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Friday, March 21, 2014

Poll Tourism 2014: Travel Agents May Turn General 'Elections Drama' Into 'Tourist Attractions' In India

By Likha Veer | INNLIVE

EXCLUSIVE If elections are the biggest festival of democracy, it can also be turned into a tourist attraction, for festivals are manna for a globetrotter. And that is what a few travel and tour operators have done in India.

International tourists visiting India last December got a  peep into the conduct of Assembly polls with tourism specialists mooting the concept of 'election tourism'. As part of 'poll tourism', foreign tourists, who visited Gujarat at the time of elections, met prominent BJP and opposition Congress leaders in the state, interacted with them and developed a better understanding of how public representatives get elected in India.
And the concept was so successful that it is now being used to cash in on the general election fever. In December,  Akshar Travels, the same tourism company that organised the Gujarat poll packages, tested the concept in Delhi.

According to a report in the Business Standard, Manish Sharma, the owner of Akshar Travels and chairman of the Gujarat Tourism Development Society, has now signed an agreement with about 60 tour operators across India to promote poll tourism and expects bout 2,000 visitors opting for these packages, especially from regions like Egypt and the Gulf.

A typical poll tourism package for six nights and seven days is priced between $1,200 and $1,800  and includes food, stay, transportation and combines visits to major tourist attractions in India with attending political rallies, interacting with political leaders and soaking in the election fever.

For instance, under a Delhi-Agra-Jaipur package, a tourist could visit various sites in the capital, attend political rallies and spend evenings interacting with representatives of political parties, attend the election campaign etc.

Another heritage tour to Ajmer, Pushkar, Jodhpur, Mount Abu and Udaipur includes en-route visits to rural villages to explore the actual vote bank and election campaigning in rural area of Rajasthan along with meetings with political leaders and election candidates to understand the Political system of Rajasthan. 

Tourists will also be shown the functioning of a  panchayati raj system, how votes are cast and how  caste and community equations play a  role in Indian elections.

The concept of 'election tourism' was first introduced at World Tourism Mart held in London in December.

While political parties are all gung-ho about the initiative, it remains to be seen if the Election Commission would want to turn the elections drama into a tourist attraction.

Being the largest democracy in the world has its own benefits. To make the most of the coming Lok Sabha elections, city-based Akshar Travels has come up with special packages for foreign tourists to help them experience the poll fervour.Manish Sharma, owner of Akshar Travels and chairman of the Gujarat Tourism Development Society, has signed an agreement with about 60 tour operators across the country, as well as some in Paris, Amsterdam, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London, Beijing, Tokyo, etc, to promote the cause of what he calls “poll tourism”.

“We first spoke about our poll tourism packages at ITB Berlin (Internationale Tourismus-Börse Berlin), a leading travel and tourism conference attended by tour operators, hoteliers and people from the hospitality sector from about 100 countries. We have already received about 800 enquiries for the election tourism package. London, Ukraine, Beijing, Singapore and parts of France accounted for most of these enquiries,” Sharma said.

A typical poll tourism package, priced between $1,200 and $1,800 a person for a six-night-seven-day trip (including food, stay, transportation and a few activities) combines visits to major tourist attractions in India with attending political rallies, interacting with political leaders and soaking in the election fever. For instance, under a Delhi-Agra-Jaipur package, a tourist could visit various sites in the capital, attend political rallies and spend evenings interacting with representatives of political parties.

“We have spoken to all major political parties in the country and they are very supportive of the initiative. While major political leaders will be busy preparing for the elections, the tourists will interact with the second-rung leadership in these parties,” Sharma said. The tour operators’ team has also approached the Election Commission of India to seek approval for foreign tourists to visit poll booths. However, it hasn’t secured an approval so far.

Sharma’s team had tried something similar during the 2012 state Assembly elections, too. “Though we organised election tourism packages in a very short time, we managed to attend to about 90 foreign tourists. This time, with a pan-Indian scope, we hope to see about 2,000 visitors opting for our packages, especially from regions like Egypt and the Gulf, where many are not familiar with a democratic process of electing leaders,” Sharma says. “Witnessing huge turnouts at political rallies, banners, hoardings and huge cut-outs of political leaders in the South; the entire experience of an Indian election is a once-in-a-lifetime one for many foreigners.”

Lav Sharma, project head for the election tourism package, remembers how a member of the state legislative Assembly had hosted a dinner for tourists from Ukraine at his village. He had also taken the tourists on a tour of the village and its surroundings.

Akshar Travels’ partners in other cities also seem upbeat about the concept. “We have not done anything like this before. This will indeed be an interesting offering for foreign tourists visiting India at this time,” says P K Mondal of Ideal Leisure Holiday, which conducts trips to the eastern and northeastern parts of India.

Subhash Goyal, president, Indian Association of Tour Operators, says: “This is an interesting concept. India is the largest democracy in the world and there will be a lot of interest in seeing the election campaign process here. It could also boost foreign tourist arrivals, to an extent, during the season.” He adds such packages are designed by tour operators at an individual level, not with the help of any ministry.

So far, most enquiries relate to the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur circuit. The circuits decided upon include popular tourist ones like Delhi-Agra-Jaipur, Delhi-Bikaner-Jaisalmer-Jodhpur, Ahmedabad-Rajkot-Gondal, Dwarka-Porbandar-Sasan-Gir, Lucknow-Ayodhya-Varanasi, Delhi-Shimla-Manali-Chandigarh, Mathura-Agra-Haridwar-Rishikesh-Delhi, Cochin-Munnar-Thekkady, Guwahati-Kaziranga-Shillong and Gangtok-Lachen-Peling.
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