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TOURISM CHUGS IT’S WAY INTO THE RAIL BUDGET

Welcoming the Union Rail Budget 2014-15, which has a focus on boosting tourism, Shripad Yesso Naik, Minister of State for Tourism and Culture, said that the initiatives announced to promote tourism, particularly the plan to take up eco and education tourism in North Eastern states, is a move in the right direction. Naik also thanked the Railway Minister for acceding to his request for identifying the Mumbai-Goa sector for increasing the speed of trains to 160-200 kmph to reduce travel time between the two major tourism centres. He said that these new initiatives will go a long way in promoting tourism in the country.

In the Rail Budget 2014-15, Railway Minister DV Sadananda Gowda emphasised on adopting the PPP model to fuel the growth of Indian railways. Gowda revealed that his ministry would also seek cabinet approval for allowing foreign direct investment in Railways. “The Railway Budget is banking heavily on the involvement of private investment, both domestic and overseas, for modernisation. The emphasis is clearly on improving efficiencies, passenger amenities with a promise to take them to global standards and the much-needed safety of passengers,” Rana Kapoor, President, Assocham said.

Harmandeep Singh Anand, Secretary General, Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI) stated that it is well known that the ratio of domestic travellers is phenomenally higher than Indians travelling overseas, and the measures proposed in the Budget will boost domestic tourism.

According to Sharat Dhall, President, Yatra.com, the railway sector is looking at a major infrastructural boost with the government being open to FDI and PPP. “We welcome the move and are certain that this will boost the growth of the tourism industry. Pilgrimage tourism for domestic travellers is a huge market which should get a big fillip with these initiatives as it will definitely help travellers plan their journeys better. Similarly, the budgeted outlay for increasing infrastructure in the North-East will help popularise this market for domestic tourism,” he opined.

Subhash Goyal, Chairman, STIC Travel Group believes that the rail budget was well balanced. “New routes have been identified, pilgrimage trains will start, there will be greater emphasis on cleanliness, food courts are going to be introduced, and some of the railway stations are going to be upgraded like airports. All this is going to impact domestic tourism,” he added.

Bringing a sigh of relief to the travel trade and end consumers alike, the Budget has also set aside an allocation for cleanliness. The cleanliness budget for Indian railways is up by 40 per cent over the last year. “This is one of the major concerns for the international tourists, especially those coming from Europe. Foreigners have always been complaining about poor hygiene in and around railways stations, cities, monuments, and other tourist places,” said Goyal.

Anand added that the idea of the Indian Railways outsourcing cleaning activities at 50 major stations to professional agencies and to set up a separate Housekeeping Wing to have focused attention and exclusive responsibility of maintaining cleanliness and sanitation at stations is indeed a much welcomed step in the right direction. “The railways are also going to a system of periodic third-party inspections. The best news is that bio-toilets will be increased in sufficient numbers in trains,” he said.

One of the key highlights of the Rail Budget is that it has decided to focus on eco-tourism and education tourism in North Eastern states. The seven sisters, which have only recently made it to the forefront of the Ministry’s plans in terms of tourism development, will gain fillip from this move. “North East has been a very sought after destination but poor infrastructure and transport facilities have led to a down trend in tourism to these states. We will surely see these states getting better with the budget allocated and are certain that this will encourage tourism to some of the most beautiful places in India,” said Dhall.

Agreeing with Dhall, Goyal stated that North Eastern States have immense potential to increase tourism. “However, very few international and domestic tourists go to the North East due to poor connectivity. Although our government is trying their best to increase domestic tourism by giving LTC through air, more efforts are required. Eco tourism and education tourism will increase tourist arrivals because these segments are becoming more popular,” he added.

Pilgrim tourism is set to get a boost with provisions made for specially packaged trains for Special Pilgrim Circuits in the Budget. Dhall commented that, with India being a pilgrimage hub, Yatra.com sees nearly 12 per cent bookings from this segment, especially around Diwali, Eid and Christmas. “We have always seen rail bookings for the pilgrimage routes as sold out and we are certain that we will see more than a 100 per cent increase in bookings for the special trains,” he added.

Goyal called this move the need of the hour. “Tour operators were selling package tours for different religions and making their own packages. Also, there are millions of NRIs who want to visit India for this purpose alone but do not do so due to lack of necessary infrastructure. Once these trains are started it will give a big boost to pilgrimage tourism in the country,” he said.

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