Mumbai: The first five-star resort in Konkan’s beach-lined Sindhudurg district, the state’s maiden agro-tourism policy, beach shacks, and a stadium experience tour for India’s cricket devotees — Maharashtra’s Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government has big plans for the state’s tourism sector.
Around the world, the tourism industry has been among the worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. But through this assault, the Maharashtra tourism department, usually seen as relatively quiet, has been buzzing with activity, courting a whole new level of limelight under its young, high-profile minister, Aaditya Thackeray, son of Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray.
The idea is to have the industry ready for revival when the threat of Covid-19 lifts.
Since the beginning of the year, the tourism department has sent at least five major policy decisions to the state cabinet, all of which have been approved.
Among other things, these decisions seek to put in place a framework to start shacks — the kind that dot Goa’s beaches and enjoy deep popularity among tourists — at eight beaches on Maharashtra’s stunning Konkan coast.
The other decisions centre on devising an agro-tourism policy that would draw tourists curious about the state’s agricultural offerings, a long lease with two hospitality giants for resorts, and reforming the tourism department’s land policy to allow private participation for its development.
Other proposals still in the works include setting up a board to promote and fast-track approvals for live events, and slashing the number of permissions required for setting up hotels in Maharashtra to 10 or less, sources in the state tourism department told ThePrint.
Aaditya, along with senior officials of the tourism department, also held a meeting with hospitality representatives on 16 September to discuss plans aimed at boosting the industry once the Covid crisis eases.
“The sector is abuzz with activity now. We have had some major decisions go to the cabinet in the past few months and have about three or four prime proposals coming up,” Valsa Nair Singh, principal secretary in the Maharashtra tourism department, said.
“The timing is bad as aviation and tourism are the two sectors worst affected by the pandemic, but we are using this time to consolidate all our infrastructure and policy framework, so that, when things start returning to normalcy, Maharashtra’s tourism industry will be ready to take off,” she added.
Aaditya’s ‘long-term vision’
In the first nine months of 2019, when the state was led by the erstwhile BJP-Shiv Sena coalition, the tourism department had presented three proposals before the cabinet. This, despite it being the year of not just the Lok Sabha polls but also the assembly elections, a time when incumbent governments try to push through decisions they believe will win public support.
The three policy decisions, all of which got the cabinet’s approval, were, setting aside Rs 12 crore to sponsor non-government exhibitions and events related to theatre, literature, sports etc, giving out tourism land to private companies for development on a minimum 30-year lease, and Goods and Services Tax (GST) returns to tourism projects.
The proposal for opening beach shacks on the Konkan coast had also come up in 2017, but it never saw the light of day.
Under Aaditya, say tourism officials who have worked closely with him, policy decisions have undergone a major shift, as the leader pursues his mandate with a “long-term vision”.
For Aaditya, 30, a debutant MLA and the youngest minister in Maharashtra, boosting the state’s tourism and cultural scene has been a dear cause.
He has for years been a vocal advocate of keeping recreational establishments in Mumbai open through the night, and one of his first steps as minister was pushing for permission to let malls, multiplexes and eateries in the city to operate 24×7 — a decision cleared by the state cabinet on a pilot basis this January.
Officials say Aaditya’s leadership has catapulted the tourism department to prominence.
“He came with big plans for tourism in Mumbai as well as the rest of the state. He looks at things with a long-term vision, like he is in it for the long haul and not to make some quick but petty gains,” an official of the tourism department said.
“It also helps that Aaditya Thackeray is above the board. He is the Chief Minister’s son. He has a good equation with ministers from the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) as well. He is seen as a young minister with potential, and even senior ministers like (Deputy Chief Minister) Ajit Pawar are extra generous to him.”
Those who have been working with the tourism department for a long time say the sector received this kind of attention only once in the last few years, when former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis kept the portfolio with himself after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government came to office in 2014. Fadnavis reallocated the portfolio to the BJP’s Jaykumar Rawal in the very first cabinet reshuffle in July 2016.
A new partnership
Aiding Aaditya’s push to boost Maharashtra tourism is another young dynast, Minister of State for Tourism Aditi Tatkare, 32. While Thackeray has an urban background, Tatkare, who has been a Zilla Parishad member in the Raigad district, is said to have a deeper touch with the grassroots.
Tatkare, a member of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), is the daughter of former MP and state minister Sunil Tatkare.
Speaking to ThePrint, tourism department officials said Aaditya and Aditi’s partnership helps them get a diverse range of ideas on the board.
Soon after signing a 90-year lease with the Indian Hotels Company (The Taj Group) for a resort at Shiroda in Sindhudurg, a proposal that was pending since 1994, Aaditya had tweeted, “As young ministers in the department, minister Aditi Tatkare ji and I see the potential and the value that tourism holds to our state. Just like the signing with Taj, we are working on multiple avenues to be opened up for tourism purposes in the state.”
As young ministers in the dept, minister @iAditiTatkare ji and I see the potential and the value tourism holds to our state. Just like the signing with Taj, we are working on multiple avenues to be opened up for tourism purposes in the State.
— Aaditya Thackeray (@AUThackeray) August 31, 2020
As part of efforts to keep the tourism industry ready for post-pandemic times, the tourism department conducted an internal survey this July to understand the most popular tourism avenues in Maharashtra, so that officials could work on infrastructure and frame policies accordingly.
At the same time, the department is revamping the state tourism website and plans to include more virtual experiences involving prime attractions.
With budgetary constraints amid the Covid-19 pandemic compelling the state government to effect a 67 per cent cut in development expenditure for 2020-21, the tourism department is also looking at smart social media hacks to market its new initiatives and the state’s tourism destinations.
For instance, last month, the department held a contest on Facebook, urging people to come up with the best tag line for Maharashtra tourism. It also held a photography and videography contest focused on the most picturesque tourist spots in Maharashtra. Aaditya is expected to announce the winners of both contests on 27 September, which is observed as World Tourism Day.
Aaditya has been especially keen on bolstering Mumbai tourism with ideas involving some low-hanging fruit — structures that have always been among the city’s iconic draws.
These include a proposed Wankhede stadium experience tour, with plans of audio guides in multiple Indian and foreign languages, a room to replay India’s 2011 World Cup victory at the ground, and showcasing memorabilia from cricketers, changing rooms, and so on.
According to sources in the state tourism department, Aaditya got this idea after visiting Camp Nou, the home stadium of the football club Barcelona, in Spain.
Other proposed projects centred on India’s financial capital include a cricket museum, and opening heritage buildings, such as the Mumbai civic body headquarters and Vidhan Bhavan, for tourism on weekends.
Some of these options, it is learnt, were discussed at a 9 September meeting, chaired by Aaditya, between the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the tourism department.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.