Hyderabad: In mid-January, Telangana was getting ready to host the third edition of the International Kite Festival along with the first-ever International Sweets Festival. The Department of Tourism was expecting three lakh people to attend the three-day long spectacle in Hyderabad. But over eight lakh people visited Parade Grounds, where the events were being held from January 13 to 15. This is Telangana Tourism, always exceeding expectations and raising the bar by a few notches.

Blessed with rich history and cultural heritage, flora and fauna, and natural beauty, India’s youngest state Telangana, through careful planning and implementation, is steadily making its presence felt on the world tourism radar and telling tourists from far and near that theirs is a destination to “visit for all reasons and all seasons.”

India’s youngest state is on an overdrive to promote Brand Telangana. Blessed with rich history and cultural heritage, flora and fauna, the destination to ‘visit for all reasons and all seasons,’ is witnessing a steady rise in the number of tourists to places like Warangal, without affecting the inflow to Hyderabad

Steady Rise in FTAs

Foreign Tourist Arrivals (FTAs) have increased over the years. In 2014, when the new State came into being, the number stood at 64,000. Today, it is three lakh plus and the target is to cross 10 lakh FTAs by 2020.
The major source markets for FTAs are the UK, USA, Germany, Bangladesh and the Middle East. But most of the visitors travel for business to Hyderabad. Their duration of stay is short and there is hardly any time for leisure. Telangana wants to focus on DMCs to attract leisure travellers who can spend more time and money in the State. In 2018, Telangana Tourism will be at ITB Berlin, WTM London and PATA Travel Mart, Langkawi.

Telangana rocks when it comes to MICE, thanks to state capital Hyderabad. Every year, at least 20 big international meets and 30-40 national level events are hosted by the city primarily because of the world-class infrastructure (HITEX Exhibition Center and HICC), salubrious climate, excellent connectivity and reasonable cost. “2017 was the best year for Telangana Tourism,” says a visibly happy Azmeera Chandulal, Minister for Tourism and Culture, Government of Telangana. He should be –The Union Ministry of Tourism awarded Telangana in eight different categories. “This is a tremendous validation for our efforts in the last few years. We have had to do things very differently to stand apart from some of the other states which have established themselves as tourist destinations over the years. We are not on the Golden Triangle or the sea route, nor do we have Ayurveda. We also have very tight budgets; so we have to be innovative and frugal”.

Brand Telangana has indeed been on an overdrive. “We hosted foreign delegates, including the Advisor to the President of the United States Ivanka Trump, and later, eight US Congressmen. Apart from the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES), we hosted the World Telugu Conference, 78th SKAL International World Congress, and many more prestigious events,” informs B Venkatesham IAS, Secretary, Tourism & Culture and MD, Telangana State Tourism Development Corporation (TSTDC). “It was a busy year, but the outcome is that Telangana and its capital city Hyderabad were highlighted on the global map in 2017”.

Attractions Outside Hyderabad

A common perception has been that Hyderabad is the only tourism spot in Telangana and to counter it, Telangana Tourism conducted 14 road shows in 2017 focussing on cities such as Jaipur, Lucknow, Pune and many places in the North East region, a major source market for visitors seeking education and health. The results are showing already with Warangal emerging as a major tourism hub, without affecting tourist inflow to Hyderabad. This year, the Government is increasing the number of road shows and exploring more Tier II cities. “We are working with travel agents and tour operators in these cities, and planning FAM tours as well” adds Sunita M Bhagwat IFS, Commissioner of Telangana Tourism.

Central Government Assistance

Tourism’s contribution to Telangana’s State GDP is around 6-7 per cent only. The Department wants to grow it but is faced with a chicken and egg situation. As a new State, the administration has to address human welfare areas like hospitals, schools, water and power first. Once those are taken care of, then it can put more funds into tourism. As of now, it is more of ‘earn and spend’ if not for Central Government assistance.

An amount of Rs. 84.40 cr has been sanctioned by the Government of India and of this, Rs. 38.37 cr has already been released for the year 2016-17. The financial assistance was sanctioned under the Swadesh Darshan Scheme for developing projects such as Integrated Development of Eco-Tourism Circuits at Mulugu, Laknavaram, Tadvai, Medavaram, Damaravi, Mallur and Bogatha waterfalls.

Another Rs. 99.42 cr was sanctioned by the Centre for the development of Heritage Circuits – Qutub Shahi Heritage Park, Paigah Tombs, Hayat Bakshi Mosque and Raymond’s Tomb under the HRIDAY Scheme in 2017. Of this, Rs. 19.88 cr has already been released for the year 2017-18. The Central Government is also considering providing financial assistance of about Rs. 98.98 cr for the development of Devarakonda, Bhongir, Rajapeta, Khammam and Rachakonda Forts under the HRIDAY Scheme and a financial assistance of about Rs. 104.66 cr under Swadesh Darshan Scheme for the development of Tribal and Eco-Tourism Circuits in Adilabad is also under consideration.

However, the industry is not pleased. Says Ranga Reddy, Chairman, IATO (AP and Telangana State Chapters), “It is three years since Telangana came into being and we are yet to see the Tourism Policy. We really hope some of the pressing problems get addressed: Tourist Guides and their training and certification; renovation of old tourism properties; introduction of small boats; building forest lodges/safaris; creating road side amenities/facilities; simplifying and rationalizing road transport permit systems.”

Plans for 2018

“Our focus will be to enhance FTAs. We want to be in the top 10 nationally which we will achieve through development of new destinations,” informs Minister Chandulal. “We have conducted baseline studies to identify destinations and tourism circuits with potential. We have proposed a Tribal Circuit in the Warangal area covering integrated development of Mulugu-Laknavaram-Medaram (Sammakka Saralamma Jatara)-Tadvai-Damaravai-Mallur-Bogatha Waterfalls and an Eco-Tourism Circuit in Mahbubnagar area spanning Somasila and Singotam Reservoirs, Akka Mahadevi Caves, Srisailam, Farhabad, Mallela Theertham and Uma Maheswaram Temple. The Government of India has sanctioned both under their Swadesh Darshan scheme,” he says.

Adventure Tourism

Adventure Tourism will undoubtedly be a major focus for the Department as there is great scope for the sector in the State. The Government of India’s Ministry of Tourism has formulated detailed guidelines for ensuring minimum standards in Adventure Tourism activities such as mountaineering, trekking, paragliding, bungee jumping and river rafting. Registration of Adventure Tourism operators has also been made compulsory. Boating at Laknavaram Lake, rock climbing at Bhongir Fort and several other adventure sports are already attracting crowds from other states.

“We have Bhongir Fort, the single largest monolithic rock in entire Asia. People train at the Bhongir Fort hills and scale Mount Everest as it offers a 90 degree fall at 700 ft. Malavath Poorna, the youngest girl to climb Mount Everest and her fellow ‘swaero’ Anand Kumar trained here,” says Secretary Venkatesham. The State is planning to build gondolas here. A cable car system will be ready in a year. Rs. 50 cr was allocated in 2016 towards this. Close by is Lakshmi Narasimha Temple/Yadagirigutta where the Government is spending a whopping Rs. 2,000 cr. Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao envisions this to be Telangana’s Tirupathi!

Water Sports

Irrigation projects are drawing huge crowds and fast turning into tourist spots of Telangana. Adding more attractions, the State Government took a decision in January 2018 to introduce water sports and various facilities for tourists at all irrigation projects and tanks in the State. The orders came in the wake of the Chief Minister’s recent instructions for developing lake view guesthouses and recreation facilities on the waterfront of irrigation projects and water tanks to create new tourist attractions.

The Kotepally Dam is attracting over 10,000 tourists on weekends and holidays, thanks to kayaking. The brainchild of Member of Parliament from Chevalla, Konda Vishveshwar Reddy who introduced 14 double kayaks and 10 single kayak boats, not only made Kotepally Dam a most sought after water sports destination near Hyderabad, but also created employment for 35 local youth, including five women, and indirect employment for about 100 people.

Eco-Tourism

It is not just the Department of Tourism but the Department of Forest is also doing its bit to promote tourism. The boost in eco-tourism receipts in Bhupalpally district which has over 75 per cent forest cover is one such case. The department now plans to introduce on the itinerary Gaddalasari waterfall, the third-highest waterfall in the country, as a major tourism spot. Plans are afoot to develop several amenities for visitors at the waterfall located near Veerabhadravaram village in Bhupalpally.

The eco-tourism activities launched in Bhupalpally district in September 2017 have focused on four locations found suitable for rock climbing, trekking, celebration of Laknavaram festival and setting up of Tadvai Huts and such others. Bhupalpally has received over 2000 visitors since inauguration. The six Tadvai Huts furnished with three-star amenities including air-conditioning have been a big attraction.

The Forest Department is working on identifying more tourist spots. In October last, a new tourist spot was opened at Amarabad Tiger Reserve called ‘Octopus Viewpoint’, located five km from Domalpenta. It offers a view of River Krishna and the adjoining forests. This tourist spot is 42 km from Mannanur on the Hyderabad-Srisailam highway. The Department is building a watch tower and a forest trail for visitors to have closer and first-hand experience of the forest.

Warangal, the New Tourism Hub

Hyderabad is no more the only major tourist destination in the State, with Warangal emerging fast as a worthy contender for the top spot. “Telangana Tourism is keen on attracting crowds to Warangal, since the heritage city has hundreds of years of history to enthrall tourists. We have seen a rise in both foreign and domestic tourists here, and we plan to promote the city better in 2018,” says Minister Chandulal.

The State has to invest heavily in infrastructure projects if Warangal has to become foreign tourist friendly. However, that is not how the Department views it. “Warangal cannot support international tourists today like say Hampi or Mahabalipuram,” concedes Secretary Venkatesham. “We want to focus on the domestic leisure traveller first. Hence, we are building Warangal as a home stay destination. By the end of 2018, we should have 250 home stays ready. The target being 1000 by 2020.”

Warangal has a Master Plan and is receiving Central Government aid under three schemes: HRIDAY (Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana), AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation of Urban Towns) and SCM (Smart City Mission), a rarity in India. The State Government has also chipped in. The city of lakes also has beautiful monuments of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu origin very similar to Angkor Wat in Cambodia that attracts two million FTAs a year! “Once the tourism receipts start pouring in thanks to domestic tourism and the State builds basic infrastructure using the Central schemes, I am certain, private players will also look at Warangal,” hopes Commissioner Bhagwat.

About 10 km from Narsampet town and 57 km from Warangal city, Pakhal lake is one of the few unpolluted lakes in India. It was constructed by Kakatiyan ruler Ganapatideva in 13th century AD. Of late, it is attracting migratory birds in large numbers. The Tourism Department constructed seven cottages and a restaurant, among other facilities, at the eco-tourism resort near the lake. At an estimated cost of Rs. 1.5 crore, the facilities were thrown open to the public last March. The Forest Department plans to develop Pakhal lake, which is part of the Pakhal wildlife sanctuary, at an estimated cost of Rs. 1 crore in a bid to promote eco-tourism in the district.

While trekking and day camping facilities are available near the lake, officials plan to arrange a canopy walkway (treetop walk), which is likely to cost Rs. 15 lakh. The department is also setting up an environmental education centre and a herbal park with 200 varieties of medicinal plants is on the cards.

Medical Tourism

Competitive pricing, air connectivity and quality healthcare are turning Hyderabad into a major hub for medical tourism in the country. On an average, every month about 1000 foreign nationals visit the city on medical tourism. People from African countries such as Tanzania, Somalia, Nigeria, Middle East, CIS and South East Asia come to Hyderabad for complex heart surgeries, joint replacements, brain and spine surgery using robots, bone marrow transplants, cancer treatment, bariatric surgery, and preventive health checks. In Hyderabad, the number of medical tourists is growing 20-30 per cent annually.

Currently, Medical Value Travel (MVT) is taking place because of the efforts of individual hospitals. The Department is engaging with all major players like Apollo Health City, Care Hospitals, Yashoda Hospital, Aware Gleneagles Global Hospital, Sunshine Hospital, MaxCure Hospitals, Continental Hospital, Citizens Hospital, Global Hospital and KIMS Hospitals, to bring them under one umbrella to market Hyderabad as a global MVT destination. “We are working on a Medical Tourism Policy to take Hyderabad to number 1 or 2 position in India,” says a confident Secretary Venkatesham.

Private Sector Investments

The industry argues that if Telangana has to exploit tourism outside of Hyderabad, then infrastructure including basic facilities needs to be addressed on a war footing. “Till now we have not offered incentives to private sector investors. We hope to open it up next year. Project approvals are already happening without any delay whatsoever,” says Commissioner Bhagwat.

Culture and Heritage

The Department is bullish on the Quli Qutub Shah Tomb project which has seen Rs. 200 cr being invested by the Government in association with the Aga Khan Foundation. The Bahmani dynasty ruled Hyderabad for over 100 years. It is very rare to see the entire dynasty having been laid to rest in the same area – 75 tombs in all on a 100-acre campus. “About 75 per cent of the work is complete, including the Interpretation Centre. At this pace, by 2020 this will be ready. A very big attraction is the elaborate gardens and the air cooled chambers,” adds Secretary Venkatesham.

Air Connectivity

New airports are being planned at Kothagudam (Khammam area), Warangal, and one more in Hyderabad on the west side, in the future. While the Department is doing its fair bit to attract tourists to Telangana, the grouse of the industry is that a lot of it is focussed on domestic tourists and not much effort is being directed towards FTAs. Argues Ranga Reddy of IATO, “Enough budget should be allocated for tourism like Kerala and Rajasthan, to participate in international tourism fairs along with trade partners and to invite international media to showcase the State’s tourism potential.”

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