
This question is very relevant to how Kolkata must be positioned as a top international tourist destination.
The point is, despite the much vaunted अतिथिदेवो भव campaign with Amir Khan (Atithi Devo Bhava means ‘The Guest is God’), India is not a popular tourist destination.
In a remarkably candid post in ToI, the writer blows away the myth of India’s attraction as a tourist destination.
You may be in for a big surprise, but let me quote a small piece from the article with some alterations –
The (tourism) sector generated more than 10% of world GDP in 2016 (an estimated $7.6 trillion). India ranked 7th in the world in terms of travel and tourism’s total contribution to the country’s GDP, raking in some $200 billion in revenues, which is also about 8-9% of India’s GDP. Moreover, the sector supported more than 40 million jobs, making India 2nd in the world in terms of total employment supported by travel and tourism.
But guess what, nearly 90% of India’s travel and tourism is generated domestically. Money spent by foreign travelers in India represents only 12% of tourism revenues – a trifling $23 billion in 2016. Small beer. Chump change. In fact, India received less than 10 million international arrivals in 2016, placing it 40th in the world, and a tenth of those received by top-ranking France. Less than Thailand and Turkey, Mexico and Morocco.
It’s small comfort though that India’s top tourist arrivals are from Bangladesh. They are just next door (and presumably most of them come for medical treatment and education).
The next two countries in terms of tourist arrivals to India – United States and United Kingdom – represent 25% of the footfall and a significant part of our travel revenue. But a large number of these arrivals are NRIs…
Clearly, our country as a whole has a lot of catching up to do to attract international tourists. Many travelers rank India at the top of a list of countries that deserves more tourists.
However, how will that happen given the present regime’s thrust on what one eats, thinks, and dresses is anybody’s guess!
Let’s move on.
How to get a deluge of tourists to Kolkata
So far, I’ve discussed the potential of Kolkata tourism, how it can and must claim its rightful place as one of India’s foremost popular destinations for international tourists.
I feel we need to work on a feasible strategy based on proper planning and execution, dependent on Kolkata’s unique geographical advantage.
Some serious out-of-the-box thinking is required to attract a deluge of tourists in the shortest time. And when I say ‘shortest’ time, it means taking advantage of the setup that already exists and functions well.
I’ve a few suggestions, so first, let’s check out some interesting facts.
As you can see, the flight time and distance to major Indian cities are almost the same as to Bangkok and Kunming. What’s more, there already are flights operating from Kolkata to Bangkok and Kunming.
Why Bangkok & Kunming?
- First, Bangkok.
According to a study by Mastercard, Bangkok was the top destination city in 2016 in terms of international overnight passengers.
The city clocks 21.47 million passengers annually, pushing behind other hot destinations like London, Paris, Dubai, New York, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
Notably, three out of the top seven destinations are from southeast Asia, which indicates that there is a huge tourist interest in this region.
How can we get some share of tourists who’re visiting Bangkok?
- Enter Kunming.
The importance of Kunming in this case is not only that it’s already a tourist destination in its own right, but because it conveniently connects with Hanoi (Vietnam) by train (551km).
From Hanoi, it is just 160km to the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay to the east, and 1,160km to Siem Reap (Cambodia) to the south, although this journey is relatively costlier. Hanoi to Bangkok by flight is 987km.
In other words, Bangkok-Kolkata-Kunming-Hanoi-Bangkok can become a perfect tour circuit. From Kolkata’s viewpoint, it’s a promising proposition considering Bangkok’s mammoth tourist inflow, and also for the reason that there is no need to depend on tourists coming in from the rest of India.
Kolkata needs to pull up its socks, so it is best to try with all its might to make this happen. But it’s not difficult, just take a look at the illustration below.
For tourists, getting visa may be an issue. After all it’s not Eurozone, one would need at least four visas instead of a single Schengen visa. But let it not be an insurmountable problem; the West Bengal government can, for its own sake, take initiatives to make it less troublesome for the tourists.
The main task though is to make Kolkata tourism so attractive that the tourists disembarking at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport feel compelled to take the next flight to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport to see our historic city on the banks of Hooghly.
Kolkata tourism – how does the city gain?
There isn’t a single instance anywhere in the world of tourism not boosting the economy of a place. In a report published in March 2016, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) noted that the travel and tourism industry contributed $7.2 trillion to the world GDP in 2015, supporting 284 million jobs, or 1 in 11 jobs in the world.
For Kolkata, the real gain is to recoup the lost glory of being a multicultural city, once lauded as the most happening place east of Suez.
The amalgamation of diverse cultures is very important in these trying times, and Kolkata can show the way to the rest of the country on how to happily coexist with everyone.
There are many advantages to being a tourist hotspot.
- The people of Kolkata, indeed the entire country, will come to know about the multi-faceted history of the city.
- There’ll be more money in the kitty, the city will become cleaner, and livelier.
- With Kolkata tourism acting as a magnet, there will invariably be more tourists to other places in Bengal and eastern India.
- When the tourists come, the airlines will come too. So, the Chief Minister will not need to beg them for starting direct flights from the city to major world destinations.
- The most important is creation of jobs. The cascading effect will be huge. It will mean the rise of a proud prosperous Kolkata, which it deserves to be.
Finally, where do we start?
The starting point of all achievement is desire. Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve ~Napoleon Hill~
Let us desire the regaining of the city’s glorious past through Kolkata tourism.
And, the first step toward that is believing that we CAN do it.
We must make a grand plan. There will be sub plans under that with distinct outlays and goals to achieve within specified timeframes.
These are the jobs of experts. So here are my suggestions to make the things happen.
- The West Bengal government should carve a separate ministry only for Kolkata tourism (like the separate ministries for Primary & Higher Education).
- It must be headed by someone who is well-advised, well-traveled, impartial, suave, confident, efficient, capable and conscious of the city’s potential.
- Let the ministry pick a team of experts on tourism, town planning, history, archaeology, public relations, etc.
- Let the team work out a grand plan for 15-20 years, and sub-plans for shorter durations.
- There should be a website that will with unwavering pursuit promote Kolkata as a top tourist destination, with a buzzing social media presence.
- Liaising with travel agencies to sell Kolkata as a part of four-city tour (explained above) must be a top priority. It is also important to rope in influential travel websites, bloggers, and travelers to promote Kolkata.
It is obvious that the work is not for the faint-hearted. It will be very grueling, but for all that hard labor there could be awaiting glory we now only dream of.
Let’s do it!