Uttarakhand’s tourism policy is unfortunately based primarily on the Char Dham Circuit. Though the number of people undertaking this pilgrimage is mind boggling and it does contribute substantially to Government’s kitty, yet its benefit is limited to the people living in the four towns. Bus loads of pilgrims’ breeze through the State doing all the four Dhams in as little as 4 days. Focusing excessively on the Char Dhams downplays the importance of development of tourism in other parts of the State and prevents more equitable distribution of economic gains. Facilities developed for pilgrims may not be appropriate for general tourists.
An indicator to the sad state of affairs is the virtual absence of foreign tourists in Uttarakhand. Barely 0.75% of all foreign tourists visited Uttarakhand in 2006. Growth in absolute numbers was 12.2%, way below the National average of 14.7%. Comparison with Himachal Pradesh reveals an even more sorry state of affairs. (See table)
To encourage tourists, basic changes need to be incorporated into Uttarakhand’s tourism policy. Building five star hotels in Dehra Dun, airports or helipads will not improve the situation. It may increase the arrival of very wealthy travelers but the employment it will generate for locals only be as porters and dish washers. Also a very small percentage of domestic and foreign tourists will travel by air or helicopters in Uttarakhand or stay in 5 star hotels in Dehra Dun.
The answer could lie in building a huge number of small but modern and comfortable 3 - 4 roomed hotels in all villages of Uttarakhand. They could be built by the Government in land belonging to locals, who could then be employed by the Government to run it and once the Government recovers the amount it invested, the hotel should be handed over to the locals and another new hotel built and started in the same village. That would change the face of Uttarakhand and also reverse the mass migration of men to the plains.
Marketing of these hotels must be done by GMVNL even after the hand over. Almost all villages of Uttarakhand are exceptionally beautiful and can serve as weekend hangouts for urban people, as a place of relaxation for the stressed out and as places of inspiration for writers and poets, if properly marketed.
The existing GMVNL hotels need a major overhaul. At present they can best be classified as budget hotels catering to lower middle class tourists. Even though they are cheap, middle class and foreign tourists look for quality and don’t mind paying more for it. Smelly carpets, stained bed sheets, out of order bath rooms are common in all GMVNL guest houses. The brand new GMVNL Guest House at Raithal is a typical example. When we visited it 2yrs ago, none of its bathrooms were functional. Sinks were leaking, flush was broken and water from the bathroom floor drained into the bedroom! GMVNL should charge a lot more than what it presently charges for its rooms, but it must give a much better service. In smaller places it is usual to find one person doubling or tripling as the manager, cook cleaner and receptionist, all in one! This doesn’t give a professional appearance.
Another problem with the GMVNL hotels is the food. The Canteen is given on contract for one year to the highest bidder. This contractor needs to extract maximum money from his guests and knows that he does not have to deal with repeat visitors nor does he have to cater to a brand image and he is also not sure about his continuing the contract next year. All these factors result in poor food quality. While on our way from Raithal, we stopped at Uttarkashi GMVNL Guest House for breakfast. Food was atrocious and parathas came in the shape of a map of India! We were later told that the only cook was on leave that day.
Not all GMVNL hotels have a cook though, the one in Hanol had no contractor at all, as the contract rates were allegedly too high, and tourists are left to fend for themselves in the middle of a jungle. The system of Contractors needs to be reviewed as it is ultimately brand GMVNL which suffers.
Knowing that most tourists will not go to Dehra Dun to complain, sometimes GMVNL staff can be outright rude to tourists. At times rooms are not given to walk in tourists even when they are vacant, as the hapless tourists have no way of confirming the actual status of accommodation. Managers and Complaint books are rarely available even when asked for. To avoid such situations, all GMVNL hotels could have an Information board displaying the current bookings and of the next few days and the mobile numbers of the Manager and his immediate superior. Encouraging positive and negative feedback will go a long way in improving GMVNL.
Another common turnoff is the dirt and garbage. Starting from the banks of the Ganga in Haridwar and Rishikesh right up to Gangotri, the banks of this holy river are strewn with human feces and filth. It is impossible to stand along the river bank, leave alone taking a stroll along it. A river comparable to Ganga is Nile in Egypt. Its banks are the prime attraction in all cities it flows by and strolling down the bank is an enchanting experience for tourists and locals alike. Also glaring is the absence of public toilets in most places. When present they are inadequate in numbers and most people prefer open spaces to them.
During yatra time, it is a common sight to see tourist buses stopping in scenic places, with some people preparing food and dozens of others relieving themselves in the open. They leave behind huge amounts of litter and also risk starting forest fires. Drivers of tourist buses leaving Rishikesh should be warned against this and if still found, penalized heavily. All vehicles leaving Rishikesh should also be checked for pollution.
Uttarakhand could also be the first in India to have a specialized Tourist Police. Expecting regular police to be tourist friendly is not realistic. Instead special educated English speaking young local men should be enrolled into a Tourist Police with a distinct uniform. They should be available in train stations, bus stops, taxi stands and patrol most tourist sites. This will enhance tourist confidence and prevent their exploitation. Tourist Police Patrol Vans should move up and down the roads in the hills regularly instead of waiting at specific points. They should be able to catch people dirtying the countryside and be involved in keeping the banks of Ganga / Yamuna and other tourist places clean.
Waste disposal from hotels needs to be looked into. Hotels often pollute the area they are in, by simply dumping all the garbage down the hill. Tourists should be encouraged to report such hotels to GMVNL which then should forward the information to concerned authorities. Expecting well meaning tourists to search out Corporators or village headmen or Pollution board for complaints is ridiculous. One of the responsibilities of the Tourist Police could be to prevent such pollution.
Marketing of Uttarakhand as a tourist destination should not be limited to TV advertisements. A 24hrs toll free helpline and a 24hrs live chat at GMVNL Website could be started, with expert personnel ready to woo tourists. Bookings should also be accepted by phone /chat and amount manually charged using a Credit Card Machine. This helpline / chat line should also accept feedback / complaints from tourists. While GMVNL Guest houses can be booked online, online booking of bus tickets should also be started. In places where GMVNL does not have a guest house, it should book with reputed hotels / guest houses on behalf of tourists, instead of just referring them. Forest Rest Houses could also be booked by GMVNL on behalf of tourists, as direct booking is a cumbersome procedure. This will open a much wider and richer area for tourism.
Adventure tourism has a great potential in Uttarakhand. At present, it is very difficult for lay tourists to differentiate reliable operators from fly-by-night operators. A list of registered Adventure Tour Operators and their contact details should be available on the GMVNL website. This will serve as an incentive to operators to ensure minimum safety norms and enhance consumer confidence.
Finally, to enable the local youth in villages to gain more meaningful employment other than as porters or dish cleaners, outreach programs should be started to train them as Tourist Guides, with relevant local information. With a certificate in hand, with a hotel nearby and with the Tourism Police in vicinity, they will contribute much more to the economic development of Uttarakhand than building 5 star hotels in Dehra Dun.
Uttarakhand is second to none as far as natural beauty is concerned and it would be beneficial if we could attract well spending middle class tourists and foreigners to our State. Increase in the number of pilgrims should not lull us into complacency. We must empower the local population all over the State to benefit from tourism, only then will a new dawn break over Uttarakhand.
||Get Updates||Get SMS Updates|