Exclusive Interview with Vishal K. Dev, Commissioner-cum-secretary for Tourism, Government of Odisha
The Marine Drive Eco Retreat is situated by the pristine Ramchandi beach, with the backwaters as a backdrop
Odisha Tourism is going all out to attract luxury travellers to the state, known for its impeccable blend of culture, natural attractions and heritage, says Vishal K. Dev, Commissioner-cum-secretary for Tourism, Government of Odisha, talking to us about the upcoming beach glamping event, the Marine Drive Eco Retreat.
What was the core idea of the Marine Drive Eco Retreat?
The Marine Drive Eco Retreat is situated by the pristine Ramchandi beach, with the backwaters as a backdrop. There is a sanctuary across the road and Konark Sun Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is just a mile away. The experience of staying at the Marine Drive Eco Retreat is unique.We want to invite tourists to explore India’s best-kept secret. We also need more per-capita expenditure from travellers for the sector to grow exponentially. We have one of the longest coastlines in the country. Activations such as the Marine Drive Eco Retreat would give a huge facelift to Odisha.We realised early last year that the Puri-Konark Marine Drive, despite housing a beautiful synthesis of heritage, nature, artistic finesse and food, was largely a day-tourism destination. Its potential as a pre-mium beach destination was underexplored. Given the grave impact of Cyclone Fani, we had fortified our vision with the principle of sus-tainability. But our quest to develop the destination as an experience-rich beach tourism hub of global standards was undaunted.The initial brainstorming sessions on beach camping and comparative studies on emerging segments, such as glamping, made us home in on this concept, which has worked wonders in destinations such as Kutch in Gujarat. Right from articulating the vision down to its specifics, to bringing about inter-departmental and multi-stakeholder consensus on the vision, to procuring the services of an experienced event curator, to planning the project development, including resource mobilisation and infrastructure works, a lot of intellectual, human and technological dedication has gone into it.
The Eco Retreat is offering visitors a unique experience of glamorous camping in 50 luxury cottages, with delectable cuisine, beach market and spa, adventure and water sports activities, nature trails and wholesome day itineraries, cultural evenings, and a lot more. It also has a fully-fledged corporate conferencing facility for 150 people. The concept of glamping or glamorous camping has caught on with not only the current generation but also with people of different age groups. One can experience unique luxurious accommodation offering, rich thematic ambience, a dedicated dining area and multiple options of staying in the Swiss cottages. The retreat has been developed as an environmentally sustainable model incorporating best practices in material utilisation, zero liquid, and sewerage discharge and holistic waste management.
Can you walk us through the costing of the project and the response to it.
The total investment in the project is just over INR 6 crore. The reception we have received has taken us all by surprise. In terms of check-ins, we have registered an occupancy of 58-60% of cumulative room nights, with the last two weeks registering almost 100% booking. By the conclusion of the Eco Retreat 2019 (by 31 Jan 2020), we should reach a cumulative occupancy of well over 70% of the total 2,400 room nights.Besides the event, our larger vision is to develop the different circuits and launch several initiatives (see the boxes). For that, we are looking at investing about 1000 crore for developing the basics and supporting infrastructure. We are also looking at investing INR 300-400 crore in publicity to promote Odisha Tourism, primarily in the national market, apart from select foreign markets.
Can you define the audience for the Eco Retreat?
Diverse groups of tourists are expected to flock to the Beach retreat. Families expect a complete package of fun, complete with food and other details.Youth groups desire thrills, adventure, food and an evening by the sea to let their hair down. Corporate offsites want a tech-leveraged place to host their sessions by the day and creative spaces for team activities. Couples across age groups want a getaway that makes their togetherness perfect. We, at the Marine Drive Eco Retreat, have universal appeal, with everything desirable for every group or individual. Our stays range from INR 6,000-a-day (Continental Plan) in the twin-sharing format to INR 25,000-a-day (American plan) for the small group (five people) format.
What is the long-term vision for Odisha Tourism?
Our tourism products are geographically dispersed throughout Odisha. While the state’s road network is excellent, we are working hard to complement it with air transport infrastructure. Our focus areas would include water sports and recreation; houseboat tourism and hospitality at Chilika Lake, Bhitarkanika Backwaters and Hirakud Reservoir; glamping initiatives like the Marine Drive Eco Retreat; homestays and heritage hospitality; upgrade of ecotourism facilities and products to cater to the luxury segments; and MICE tourism.Niche segments such as camping, water recreation and houseboat tourism are being increasingly explored to geographically diversify tourism and decongest the Golden Triangle. We have made great progress in water sports and recreation, with about seven prime projects operational within a year at destinations such as Ramchandi, Tampara, Barkul (Chilika Lake) and Gopalpur on Sea. We have also joined hands with the Surfing Federation of HIIndia to revive the surfing festival. Before the conclusion of FY21, we wish to see houseboats operating in the Chilika, Hirakud and Bhitarkanika backwaters. We are working closely with IWAI and Inland Water Transport Department to identify several navigable stretches of national waterways and other channels in Odisha for the operation of cruises. In a special initiative of cooperative federalism, we are collaborating with KSINC (Kerala State Inland Navigation Corporation) for receiving technical assistance in seeing the projects through.An unknown aspect of Odisha is its royalty heritage of 51 properties in the state. We hope to operationalise 19 heritage homestays by 2021. We will also be roping in hospitality brands to scale them up to heritage hotels, based on mutually agreeable modalities.
The Chief Minister of Odisha, Mr Naveen Patnaik, at the Marine Drive Eco Retreat.
Odisha often faces challenges of nature, such as Cyclone Fani. How do you deal with such eventualities?
Cyclone Fani-struck tourist destinations witnessed a drastic reduction in footfall to the tune of 75-80%. Apart from extensive loss comto public and private infrastructure, supply chains were disrupted. For a state like Odisha, known for its green cover, the loss of eco-tourism ambience inflicted a heavy toll. Post Fani, the estimates suggested that the damages borne by the public sector tourism properties amounted to about INR 25 crore, while the private sector suffered damages amounting to over INR 130 crore. The total revenue loss for the tourism sector was pegged at over INR 1300 crore. Incomes of close to 6 lakh people across Puri and Khordha, directly and indirectly dependent on tourism, were severely impacted, throughout May and June. Very recently, the northern coast of Odisha was also battered by Cyclone Bulbul. How did Odisha bounce back?The tourism and hospitality sectors in Odisha were able to bounce back to near 100% capacity in a matter of three-and-a-half months post-Fani. From a strategic perspective, we are working with travel enterprises and hoteliers to build infrastructure in a more sustainable manner. We are progressively evolving our Depart-mental Disaster Management Plan that comprises infrastructure resil-ience and standard operating proce-dures for messaging and evacuation based on the mapping of tourism zones. We are also working to ex-pand tourism towards the interiors, which would offer equally fulfilling and diverse experiences — including leisure, wildlife and ecotourism, heritage and handicrafts.
ODISHA’S 9 HIGH-VALUE TOURISM CIRCUITS
- The golden triangle: Bhubaneswar-Puri-Konark heritage cir-cuit
- Gopalpur-Tampara water sports, water recreation and leisure circuit.
- Chilika eco-tourism circuit: Mangalajodi-Rambha-Barkul-Sata-pada.
- Debrigarh: Hirakud eco-tourism circuit.
- The Buddhist circuit: Diamond Triangle-Langudi-Dhauli Giri-Jirang.
- Chandaka elephant reserve and Satkosia tiger reserve wildlife circuit.
- Rayagada: Koraput ethnic tourism circuit (including Deomali hills).
- Simlipal-Bhitarkanika wildlife circuit.
- Talsari-Chandipur-Beach Circuit
THE MARINE DRIVE ECO RETREAT’S MULTIFARIOUS OFFERINGS
It allows travellers to stay in the middle of nature’s bounty in a luxury cottage with an ambience and hospitality of a five-star hotel. They get a dedicated dining area and multiple stay options at the luxury cottages, replete with luxurious facilities as per their requirement.
Odisha is already known as the ‘Sports Capital of India’ and with a 480km coastline to boast of, we have started focusing on adventure sports as well. Everyone loves an adrenaline rush, especially when it involves the water. With activities such as jet-ski, speed boating, parasailing, ATV, archery, rifle shooting, bicycles, beach volleyball, zorbing, and water roller among others on the charts, the Eco Retreat promises to be a thrilling experience.
While the Ramachandi Sandbar makes for a therapeutic walk, the exclusive spa by the sea for guests offers the ultimate detox. The itinerary includes early morning nature trails in the Balukhand Sanctuary, which is the best way to resettle to your instinctive and natural best. You can chase the calm with the competitive zest of beach volleyball.
The evenings will be dedicated to live music concerts by India's indie artists.
While niche talent and folk artistes from across Odisha and India will exhibit their talents every evening, the weekends promise to resonate with the best of rock, Indie pop, folk genres, celebrity DJs and Bollywood’s known voices taking the stage and making you groove. The who’s who of the music industry who will perform at the event, including Euphoria, Indian Ocean, Harshdeep Kaur and Mame Khan, Benny Dayal, Papon, Divya Kumar, Salim Suleiman and Krishna Beuraa.