Odishaâ€™s Tourism and Culture Minister, Ashok Chandra Panda, shares his departmentâ€™s well-charted plan to promote tourism in the state
By Vinita Bhatia
Ashok Chandra Panda, Odishaâ€™s Tourism and Culture Minister, is a man on a mission â€“ that of unlocking the stateâ€™s hitherto untapped tourism potential. His department played an active role during the 33rd annual convention of Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO), which saw the participation of around 1000 delegates, including 900 tour operators in September 2017.
Later, he addressed the 52nd annual convention of the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Association (FHRAI) in Bengaluru, where he invited companies in the tourism and hospitality sector to invest in Odisha, outlining the incentives that the state government was extending to them. And in October, the Odisha Tourism department will hold its first Travel Bazaar in association with the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) to showcase and promote the state as a travel destination in India and overseas markets.
Minister Panda told Hotelier India how his department is improving Odishaâ€™s infrastructure and ease of doing business to encourage more investors to set up hotels in the state, while promoting eco-tourism. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
What measures has the Odisha tourism department taken to increase the inflow of foreign tourist arrivals (FTA) in the state over the past couple of years?
Compared to 2015, the FTA footfall in Odisha has gone up. In 2015, it was around 62,000; now it has gone up to approximately 76,000.
What factors propelled this growth?
Bhubaneshwar recently held the 22nd Asian Athletic Championship, where various international hockey players participated. Apart from that, we designed a light and sound show at Dhauli, which is a historical place. In 261 BC, Emperor Ashoka fought the Kalinga War here, which we are depicting through the show.
Additionally, we initiated the Viability Gap Funding (VGF) and are now financially supporting the AirAsia operation from Bhubaneshwar to Kuala Lumpur to enhance international connectivity, which has improved footfalls.
We have also worked hard to ensure the safety and security of foreign tourists. We opened tourism helpdesks across eight police stations in the state, particularly on the coastal side, including Puri, which is a popular tourist spot.
We also strengthened mobile patrolling along the marine roads and have created a tourist emergency fund with the collector, which can be used to financially help tourists in case of any mishap. Recently, some homestay owners cheated a few foreign tourists and we immediately intervened to ensure justice was meted out.
We realised that many tourists, especially foreign nationals, are keen to visit tribal areas. Hence, we relaxed norms to facilitate these excursions. There are over 62 tribal groups in Odisha, some of which are primitive and therefore, vulnerable. We are providing guided tours to help visitors appreciate their culture and traditions.
Besides AirAsia, are you working with other airlines companies to create a cohesive travel ecosystem and increase visitor footfalls?
A year and half ago, when we expressed an interest for tie-ups with airlines, SilkAir and couple of other companies responded. Ultimately, things clicked with AirAsia. We are keen for similar initiatives with other airlines, especially for regions like the Middle East.
We wish to expand AirAsiaâ€™s service to other cities. I believe from 1st December, 2017 they are starting operations from Bhubaneshwar to Bangkok. We are planning some new routes soon in the South Asia and Southeast Asia with AirAsia.
I also believe our VGF initiative will pay good dividend as South Asia and Southeast Asia have a large Buddhist population and Odisha has a rich Buddhist heritage, which will attract these religious tourists. We have requested the India government to a sanction a Buddhist circuit to Odisha. We have already submitted our detailed project report to the government on this subject and are awaiting a positive response.
How are you planning to attract domestic travellers to Odisha as well?
There are more than 8 crore domestic tourist footfalls in Odisha annually. We are trying to update the infrastructural facilities in many places, whether Puri, Lingaraj or in the tribal places. We have spent roughly INR 300 crore in the past three years in updating infrastructure facilities at these tourist places â€“ whether it is setting up a toilet complex, interpretation centre, street lighting or low-cost accommodation.
With AirAsia, we are planning routes in the domestic sector, whether it is Ahmedabad or Varanasi. We are also participating at trade exhibitions and have been advertising about Odisha Tourism at prominent places like Delhi and Mumbai airport, and even in Mumbai metros.
What business-friendly initiatives have your department undertaken to encourage hospitality companies to invest in the state?
We had the 50th Golden Jubilee celebration of FHRAI recently and subsequently held the â€˜Make in Odishaâ€™ convention. A month ago, we organised IATO convention. Additionally, we announced the Tourism Policy 2016 that offers lots of incentives for the hospitality sector. This includes land bank availability and subsidy on interest. All these will definitely inspire the hospitality sector to invest in the state.
We also plan to develop a water sports complex and boost adventure sports, since we have a 430-kilometre coastline and have recently received approval from the government for the coastal circuit scheme. So, we are developing the infrastructural support on the coastal side. Moreover, we have signed a MoU with the state forest department for developing eco-tourism or eco-tourist cottages, which is an interesting opportunity for hoteliers.
Have you set timelines for initiatives like the MoU with the forest department?
In this particular MoU, we might provide the forest department with funds or suppose we have the property, we will give it to them on lease. So it is a collaborative effort and we will try to develop it as soon as possible.
Can you give some examples of how hoteliers will benefit if they invest in a large land bank in the state?
With the new tourism policy, we now have central processes and single-window clearance, which will facilitate land purchase. In some places, we are even ready to provide funds. Suppose somebody is interested in investing near the coastline, we will help in getting clearance from the forest department. This will help in augmenting economy for eco-cottages alongside the coastal side, and the lagoons. We are willing to extend that much support.
Have any independent hotels or chains availed of these opportunities yet?
Not yet. We received some proposals and are processing it now. However, no MoUs have been signed yet.
Talking about improved connectivity to Odisha, do you think the hub-and-spoke model unveiled by the Central government will give tourism a boost in the state?
No. The Indian government started it in some places, but we found that passengers do not prefer changing flights to further destinations. Instead, AirAsiaâ€™s direct flights have been very popular and are running to full capacity. So, the hub and spoke policy has not helped us much. I am hopeful that with second airport coming up at Jharsuguda in Western Odisha, things will improve.
Is the tourism ministry undertaking any other initiatives in Odisha to encourage tourism in the state?
We are debuting the Travel Bazaar in October, where we expect around 200 delegates, including tour operators and hoteliers from across India and other countries. We have actively participated in industry events organised by ITAO and FHRAI and will continue to do so.