Dr. Javed Iqbal Ansari seemed relaxed and confident of his achievements as the tourism minister of Bihar. Having undertaken some earnest measures to improve connectivity, increase visibility and create more tourism products for the state, he envisages a more vibrant public-private partnership eyosystem and a more pronounced role for tourism in driving state’s revenue.Excerpts from a long conversation at his official residence in the state’s capital:
To begin with, give us an understanding of what exactly are the state’s prime tourism assets that are essential to showcase Bihar’s overall tourism product?
Our major focus previously used to be on the understanding that “Bihar is Buddhism and Buddhism is tourism”. We used to be extremely content with the fact that Buddhist tourists are coming in and visiting Bodh Gaya and bringing in the business.
But Nalanda, too, has been a natural Buddhist draw, is not it?
Yes, to a certain extent. However, Bodh Gaya took the cake. But, the rest of the state too has a number of tourist attraction, extremely important in enhancing the overall tourism product of the state. We had little focus on that aspect and it, primarily, remained neglected. For instance, Valmiki Nagar tiger reserve for eco-tourism. If we develop the requisite infrastructure, hotels and resorts with easy accessibility from Patna, it has the potential to become one of the finest in the country.
Indeed, tell us more about the Valmiki tiger reserve project. Many have hailed it as the model for tiger conservation in the country.
Yes, we have achieved some success in this regard. I say this because we have only realized 20-30% of what we intend to achieve. We want that should tiger conservation be discussed with eco-tourism in the country and indeed in the world, Valmiki tiger reserve comes to the forefront of people’s imagination. We are working in that direction. It has been mentioned as one of the best tiger reserves in the country which is a testimony to our government’s commitment of developing tourism in the state.
How much of that has materialized?
Some construction has already begun, while some is in the process of finalization. I am hopeful that in the coming years we will be able to achieve what we intend to. The fact is that the process will take time. We are not a very resourceful state and financing projects has been a major issue for us. But, we have tried hard to push for what we can with our limited capability. We were hopeful that the central government will endow us with a special status and additional funding, so that we can expedite some of the important projects. But, none of that has materialized as of now. So, we are pulling up all we can with our limited resources. There is no dearth of intentions though.
So, how different has been your governments’ efforts compared to the previous ones?
Let me tell you the evolution of the concept of tourism in the state. Tourism, before the Nitish Kumar government came to helm, was considered a tertiary department, not even a secondary department. The general modus operandi revolved around attaching the tourism department with one of the other department. Our budgets were almost negligible.
So what is the budget now?
I will come to that. With the Nitish government taking charge of the state, there was a realization that without developing the tourism sector, there was no way that we could develop the state. So, in order to create a name for the state, we decided to work zealously on the various facets of the tourism industry. We began with identifying the bottlenecks at the various tourism spots like the lack of infrastructure, connecting roads and electricity shortage. We have tried to plug in those loop holes. I am the minister of tourism for the past year and I have used every opportunity to showcase the tourism products of the state. There was a time when our budget used to be a paltry 30-40 lacks, today we have taken it up to 118 crores. I agree, we have a lot more to achieve. But, it is much better than what we inherited.
But are you satisfied with what you have achieved in this while?
Well, the fact remains that since independence, Bihar has not seen the kind of development that it should have and, therefore, the lacunae is immense. So, you might say that we are not at par with the best performing states in terms of tourism. But, we are definitely much better than where we were ten years ago. I am sure of that.
Good hotels are the most important and non-negotiable part of attracting tourists in the state. Bihar seems to be behind the curve on that count too.
Well, since I took charge of the ministry, I have tried to work on this aspect too. I am going to inaugurate Karam-Vihar hotel in Munger – which is world renowned for its wellness and yoga centre. We are constructing a 20 room resort and a restaurant on the Mandaar Mountains- an important pilgrim for the Hindus, along with a ropeway to ease the access to the mountains.
Mandaar Mountain and temple is an important yet neglected tourism product. How are you planning on resurrecting it?
Of course, it has immense significance for the Hindu pilgrims and has found mention in the religious texts with regard to the churning of ocean. Along with that there is a temple for Jains as well. So we are planning on installing a ropeway along with a resort and a restaurant. I have sanctioned the ropeway, all the necessary clearances have been obtained. I have awarded the project to Rites ltd. and hopefully we will see some tangible progress on that front shortly.
While, we are on the subject of ropeways, the famous ropeways in Rajgir is also begging for a renovation. Anything on that?
Yes, we are going to have a new ropeway adjacent to the old one. Initially we were told by the central govt. to renovate the existing one. However, I suggested to keep it as heritage and construct a new one adjacent to it.
But, will that begin only under the new government now?
No, it will begin in this financial year itself. Hopefully, shortly.
While there has been plenty of discussion about the rejuvenation of the Nalanda University, one wonders why the ancient ruins of Vikramshila has been neglected. A Vikramshila rejuvenation could be another interesting undertaking.
Indeed, We are in the process of creating a detailed project report for the same. The idea is to bring the matter to the attention of the central government that Vikramshila is not only state’s heritage. It is a national treasure and needs to be preserved for the generations to come. We need at least 1000 crores to develop Vikramshila. They can give us 100-200 crores in the first phase, so that we can set the ball rolling. So, we are working on that proposal and are hopeful that the central government understands its significance.
So, you are not satisfied with the central government’s support?
Not at all. We have received nothing from the centre. There have been talks but very little action on any front. Our secretary was invited by the centre some time ago and we were told to bring concrete proposals for projects. We heard nothing after that. This pretty much sums up how we are being treated by the centre.
That is one instance. But the overall infrastructure related to tourism also needs to be strengthened. What are you doing in that regard?
Yes, it is a very important area that needs utmost focus. Developing wayside amenities is an area we are working on. We have zeroed on the areas that needs to be prioritized. Building good quality eateries and restrooms are important. Work on some stretches has also begun. Some work has also been completed. I am, shortly, going to inaugurate some facilities in Khagaria.
What are the issues that you face in expanding infrastructure?
Land is a major hurdle. We (the government) do not own all the land. So, a lot of wayside amenities is to be created after acquiring land from private parties – which is a lengthy and a time-consuming affair. We are in the process of framing a policy for that. So, in due time we will able to solve these bottlenecks. One of the major problem with our government, which I am willing to concede as our drawback, is the lack of advertisement. For instance, people living in Kashmir are unaware of what our tourism assets are and what are they going to experience if they come down to Bihar for a visit.
I was going to come to that. Marketing and visibility is a major issue with Bihar tourism. To be able to hard sell your product, visibility is a must. What are the measures taken by you in that regard?
Yes, as long as we do not market and brand our tourism assets aggressively, I doubt much will change. We were looking to appoint a brand ambassador for the state.
We heard that you were in talks with Rekha to rope in her as the state’s brand ambassador. Any development on that front?
Yes, we wanted either Rekha or Javed Akhter for the same. However, the state descended into chaos with political instability and government was in such a deadlock for almost two months that we could not take it further. So, sometimes the circumstances are such that despite your best efforts you cannot get things done. I tried to restart the process but because of the recent earthquake, we again had to camp in our respective constituencies and I could not take it further. However, having said that, I want to have a recognized face spearheading the state’s tourism promotion and also want to develop a strong public relations network – that can help the tourists pinpoint and cater their minutest needs.
An interactive website and dedicated applications are also essential. There seems little effort on that part.
Yes, we had hired an agency. But, I must concede that funding remains a major problem. We can do only that much with the available budget.
Why don’t you explore avenues of alternate funding? Why not look at PPP’s?
We have considered undertaking several projects on PPP mode, especially for hotel construction. We are working on a new tourism policy.
So is it coming shortly? Have you drafted it?
We have almost finalized the draft. But, there were some objections raised by the revenue and finance department. They suggested some amendments, keeping all that in perspective I called a meeting of the secretaries of the various departments and asked them to collaborate with the tourism secretary. I am sure that in a month’s time we will be able to unveil the new tourism policy for the state.
How is it going to help the state?
To my understanding, the new tourism policy will attract hoteliers to invest in the state and boost the prospects of hospitality business.
But, Bihar does not even have a single five star hotel. Even in places like Nalanda, there is a dearth of good hotels. It deters the travelers to have an overnight stay, robbing the locals of business opportunity.
There is a good hotel that has come up in Nalanda. Gargi Grand. However, we cannot construct five stars. We can only supplement the private players with land availability, subsidies and requisite infrastructure. Some hotels have shown interest in operating here, and we are in talks with them. We are waiting for the new tourism policy and hopefully then we will see some concrete progress.
There are a number of events that can draw a vast number of tourists. The annual Sonepur fair, the biggest cattle fair in Asia, is one example. Why it is that such events are not getting the due recognition. For instance, Pushkar fair draws far more tourists than the Sonepur fair.
I have been the tourism minister for a year now. I can speak for myself and can tell you that this year’s Sonepur fair has been a grand success. We incorporated a global vision and a yardstick that was very high in terms of quality. I spoke with a lot of regular tourists and a number of foreigners too. The response I got was over-whelming. There were many events that drew large crowds. I can assure you we will only get better from here on. Similarly, Rajgir festival, too, was way better than the last year. It was appreciated and the events were well attended and wonderfully managed. I have also initiated Mandaar festival, which has been a resounding success, and Sufi festival that add to the multi-dimensionality of the state’s tourism product. We still have a long way to go to but we have begun on a strong footing.
Tell us a little bit about Madhubani. It’s been getting international recognition for its unique paintings. It has great potential to become a tourism hub. Not much has been realized though.
See, all these are a part of the ensemble that makes our tourism product. It is not that we do not assist our tourists, if they want to visit Madhubani. We provide all the relevant information and means of transport through our tourist information centers at the airport. We have handbooks that guide the tourists about the whereabouts of important places in the region. But, as far as better PR and marketing is concerned, I have already conceded that we need to work harder on it.
There have been continuous talks of shifting the Patna airport to a nearby area for expanding the existing infrastructure. While, there have some development in the area of charter flight connectivity as well. Tell us something about it.
I have been hearing about it for a very long time as well. These are ongoing talks. But nothing concrete has materialized. It is for the central government to look into. We are ready to facilitate in every possible way. As far as charter connectivity is concerned, it is definitely going to bolster tourism. Although, it is still in its nascent stage and with time we will see some progress.
Can you give us some figure on the tourist arrival in the state.
Yes. Some 12,00,000 foreigners have visited the state in the last year, 2014-15 (figures inclusive of April 2015.) whereas, 2,25,44,377 domestic tourists came to Bihar in the year 2013-14.
By Shashank Shekhar