In a move to elevate its status as a prime tourism destination, Punjab, a state already celebrated for its rich culture and heritage, has embarked on a transformative journey with a vision to establish itself as a global tourism hotspot. While domestic tourist arrivals have reached about 8,816,153, and foreign tourist arrivals stand at 278,155 between January to June 2023, Punjab government is going all out in its pursuit to join the competitive tourism race.
In an exclusive conversation with ETTravelWorld, Rakhee Gupta Bhandari, IAS, Principal Secretary of Tourism & Cultural Affairs, Government of Punjab, shares insights into the journey so far and what lies ahead for Punjab’s increasing prominence in tourism.
Marketing Punjab: the new era
Punjab has never aggressively marketed itself as a tourism destination. However, if late, the state seems to be realising immense potential in tourism, prompting a shift in its strategy, acknowledged Bhandari.
“We came to a realisation that there is a need to actively promote ourselves; we were just content, assuming that tourists would come to us naturally. However, the reality calls for an aggressive marketing plan to attract the numbers. Punjab rarely showcased itself on the tourism stage and there is a need to change this status quo,” asserted Bhandari.
“We have so much to offer. We need to put it out there for the world to know,” she added.
To get there, Punjab is working on various marketing strategies to develop the tourism interest among the travellers.
“Tourism needs to be talked about and therefore, we realise the importance of social media. It helps to develop connect with the travellers and plays an active role to engage and promote local stakeholders, such as hoteliers, farm stay owners and homestay operators in promoting Punjab’s tourism offerings,” she said, adding, “The ultimate goal is to promote Punjab as a year-round destination, not just during the peak tourist season.”
For the first time, the state held a Tourism Summit & Travel Mart, actively engaging the industry stakeholders. The event served as a launchpad for Punjab’s tourism objectives, attracting significant interest from potential investors looking to contribute to the advancement of the sector.
The event was preceded by roadshows that were held across key cities to generate the buzz around the summit.
“The aim was to introduce Punjab tourism as a brand, both domestically and internationally,” she stated. The results, she shared, exceeded expectations, with an impressive footfall and overwhelmingly positive perception surveys from national and international participants.
“We sought to actively engage the extensive NRI community worldwide, encouraging them to revisit Punjab and become influential advocates for the brand,” she said. Emphasising on the collective power of voices, she said that multiple individuals sharing positive experiences have a more significant impact than relying on a single brand ambassador.
National-level experts were invited to participate in the summit, with sessions moderated by senior partners from KPMG to ensure high-quality discourse. “We aimed for meaningful discourse with tangible outcomes,” she added.
Additionally, the summit explored the influential role of media and entertainment in shaping tourism, acknowledging the contributions of Bollywood stars and personalities from the music and entertainment industry who hail from Punjab.
Sector related policies in the offing
In keeping with the trend, Punjab is planning to go big on wellness tourism. According to Bhandari, the Punjab government is in the process of formulating a wellness policy, seeking input and suggestions from stakeholders before its final implementation.
“Our policy, which is currently in the proposal stage, will strive to develop and promote state-of-the-art wellness centers and resorts, incorporating traditional Indian wellness practices such as naturopathy, Ayurveda, and yoga,” she said, highlighting Punjab’s natural assets.
The policy will also focus on job creation and improving residents’ quality of life. “It will also focus on organising the wellness sector through guidelines and regulations, fostering public-private partnerships, and preserving Punjab’s rich cultural heritage,” she said.
The state now also plans to update the Eco Tourism and Culture Policy, among other initiatives.
Punjab recently implemented several impactful policy measures, including the Adventure Tourism & Water Tourism Policy, the establishment of Invest Punjab and financial incentives offered through the Industrial Policy 2022.
Additionally, the state government may also look at introducing entertainment policy in near future, in light of the Punjab Tourism Minister’s mention of setting up film studios and film cities in the state.
Bhandari shared that the summit also sparked ideas like backyard tourism, sports tourism, and positioning Punjab as a golf destination. “The challenge now is to strategically harness these opportunities while proceeding in a phased manner,” she added.
Encouraging women in tourism
To promote women’s participation in tourism, the state tourism department engaged various NGOs and self-help groups from Punjab’s villages, with a particular focus on women entrepreneurs. This initiative, said Bhandari, aimed to make Punjab more gender-sensitive, addressing patriarchal structures that existed in the past.
Further, aligned with the UN’s 5th Sustainable Development Goal, the state government is upholding Rangla Punjab, an initiative to showcase the diversity of Punjab while empowering women in the tourism sector.
Through this, the government intends to provide training and skill development initiatives for women seeking various roles within the tourism sector, supporting women entrepreneurs venturing into tourism-related businesses.
Leveraging the Public-Private Partnerships
Speaking about the thrust on PPP, Bhandari highlighted past successes as a testament to the potential of this model. She mentioned “Saada Pind” in Amritsar, a project that operates under the PPP framework and has been thriving. “This cultural attraction has drawn a significant crowd, serving as a beacon for cultural enthusiasts,” she added.
The state now intends to leverage heritage buildings,many of which remain underutilised. “Our aim is to incorporate them into a PPP framework, but the specific operational intricacies and details will emerge gradually as we navigate through the entire process,” she said.
To ensure success and maintain the sustainability quotient, the state is seeking guidance from experts and knowledge partners, she said, adding that the aim is to actively engage with the private sector.
Promoting sustainable ways of tourism
Bhandari highlighted the need for tourists to be more responsible and ethical in their behaviour. She called for the travellers to adopt clean and hygienic practices and refrain from expecting the world to cater to their whims. “Locals often feel the strain of tourism, and it’s time for travellers to be more considerate and respectful of the destinations they visit,” she said.
An interesting sustainable tourism trend she mentioned was the increasing interest among NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) in rural farm stays. As per Bhandari, Punjab’s tourism department already promotes such experiences, offering opportunities for travellers to connect with their roots. She highlighted eco-tourism resorts like Kikar Lodge in Rupnagar and Citrus County in Hoshiarpur as success examples of rural farm stays.
“Such experiences offer a break from the digital world and resonate with the trend of responsible tourism, which is gaining traction in India,” stated Bhandari.
A push to festival tourism
The Punjab tourism department has a year-long calendar in place, focusing on specific activities and festivals that resonate with Punjab’s history and culture. The Inquilab Festival held in Nawanshahr, Khatkar Kalan, the residence of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, is a case in point.
And now, Bhandari said, Punjab tourism has plans to host more festivals around Teej and Lohri, considering movies have breathed new life into these age-old celebrations. She also highlighted the importance of the Baba Fareed Mela in Faridkot, which attracts a large gathering from the state and beyond.
“We’ve taken the baby steps and have every intention to continue moving forward without any intention of slowing down. Punjab’s tourism journey has only just begun,” she concluded on a high note.