Odisha Tourism: Billion Tourists , Million Opportunities

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By Deboo Patnaik

When the sun rises in the east on a winter morning, its early rays ignite divergent responses in the serene state of Odisha. While the birds of Mangalajodi start their melodic chittering, the large white crocodile in Bhitarakanika shakes his body to move in to the sunlight. As the black bucks of Ganjam turn their horns welcoming the day, the monks of Dhauli start beating their drums. While the mother elephant of Chandaka tries to play with her baby, the pandas at the Jagannath temple prepare for the mangala aarti. And as the white tigress moves her face in a circular magnanimity, the young Irrawaddy dolphins of Chilka take their first jump of the day above the water. While the rays create multiple rainbows near the Ghagara waterfalls, the birds of Konark welcome the first light of the day on the Sun God. As the men at beachfront shacks begin peeling green coconuts, the Rasagola shop owners at Pahala make ready their stock for the day.

Rarely do you come across a country or a province, bestowed with such magnificent tourism products, all in one place. A long coastline, rich cultural heritage, unbelievable range of wild life, an extremely popular religious destination, amazing historical  monuments, mouth-watering cuisine – you name it, Odisha has it. Yet, the state is not a renowned tourist destination; it continues to be “just another state “, which generates limited interest for tourist. Even today, Odisha is underdeveloped, unseen, unnoticed and unexplored by the tourists – hence, the new tag line of Odisha tourism is ‘India’s best kept secret.’

As the state prepares to celebrate 100 years of its formation in a decade and a half, attempts should be made to make Odisha a destination in itself. What is implied, is that when a tourist plans to visit Odisha, he should visit Odisha exclusively. An average holiday for any tourist is 7 to 10 days . In such a case, ideally their whole travel itinerary should be restricted to the state alone. The state must generate sufficient appeal and attraction in them to plan such an exclusive trip. So when someone decides to holiday in the state, he visits only Odisha , and not also Odisha. The only state in India to have achieved such exclusivity till date is Kerala. People travel to the state and spend complete holiday there, without touching any other place in the country.

This is possible only when we create or develop more destinations to attract the tourists and strengthen the facilities in the popular ones. There should be at least 30+ destinations of high tourism potential to choose from. And these destinations can be the existing ones, added with few developed ones and many created to supplement. These many options would  force an average tourist to leave out a few and  think, “There is always a second time”.

An example of strengthening the existing ones is Konark.  Out of ten tourists that come into Odisha, at least seven visit Konark. But the visit is mostly limited to half a day. This is due to absence of any additional attractions, other than the temple. The place should capture interest for at least one full day’s visit by adding different water sports, good local cuisine eateries and sweetmeat shops, dance & music performances, an experiential sand art and of course, creation of a top notch amusement park for the tourists. A cable car ride from Chandrabhaga  to the Sun Temple and back with parts of the coastline thrown in will definitely make the tourist spend few hours more. Similarly, a neat cluster of eateries with affordable curio shops and a myriad of cultural activities will convince them to spend another couple of hours. Moreover, water sports and the evening light and sound show can complete the day.

Konark still does not have a quality hotel for international tourists. Surprisingly,  neither the government nor private entrepreneurs have ever thought of promoting a hotel of international standard at Konark, the topmost tourist attraction of the state. At least 3 to 5 hotels, in addition to the other recreational facilities have to be developed, mostly by private players in and around Konark, to convert the half-day tour of Konark to one and half days or more.

Speaking of Konark, another factor than comes immediately to mind is the approach. Agra is connected with Delhi through 8 lane expressway. 70 years after independence, Konark still has just a twin lane road handling more than 200 plus buses a day and innumerable other vehicles. It’s a wonder how none of the state decision-makers ever planned for an expressway leading to this world heritage site. Good developed infrastructure is the key to success of any tourism project. Accessibility of the destination matters most for the general tourist while planning their tours. Some of  Odisha’s major and popular destinations still don’t have well connected expressways and basic amenities. One such location that can be mentioned is Bhitarakanika. It still takes 4 ½ hours to reach the place from Bhubaneswar with no wayside amenities. Expressway connection with the gateway to the state is extremely crucial. That connectivity, coupled with hygienic wayside amenities on the highways and, even at the tourist destinations, is priority for promotion of tourism.

We often hear that the state has a 500kms long coastline. But so does ten other states of the country. Why would a tourist come to Odisha to enjoy the beach? The coastline has to be capitalised for communication and tourism. The coastal highway should be developed which can be a major contributor for promotion of tourism infrastructure. The 500km long stretch can be developed with stunning coastal viewing points, casuarina forests, sea side villages with places of tourist interest like, Konark, Puri, Chilika, Chandipur, Talsari coming on the way. The project would become a gamechanger in tourism  infrastructure with some eateries and hotels/ motels at different locations. Showcasing the state’s handicraft and handlooms on these hubs would also contribute to the revenue model. A seafront ropeway at couple of destinations like Puri/ Konark/Chandipur could be an interesting supplement to the project. At least two reclamation projects creating lagoons and resorts with water and other sports activities by the side of the highway at different locations should be part of the master plan.

Odisha has two amazing wildlife tourism hotspots – Chilka and Bhitarakanika. Both the places have enough potential to become stand-alone tourism destinations, with their respective individual content. However, neither have seen the desired tourist inflow, mostly due to absence of infrastructure, opportunity and promotion. Some wonderful water sport activity should be created in the Chilka lake, even development of exclusive high-end resorts in the small islands within the lake would work wonders. Both houseboats and mini-cruises can be initiated instantly. But these have to be in limited numbers, without disturbing the ecosystem. Simultaneously, the growth of tourism infrastructure should not be scuttled in the name of ecological intervention, a frequent bottleneck for growth of tourism in Odisha.

A new niche market within nature based tourism slowly emerging worldwide is the birdwatching tourism, technically named, avi-tourism. According to a topical survey conducted in 2016, around 20 million bird watchers in USA alone spend at least 14 days a year, away from home. The European figures are even larger, with the United Kingdom and Netherland leading . These bird watchers are mostly middle aged, educated, affluent and tend to travel solo, looking for other wildlife attractions as well. I see huge opportunities to promote Chilka, Mangalajodi and Bhitarakanika together. Incidentally, Bhitarakanika has more than 200 variety of birds, which includes 80 migratory species. It is claimed that some 8 different types of Kingfishers are found here. Little have been spoken about the birds of Bhitarakanika as the place is always linked with its crocodiles. These three places could be a birders’ paradise, provided we plan and promote it extensively, before others move in. However, our product and destination must be both bird and birder-friendly to excite these high end travellers .

Identifying a niche and promoting it steadfastly is the primary activity of any successful promotional and marketing enterprise. In tourism parlance, Odisha has to look for and establish those niches and promote its tourism accordingly. Should avi tourism be one niche, another could be the museums of Odisha. Museums incidentally are a major tourism attraction worldwide. Annually, Louvre in Paris attracts 10.5 million visitors, marginally higher than the total number of foreign tourists that came into India in 2018. Museums of Washington DC have visitors double the number of  India’s foreign traveller inflow. While the Beijing National Museum attracts more than 8 million visitors, British Museum in London had close to 6 million entries.

Museum tourism could be another niche that Odisha could promote. Other than the state museum, Bhubaneswar has couple of new museums that even today attracts reasonable tourists. The tribal museum and Kalabhumi, centre for art and heritage are two outstanding products that are unique in its category. Later one, developed recently has left all its visitors spellbound. To add to these three, is the maritime museum at Cuttack, another unique product for promotion of tourism. India has two other maritime museums at Vishakhpatanam and Goa, but both are naval defence museums. Hence Cuttack museum is exclusive in content and category. Apart from these, there are few privately promoted museums in the state, most popular being the Nayagarh Library and Museum of Late Dasarathi Patnaik, an outstanding effort of compilation and collection by one single individual.

Whenever a tourist visits London, Washington DC or Moscow or Beijing, visit to their zoo is part of the itinerary. There is always interest created through promotion in the minds of visitors to include a trip to the local zoo while planning a tour. Unfortunately we in Odisha hardly promote our Nandan Kanan. We probably are not aware that, area wise, this is one of the largest zoos in the world. Its white tiger population is highest in captivity in the world.  Also it is the only zoo internationally to have couple of melanistic black tigers. Its white tiger safari has been in existence 25 years before the so called world’s first white tiger safari came up in Madhya Pradesh in 2016. There are many other exclusivity of this 60 year old zoo, as is evident from the reports of World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Yet the zoo has only 3.5 million visitors out of the state’s total tourist inflow of 15 million in a year, mostly because Odisha has hardly promoted it as a tourist destination.

Odisha is a prime spot for the least thought-about yet most lucrative tourism sector – religious tourism. Buddhism in Odisha has ancient roots and people from the state have been responsible for its spread into the Far East and south east Asian countries like, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka etc. This has been possible because of Odisha’s trade links with these countries. Odisha used to be the gateway to India for all the Buddhists from this region. In fact, the religion had a strong presence in the state which can be concluded from rich archaeological recoveries in Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri and other parts of the state, including Sisupalgarh, near Bhubaneswar. It is also observed in these countries “Kling” is the major pilgrimage point for the Buddhist. Though many still don’t know that KLING is actually Odisha, erstwhile Kalinga. The Buddhist circuit can be promoted initially with a connection from Bodh Gaya to Bhubaneswar. However, this requires an air connection with Gaya to take the routing forward.

Experiential tourism is becoming popular worldwide. It is a form of tourism where people focus on experiencing a place through meaningful activity by engaging with the place, its people, history, art, life style, food and culture. The emphasis is on evolving in a holistic travel experience through living with the local people and involving in their culture, heritage, history, social structure etc. More and more people, many of whom are youths, are beginning to move away from traditional tourism products and prefer experiential travel. The main focus of these tourists are culinary experience, art and culture, nature and life style. Food is inherently an emotional experience. Social media, mostly Instagram has made it more visible and discussed. Promoted with appropriate cultural orientation of the locals, we could end up seeing more images of experiential traveller making rasgollas at Pahala than standing in front of Konark wheel. Our rich art and culture could be another destination for this segment of tourist, be it learning the Patta paintings in Raghurajpur or stitching an applique umbrella at Pipli.

Shamuka is the dream project for tourism in the state. Spread over proposed 3000 acres of land near Puri, this integrated tourism project has not taken off yet. Due to various legal and statutory hurdles, the project has got delayed. It is time for the state to put it into overdrive and proceed to complete it before the state celebrates its 100 years. Ideally, the project has to be developed as a destination in itself with hotels, resorts, villas, service apartments and large convention facility. Recreational opportunities replete with food courts , theme parks and golf courses have to be also added. I would suggest for inclusion of a tennis stadium and small air strip to complete the location as an exclusive and independent destination. Tennis is a game not promoted in a grand scale yet in India. But internationally, tennis tournaments have become a major tourism earner. Considering the proposed infrastructure around Shamuka, a tennis tournament can be planned in association with the Lawn Tennis Association of India. A 2000mts small airstrip, which can handle up to 70 seater aircrafts, should also be planned to cater to the golf and MICE tourist movement. A theme park could  be integrated into this, considering the existing tourist inflow into the city.

A major contributor to promotion of tourism in the state is the air connectivity. Any destination planning to increase the tourist inflow must ensure proper air connectivity, both domestic and international. Odisha, till very recent time, had just one (domestic) airport in Bhubaneswar. Though the city is now well connected to many of the prime destinations within the country, still additional routes and flight frequency is required to be increased. Similarly, the connection with the traditional tourist gateways of the country like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai etc needs to be multiplied. On  the international front, thanks to the unique viability gap funding (VGF) option offered by the state, Odisha has managed a couple of international connections to Southeast Asia. Yet, the western world remains unconnected and consequently ignorant about Bhubaneswar, which proves to be a hindrance for promotion of international tourism.

Direct flights to the Middle East hub, Dubai and Abu Dhabi and maybe another to Hong Kong, connecting China and other far eastern countries need to come up very fast. Also, Bhubaneswar should promote itself as a hub for international/domestic carriers, creating facilities for night parking, repair and maintenance of aircrafts in the airport. That would lead to airlines increasing the number of flights to the station and also indirectly contribute to the promotion of tourism. Charter flights bring in large international tourists groups, many for pleasure, some for pilgrimage. Bhubaneswar airport is presently in an expansion mode and should develop parking bays for these large charter flights.

Odisha needs to develop at least two MICE destinations with 3 to 4 hotels each. One such destination with convention facility of 10000 capacity and  1000/1500 4 star plus hotels rooms is required within 30 kms radius of Bhubaneswar, which should also be nearer to Puri and Konark. Such a facility would see substantial response in tourism, due to its proximity to three major cities of the state. Another smaller facility could be promoted towards the south of the state, preferably in Koraput or Phulbani districts, or maybe on the high plateau of Mahendragiri, to attract the exclusive corporate conventions. For these projects, the government needs to identify the land and allow large international operators to move in. Consequently, this will result in international acceptance of brand and service quality.

The Hockey World cup in 2018 gave Odisha tremendous visibility and publicity around the World. Since hockey is a popular game in certain pockets only, this publicity was limited to those countries. Odisha in recent times has been promoting Bhubaneswar as an sports destination, which is wonderful niche marketing. It has registered a massive jump ahead of others in this regard. But that is not enough. We need to pursue other sports event with similar zeal and vigour for next decade to maintain the early start benefit and establish the niche thus created. The infrastructure has to be developed accordingly. At least 4 more stadiums in the city in the next 10 years have to be added. Matching  support infrastructure and services have to be planned and placed to match the demand of a fully-fledged international sports event. The MICE destination with the hotels discussed earlier can extend additional support for such an event.

Odisha should aim to host the Commonwealth Games or Asiad Games, or may be, World Athletic Meet in the next 15 years, to coincide with its 100 years celebration of its formation. The recent Asiad in Indonesia had a budget of 400 million USD and Odisha spent one tenth of that on the Hockey World Cup. Hence, hosting a mega sport event in the next two decades is not something totally improbable. In fact, it is very much within Odisha’s reach, subject to its groundwork starting ASAP.

All these potential plans mentioned above may sound preposterous in Odisha’s context, considering the present scenario and past record. But these are not something that is far beyond Odisha’s reach. Time has come for tourism to take the driving seat in promotion and development of the state. And for this, the government has to THINK BIG. Big planning & developments, bigger manpower mobilisation for building the team, substantially large foreign direct investments, internationally acclaimed operators and intensive global promotion could be the mantra for the state.

For any tourism destination to succeed, the local people should realise the benefits of tourism, growth of which will contribute to their economy and develop their respective income and life style. I always cite my personal experience in a small sea-side resort of south Portugal, called Lagos.

I, along with my wife, reached Lagos station by train around 7.30 pm one summer evening. That was the last stop of the train and there were some 8/10 other passengers getting down. No public transport was available to take us to the city. My phone, for some reason, was having network issues. Without any hope, I went back to the station to request someone to call for a taxi. But the station was completely empty as the last train had come in and offices had closed down. That’s when I met this gentleman standing on the platform talking to the train driver, who was leaving the train. I told him my problem and in a moment, he called somebody in the city, booked a cab, got the cab number, gave him my location and asked me to go out and wait for the taxi. And when the cab came, I went back to thank the gentleman. He just smiled and said, “Welcome to Lagos, Sir”.

I would never forget that line and the warmth and pride in his voice. This is exactly the kind of culture and tourist-friendly attitude which is essential for promotion of tourism in the state. We have to inculcate that undiluted spirit of welcome and unfailing warmth among the people of the state towards tourists. Each day spent in the state by a tourist contributes to growth of our economy in general and supplements increase in people’s income has to be engraved on the minds of the people.

 

Last, but not the least is promotion. Promotion does not happen overnight, Nor does it bring tourist instantly. Sustained long term media planning based on interactive market research by agencies of international repute is need of the hour. And that is exceptionally challenging. In the competitive global tourism market, we have to establish our uniqueness with exclusive offers. The advertisement campaign need to relate to such niche positioning to promote and pursue it vigorously. With numerous media options available today, aggressive and continued promotion is necessary to achieve perpetual visibility in the mind of the target audience. Some of the recent successful marketing campaigns speak a simple story than shamelessly highlighting own products. We might have wonderful tourism products, but we need to identify the target market and position ourselves accordingly to promote them.

We have started spending more generously on tourism promotion in the recent years than before. Still we are far behind in the competition.  In fact, Odisha tourism’s promotional budget is miniscule in comparison with industry’s successful campaigns. While states like Kerala, Gujarat are far ahead in their respective advertisement spending, even smaller states like Jharkhand are catching up. It is time for Odisha to look beyond the boundaries of the country and create its own position through strong tourism branding.  The United Kingdom spent around $ 100 million to promote their highly  successful GREAT campaign of 2011, a year prior to Olympics. The tourism revenue  resulting out of the initiative was estimated at $ 2.5 billion. Even smaller countries like Jamaica, Cambodia , Seychelles spend hefty part of their budget on tourism promotion; no wonder 15 – 20% of their GDP comes from tourism.

Odisha, for a while, was in sore need of a wonderful tag line with positive implications. Such tag lines don’t come often. But these tag lines create destinations like Kerala –God’s own Country. However, by chance or by design, we have at last managed a fabulous tag line for the state’s promotion and publicity – Odisha: India’s best kept secret. The time has finally come for tourists worldwide to explore the secret.

(Writer Deboo Patnaik is a Noted entrepreneur and Director, The Crown and Founder Dalma)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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