Browsing the pictures he shot through the day, Nils Wethmar looks enthralled. It’s not only the ghats and the temples of Varanasi, the holy city of Hindus, which caught his attention.
“I’m really fascinated by electioneering here. I went to this political rally and was thrilled to see supporters standing in such hot conditions and continuously screaming to attract their leader’s attention,” said the 24-year-old student from a college in Hamburg, Germany.
“It will be interesting to see how [BJP’s PM candidate] Narendra Modi or [AAP leader] Arvind Kejriwal fight corruption and improve infrastructure,” he said.
Unlike Nils, 24-year-olds Ali and Grace, freelance art directors from California, did not actually come to Varanasi to be part of the elections but are now “keenly watching the events which will shape India’s future”.
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They are not alone. In Varanasi, the stage for the big Modi-Kejriwal-Ajay Rai (Congress) fight, political tourism is booming, ironically when the ‘off season’ of tourism has kicked in.
Manish Sharma, chairman of an Ahmedabad-based Gujarat Tourism Development Society, said, “We have a 380-strong group from countries such as UK, Germany, France, US, China and UAE who will visit Varanasi shortly. It’s a six-night, seven-day package which includes food, stay, visit to political rallies and interaction will leaders in Varanasi, Allahabad and Delhi. One group comprises 65 to 70 persons. We’re charging $1,200 per person.”
Ali and Grace, freelance art directors from California are now “keenly watching the events which will shape India’s future”. (Rajesh Kumar/HT photo)
Besides, a group of 200 led by Chicago resident Binu Bhai Chaudhary, 38, would visit Varanasi, he said. “Recently, 600 foreign tourists had a poll trip to Delhi.”
The city has become the focus of international media houses. Political analysts and party workers are also flooding it.
Gokul Sharma, general secretary of the Varanasi Hotels Association, said, “The peak tourist season in Varanasi runs from October to March. Off season runs from April to September. Compared to the first 15 days of April last year, there is a clear jump. Enquiries for hotel bookings have picked up. By the time the elections are over, we’re expecting an additional business of 35%.”
“Star hotels are mostly occupied by security personnel and mediapersons. Foreign students interested in witnessing the big fight are going for budget hotels. The administration has itself booked 10 to 15% rooms in most hotels for its polling staff,” he said. There are about 800 registered hotels in Varanasi.
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UP government’s regional tourism officer in Varanasi Ravindra Mishra said, “The response is very good because of the elections. There is a palpable jump in tourist influx but we will be able to quantify it only sometime later. Journalists from states like Delhi, Gujarat, West Bengal and Bihar are coming.”
Congress workers distribute pamphlets to commuters in Varanasi. (Rajesh Kumar/HT photo)
Hotelier Pradeep Narain Singh said, “People, particularly those from global media houses, have returned. But the rush will begin again when nominations start on April 17. We’re expecting a bumper jump when Modi files his papers and does a road show on April 22.”
Full coverage: Lok Sabha elections 2014