How India could reinvent its cities and boost tourism

  • Sanjoy Narayan, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Aug 31, 2015 09:27 IST

Anyone who visits Old Delhi, the 377-year-old city hidden in the heart of India’s capital, can see the condition that it is in: a congested decrepit mess. Its narrow roads, many of which have been untended for decades, spill over with traffic, people and hawkers; shops and enterprises are crammed into nooks and crannies everywhere; electric and telecom cables hang overhead above the streets in perilous tangles; and the state of its civic amenities, including water supply and garbage disposal, is abysmal. Yet, this old city, aka Shahjahanabad (the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built it in 1638), teems with history and heritage. Old Delhi has them all: monuments; mansions; tombs; and India’s largest mosque. Besides, it is redolent of old world culture, tradition and cuisine.

In Europe, much older cities are painstakingly preserved, restored and become a part of the living heritage for tourists, of course, but also for locals to cherish.

That’s the objective with which the Delhi government in 2008 set up the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation. But it has achieved zilch. Now, a new government and the city-state’s Lt. Governor (who are at loggerheads on other things) seem united on one thing: of saving Shahjahanabad and giving it back the glory it deserves. As readers will have observed, this newspaper too is contributing to that effort with its ongoing “Dilli 6: Revisiting Shahjahanabad” campaign. It’s not just Old Delhi whose restoration will have many benefits, India’s large and old cities all have a hidden potential: re-inventing them can boost tourism, an activity that has obvious multiplier effects on a city’s finances, the jobs it creates and the self-esteem it endows on its citizens.

In leading global cities, a key booster of tourism (both local and foreign) is to be found in the manner in which neighbourhoods re-do themselves. In New York’s Little Italy, the ubiquitous Italian restaurants, stores and even the faux Italian-American-mobster-film inspired accents that you can hear make it a big draw among tourists; next-door in Chinatown it is the same story, making it a must-do destination for not only foreign and out-of-town visitors but also people coming from other parts of the same city. London’s Chinatown or its Banglatown in Brick Lane are yet other examples of how neighbourhoods that began as ethnic settlements turn their uniqueness into tourist attractions.

Years ago, a Bengali friend who’d recently returned after visiting New Orleans gushed to me about how one neighbourhood of Kolkata — Park Street — could be developed like that American city’s French Quarter, which is a tourist magnet. He said Park Street could be Kolkata’s Bourbon Street (without the strip clubs, I guess!); the Hooghly River its Mississippi; and the annual Durga Puja its Mardi Gras. It’s not that hare-brained if you think about, really.

Older, larger Indian cities that have seen large-scale migration from other parts of India have the potential to turn colonies that may have started as quasi ghettos into attractive tourist destinations. Think of a weekly Bengali culture and food festival in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park; a Kashmiri weekend in Pamposh Enclave; a Parsi one in Mumbai’s Dadar Parsi Colony; or a Tamil one in the same city’s Matunga suburb.

Before dismissing such ideas out of hand, consider this. If citizens of neighbourhoods can join hands with entrepreneurs from their own communities to organise themselves and promote their distinct cultures, their cuisine and their art, could it not have a powerful impact? There would be the obvious economic benefits of tourism, certainly, but also intangible ones such as a boost to people’s pride in their identity.

Promoting tourism is an objective PM Narendra Modi has often talked about. In a ‘Mann ki Baat’ radio talk last summer, he urged tourists to tweet photographs of their travels around the country, which he could re-tweet. His ministry of tourism has drafted a new policy to promote India as a ‘Must Experience’ and ‘Must Revisit’ destination. But much more will be needed. India’s share in world tourist arrivals is a measly 0.68%. To double or treble that would call for out-of-the-box thinking. Re-inventing our urban neighbourhoods could be one such way to unleash India’s tourism potential.

Read | Dilli 6: The forgotten city

(Sanjoy Narayan is the editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times. He tweets as @sanjoynarayan)

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