Number One position is based on total recall of a destination

Mr. Ashwani Lohani, MD & Commissioner Tourism MP Govt Tourism, CM Shri Shiv Raj Singh Chauhan and Tourism Minister Shri Surendra Patwa DI

Ashwani Lohani, an Indian Railway officer, has worked earlier in Madhya Pradesh Tourism, also had a stint as MD of ITDC and also as director in the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India. He is now back as Principal Secretary Tourism and MD, Madhya Pradesh Tourism Corporation. In an exclusive conversation with TourismFirst, Lohani shares the details of MP tourism strategy for the near and medium run…

What are the current priorities before you ​after your return to head Madhya Pradesh tourism?​

The priorities are very clear, MP is the number one state in tourism. It has to be number 1,2,3 or 4. The next states are very distant. We are much ahead of all other states in the tourism sector. The diversity of tourism destinations in MP is unmatched. We have the vastest collection of tourism destinations which are extremely rich. Second, is what we are doing on the ground. On the ground what we have done also speaks about the government, the tourism department and the ​corporatised set up we have here in the corporation. This has many aspects, one is state cooperation, and the commercial properties which it runs. Each and every one of our properties is as good as the ones in the private sector in that city. We were on the verge of being sold out in 2004 but now we are the finest. In terms of looks, services and bottom line we are as good as the private sector. Our rate of growth is high. It has to be seen to be believed. You will not find a better State Tourism office than this one.

When you say you want to be the number one tourism state, how do you come to that categorization? I mean what will make your state number one?

See number 1 or number 2 is all very subjective. It is basically the image perception that counts. How are we perceived by the tourists of India. We are trying to achieve excellence in all facets of tourism development and promotion. If it is about running hotels, then we want to run the hotels in the best possible way. If it is promotions, then we want that ours should be the finest in the country. If it is about inviting the private sector, then we want to do that in the best way as well.

​Is​ there any thought of franchising or bringing a brand to your own properties?

MP tourism is already a brand within the state. We are not looking at a scenario ​where we co-brand with some other.​

​Even then, w​hat about bringing​ some of these big​ brands to MP?

We have created a land bank and we will be coming out asking for RFPs for that land bank. There we want big brands to participate.

And the land bank is across the state?

Yes, it is.

What about a city like Ujjain where​ you could do with more hotels?

Yes, Ujjain also we have got land parcels​, and these too will be offered for private sector investment​.

Would you have any plans for creating tourism zones? Where there is a cluster of hotels and activities.

See I don’t really believe in making grand plans. I have always believed in making small plans and doing​ them​. We are moving ahead very fast. Everything has a stage. Right now we are looking at bringing 15-20 new properties to the state.

As MP economy is growing and as MP is becoming a dynamic state, it is a good time to look at the business of ​convention centre​s​.

Yes​,​ convention centres definitely. Indore has two convention centres and we are looking very aggressively in creating a convention centre in Bhopal, in fact putting up two of them. One would be around 500-1000 seater ​which we could put up ourselves.​ The other, a 2000 seater​,​ will definitely be in the private sector. A convention centre by itself is not financially viable unless it is linked to a big property. It has a big ripple effect.

You are the richest state in man-made plus nature​ attractions – the Gwalior Fort or the wildlife, in all of them you ​have yet touched only the fringes of your potential. How about stepping up the levels of activity in each of these?​

​Undoubtedly, we have so much going for the state. We are working upon all these fronts and many of these results are already there to see.

But what about connectivity?

We have made a beginning. Indore is fairly well connected. Bhopal, about 15-20 days back is also now connected with Ahmedabad. Very shortly we are hoping to see the start of Bhopal-Bangalore as well. We are in talks with Jet Airwwys to connect Bhopal with Lucknow. And we also want to connect Bhopal, Gwalior, Indore, Jabalpur, Rewa, Khajuraho with a private operator, for which all the ground work has already been completed​. And we are doing branding for the state. See an airline will come in only when it is financially viable. M​o​vement in this direction has started.

When does that service start?

I think July.

What about a centre like Khajuraho? Another is Gwalior. These are tourist towns that don’t need publicity.

Yes, we have established places that are famous as tourism destinations. This time our focus is also on those places that are unknown. For instance, close to Gwalior is ​P​alaoti ​I​shwar and I believe that it is the richest heritage cluster in the country. We are putting signages and developing it and promoting it. Near Sanchi, there is Sardara Morelchor.

So what are you doing here?

We are showcasing them, running ad campaigns and promoting.

Two definite things in which you have acquired massive leadership – one is your domestic campaign, your advertising, where are you taking that to the next level?

The radio jingle and the TV advertising is basically for the domestic market for people from other states. But we are also not forgetting the fact that MP itself is a very large state. There will be momentum also if we get people moving within the state – this is Aas Pass tourism – the inter​-​regional tourism within the state. We are promoting this through newspaper campaigns.

And are people moving?

Yes, they are. While we are working on this, our national campaign will also come​ out soon. Still​,​ we are not looking at destination branding outside India.

How about your overseas promotions?

That we are not focusing much on currently. We will participate ​only in select overseas tourism events to selectively sell the state.

How are some of your pet projects doing, the rail restaurant in Bhopal?​

Very good. And now we are creating the first off-grid resort in Malai.

Suppose you want to go on a big accelerated binge about creating hotels and resorts throughout MP, is it possible you can also consider joint ventures?

We are doing that and giving the land on lease for 90​ ​years.

You were talking about Indra Sagar, ​it would be great to know more on this… and you new efforts..

In Khadval, on the Narmada backwaters and it is 2.5 hours away from Indore. Indore has a big potential to be a tourist hub. What we are also doing is to run air conditioned water boats and caravans and other soft adventure. And in Bhopal we are planning a hot air balloon and papa sailing station. We are also creating camping sites.

What is your sense of tourism around the country? As you are a market leader you will also be going with the tide in the country. You are adopting best practices but also providing best practi​c​es to other states.

I believe that the litmus test of any state tourism department lies in the way it runs its own hotels. If a state tourism departmewnt says that it is doing great things but can​​’t run its hotels then I don’t believe it. The difference between MP and other states is that we worked on the ground level and have built the brand.

MP also has some of the best package tours?

Yes, but they would not have been successful if our properties were not good. If you go to Pachmarhi and stay at Champak Bungalow, you will think it​’​s an ITC property. People can’t believe​ that​ it is run by the government.

Tell me your big plans for Ujjain? How will this Mahakumbh be different from the previous ones?

The spiritual element will be the same of course. Ujjain is an old and ancient town, it is a city of time, mahakal with many temples. It is also called the city of salvation. Kumbh is a huge and important part of Ujjain. We are looking ​at ​showcasing Ujjain and are therefore showcasing Kumbh as a very important part in the life of Ujjain.

When do the celebrations start?

22nd April​ next year.​

How about improving the overall visitor or tourist​ experience? For instance ​you can instill greater confidence with better flow of pilgrims, and that kind of controlling.

That is for the local police and other authorities. There will also be information counters.​ Our direct role is limited​.

Anything else? Your wildlife is unparalleled​, how about taking it to the next level, and bringing it cloer to the wildldife experiences in South Africa and Kenya?​ 

We will develop the buffer zones. ​Presently, capacity is a restriction and right now it is not a good time​ to think big in this area​.

​What else could be your focus area?

Technology is a focus area. We are restoring and renovating a lot​ of our existing assets​. We have added MP cuisine at our properties. In Bhopal, ​H​otel Palash is being renovated. Its new restaurant has started with a real miniature train on display. We are using geo-thermal energy in some projects.

How are you selling your accommodation?

We are going to the net, ​selling through our ​marketing offices​ across the country​ and ​doing extensive ​road shows.

Are you giving any of your inventory to travel agents?

Yes, also to online agents. We have started this. Tourists are now welcome on many fronts to book with us.

By Navin Berry

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