Eight years ago, Punjab ranked 28th on tourist arrivals in the country, but now it’s placed at the 12th spot. This is still a long way from the top but state tourism director NPS Randhawa is happy with the rising numbers.
According to the Union ministry of tourism, the tourist arrivals in the state have more than doubled with the number of domestic tourists going up from 1.05 crore in 2010 to 2.57 crore in 2015, and the number of foreign tourists shooting up from 1.37 lakh to 2.42 lakh in the corresponding period.
AMRITSAR AT HEART
Urmiljit Khosa, manager, tourism statistics, says Amritsar attracts more than half of these tourists. Khosa attributes the recent surge in the number of foreign tourists visiting the Holy City to its geographic information system (GIS) mapping by the department through Bhuvan, the NASA server. “We are the first state in India to do so,” claims Khosa, as she clicks on the GIS icon on the Punjab Tourism website that shows you various hotels, taxi stands, places to sightsee etc, at that point in the city. Interestingly, the website is accessible in over 100 languages, including the likes of Tagalog and Zulu. The department is now in the process of installing touch-screen monitors to guide visitors.
Amritsar district tourism officer Balraj Singh says thanks to new tourist destinations such as Heritage Street, Golden Temple interpretation centre, Partition Museum, Sadda Pind, War Memorial, Ram Tirath Complex and Fort Gobindgarh, Amritsar has now become a three-day destination unlike the past when it was a day’s trip. Singh said: “The city receives around 1 lakh tourists a day of whom 50,000 stay back.” Around 70,000 to 80,000 people visit the Golden Temple every day and this number touches 1.5 lakh on the weekends.
Randhawa claims the revenue may soon outstrip the excise collection. In 2014-15, however, hotel and restaurant sector contributed 0.71% to the state GDP. The state declared tourism an industry in December 2012 and notified a revised tourism policy in November 2015, giving incentives to hoteliers, including VAT exemption. Late last year, new hotels were given an exemption from luxury tax of 40% as well as the licence fee.
Randhawa claims each tourist, especially from overseas, spends an average of Rs 5,000 a day. “Each tourist generates jobs for 2.5 people,” he added.
Randhawa, who’s been in the saddle for the last five years and helms both the department of culture and Punjab heritage and tourism corporation, says it’s the first time that the government has focused on tourism so aggressively. The expenditure on it has also been equally extravagant, with Randhawa pegging it between Rs 2,000 crore and Rs 3,000 crore. “The aim is to showcase our rich history and make adaptive reuse of our heritage buildings,” says Randhawa.
The monuments come at a price. Rs 300 crore, for instance, was spent on the entrance plaza and interpretation centre at the Golden Temple, and Rs 200 crore has been earmarked for Ram Tirath, birthplace of Luv and Kush.
The state has seen 20 memorials in the last eight years. And conservation work has been done on over 50 sites. Be it the Baradari Gardens at Nawanshahr (Rs 1.12 crore), Shahi Samadhi at Sangrur (41 lakh), old tehsil at Ajnala (Rs 59 lakh), Jhandewala Temple, Hoshiarpur (Rs 26 lakh), Krishan Temple at Kishan Kot in Gurdaspur (Rs 55 lakh), or the Quila at Patti in Tarn Taran (Rs 1.5 crore), all have reported work. This is besides extensive work in Amritsar and the erstwhile princely states.
MEMORIES AND COMMODITIES
Dr Sarabjit Singh Behl, head of the architecture department, Guru Nanak Dev University, who has designed Bhagwan Valmiki Tirath Sthal (Ramayana was written here) and Bhai Jaita Ji Memorial, says these monuments are a symbol of identity and culture, preserved or created to keep a link with the past. The drive, he says has helped to revive traditional architecture besides providing a great opportunity for local architects and designers.
Dr Parmod Kumar of the Institute of Development Communication, tells you how the memorial, Virasat-e-Khalsa, is a secular rendition of the Sikh history. “While there could be questions about implementation, the monuments and memorials play a vital role in making memories, essential for the survival of any civilisation,” he said.
But purists are not happy. Gurmeet Sangha Rai, director of the Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative says she would give Punjab government 60 out of 100 marks. Saying some buildings have been addressed more seriously than others, she rues how the government has not been sensitive to the authenticity, integrity and cultural legacy of some monuments, criticising the use of white marble and water in the Golden Temple plaza.
“My worry is that Punjab is on the road to blatant commodification,” says Rai, citing as an example the recent handover of the newly restored Gobindgarh Fort to the Mayanagri Theme Park after 69 years. “It’s a mockery of our heritage. Would we allow a theme park in the Red Fort?” asks Rai, who calls for involving the local communities in such projects.
Daljit Ami, an independent filmmaker, is also worried about the lack of community involvement in memorials. “They have been built by the Badal government, which is trying to appropriate the heritage for its political gains,” he says, warning that the Virasate-Khalsa, now so popular, could come under pressure from another government as it lacked community participation. Conservationists warn that a monument or memorial, which relied on government patronage alone would either fall into disuse or be misused.
But citing the steady rise in the tourist footfall, Randhawa hopes it will be neither of these two.
(WITH INPUTS FROM USMEET KAUR IN AMRITSAR)