Karnataka tourism will require at least 18 months to recover says C T Ravi

The COVID-19 lockdown has hit several sectors hard, especially tourism. Karnataka, with its ‘One State, Many Worlds’ motto, has a steep challenge to scale in reviving the sector. Tourism Minister C T Ravi tells Bharath Joshi that reviving tourism is difficult, but not impossible.

What has the lockdown done to Karnataka’s tourism?
Tourism has stopped 100%. Tourism contributes 14.8% to our gross state domestic product (GSDP). By that calculation, the total loss in the sector is about Rs 7,000 crore. There are some 3.5 million people dependent on tourism, which includes hotels, taxis, tourist guides, travel agents and the hospitality sector as a whole.

It can be argued that promoting tourism wouldn’t make sense given that COVID-19 will still be around.
It appears so because there’s no mindset to travel right now. Even those who had booked their tickets in advance have cancelled. This is the reality. Travel has collapsed due to the fear of the coronavirus. But why is this fear there? Will the fear last forever? It must go away after some time. When one moves from light to darkness, it’s scary at first, and then you get used to it.

What’s the government’s plan to revive tourism in a post-COVID world?
Well, immediately, no tourist will come from other states or countries. So, there’s no need for us to attract them. We have conceptualised the ‘Love Your Native’ (sic) plan. We want to slowly change the mindset of people in favour of tourism. The key is to drive home the message that there’s safety and hygiene, especially when there’s more awareness on personal safety and health. You know, people complied with the lockdown and started wearing masks not because we asked them to, but because they wanted to be safe themselves. Also, we need to learn to live with this (virus).

So, what exactly is this campaign?
In Chikkamagaluru, which I represent, there’s Mullayanagiri, Kemmangundi, Ballarayana Durga, Hebbe Falls, Sirimane Falls…80% of people haven’t seen all this. Once they start coming to these places, local homestays and small businesses will start operations. Likewise, many people of Ballari haven’t seen Hampi, people in Bagalkot haven’t seen Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal, Raichur people haven’t seen Malliabad Fort, Chitradurga has its fort and the Shanti Sagar…this will help revive tourism by 30%.

What comes after that?
The second plan is to attract inter-district tourists under the ‘Nodu Baa Nammoora’ concept. When it comes to tourism, Karnataka has everything except snow…beaches, adventure, nature, heritage, culture. There are no beaches in North Karnataka, whose people can go to the coast. In exchange, people from the coast can head to the north for its heritage and culture. We expect this to revive tourism by 50%. The ‘Love Your Native’ (sic) and ‘Nodu Baa Nammoora’ campaigns will be run for about six months after the lockdown, by which time we expect the fear of the virus to have gone away. That’s when we will promote inter-state tourism, with an assurance to people on safety and hygiene. In the fourth phase, we will look at international tourists. We will attract them through MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions).

How long will it take for tourism to return to normal?
It’ll take a minimum of one-and-a-half years. I think that’s the time required for the global scenario to change. So, until then, we will focus on survival, before we get into revival. We can also promote our tourist destinations virtually. Virtual tours will create curiosity, besides generating a very small share of revenue. One day, those who take these virtual tours will come here.

What about infrastructure development at tourism destinations?
There’s an economic crisis because of the lockdown. There’s no clarity on what the revised budget will look like. Also, there’s no clarity on how much we will get from the Centre. We do have an advantage: Our advertising spend of about Rs 80-100 crore can be used under the capital head for infrastructure development. But then, it was with great difficulty that we paid the April and May salaries to employees of the Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation and Jungle Lodges. I don’t know about the June and July salaries.

Clearly, Kerala and Goa are eating into Karnataka’s tourism potential.
Internationally, Karnataka isn’t very well known. People know Goa, Kerala and even Bengaluru. They don’t know Hampi or Belur-Halebidu, which have been branded differently. Four-fifths of all travel itineraries are prepared by travel agents. If there’s nothing in it for them, someone on a 5-day tour will end up seeing only Agra, or Kerala if that person comes south. So, our targeting needs to be proper. Now that the Centre has allowed airport development under public-private partnership, connectivity will improve, which in turn will promote tourism. NRI Kannadigas, with whom I spoke recently, also stressed on the need for direct flights, besides the lack of familiarity with what the state has to offer in tourism.

What happened to the development of masterplans for 21 destinations?
There’s a problem with coordination between departments. The Department of Archaeology, Museums & Heritage will not permit something planned by the Public Works Department. Also, our approach needs to change. Right now, we release the budget first and then plan. If you have Rs 200 crore distributed to 30 things, nothing gets done. Instead, we should take up works commensurate with the budget and do them properly. So, my plan is to come up with a comprehensive plan and attract private investment.

What can we expect in the new tourism policy?
We’ve been doing our homework on the new policy with all stakeholders for the last one year. But we aren’t in normal circumstances anymore. With the COVID-19 crisis, we’ll have to think differently.

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