Beyond the News - FACT Analysis

Meteoric rise and nose dive of Punjab Tourism

Harjap Singh Aujla

December 20

Punjab has never been considered a state appropriate for tourism. In British India, Punjab was known as an agricultural and small scale industrial province. After our independence from the British, first the 1965 Indo-Pak War dealt a severe blow to the industry of Punjab, especially in
the border region and then the creation of Haryana shifted the focus of industry to the Haryana area surrounding the national capital region. Later on massive concessions given by the central government to the hill states shifted a lot of Punjab based industry to Himachal Pradesh.

The low level of militancy from 1978 to 1983 started destroying the industry of the border region all over again, but the infamous “Operation Blue Star” and the spurt in insurgency from 1984 to 1995 killed entire industry in the border region and impacted the other regions too. In
fact entire Punjab was hit hard, but the border area with Pakistan was completely devastated.

Although “Operation Blue Star” became notorious, but its extensive coverage by the BBC and the other reputed news agencies of the world brought the Golden Temple into focus. More and more international travelers got curious to know the history behind the place known as the
Golden Temple and that is how all of a sudden tourism knocked at the door of Punjab.

Today, the Golden Temple has been acknowledged as the primary tourist attraction of Punjab.

As the tour operators all over the world started making inquiries about tours of the Golden Temple, high-end hotel industry started mushrooming in Amritsar. Now we have world class hotels like Taj Swaran, Hyatt Regency, Marriott, Radisson, Ramada Hotel, Holiday Inn and ITC
hotels in Amritsar. Le Meridian will be the new kid on the block and it is nearing completion.

The construction of Ram Janam Bhoomi Temple in Ayodhaya U.P. has increased the importance of Bhagwan Ram Tourism Circuit. Sooner or later Amritsar will also be a part of this circuit.

because it is presumed that during the exile of Bhagwan Ram, Sita Mata ji spent several years in the vicinity of Amritsar. She gave birth to her two sons Luv and Kush in Suburban Amritsar at a place called Ram Tirath. This is the place, where both Luv and Kush were imparted education by
Rishi Valmiki ji. Considering this, Amritsar will be on the Bhagwan Ram Pilgrimage Circuit. That will enhance the importance of Amritsar as one of India’s primary cities for Hindu pilgrimage.

International conventions like the Heart of Asia Conclave for the economic development of Afghanistan in Amritsar brought record breaking occupancy to the elite hotels in Amritsar. In addition to the Golden Temple and the Central Sikh Museum on its campus, there are several other secondary and tertiary tourist attractions in Amritsar. These include the Jallianwala Bagh, where a big massacre of freedom fighters took place in 1919. There are several other museums in Amritsar, including the Partition Museum, Fort Gobindgarh, Emperor Ranjit Singh’s Summer
Palace in Company Bagh and Maharaja Ranjit Singh Panorama in the Company Bagh.

Durgiana Temple and Ram Tirath Temple in Amritsar are tourist attractions in their own right.

The daily occurring “Beating the Retreat Flag Lowering Ceremony at the Attari Wagha India –Pakistan Border” attracts between 10000 to 30000 visitors every evening. The Golden Temple alone attracts upwards of 100000 visitors every day. There is a War Heroes Museum in Khasa
suburb of Amritsar. The Sada Pind replica of an old village located on the Ring Road to Lahore is another place of tourist interest. The Khalsa College has its own museum in Amritsar. More secondary attractions are coming up in Amritsar.

Amritsar is also famous for its low cost street food. There are several eatries in its centuries old narrow winding streets selling inexpensive delicacies like Poori Chhole, Chhole Bhature, Kulche Chhole, Lassi, Chaat, Gol Gappas, confectionaries, Pakoras/Samosas, and Paranthas. There are
some very popular pure vegetarian eatries within the walled city like ‘Bharawan Da Dhaba”, “Brothers Dhaba” and Kesar Da Dhaba, all three are located quite close to the Golden Temple.

Some non-vegetarian meat and fish Dhabas are located in the newer localities of Amritsar.

There is a Dhaba serving typically Punjabi delicacies like Sarson Da Saag and Makki Di Roti in Chheharta area of the city near OCM Mills on the Old Grand Trunk Road. Now there is another vegetarian competitively priced eating place called “Haveli” outside the city on the Amritsar – Jalandhar Grand Trunk Road. It is a huge aesthetically good looking place with plenty of parking and where hunndreds can eat simultaneously. Owned by the proprietors of the famous Haveli at Jalandhar, this Haveli is a paradise for the Punjabi NRIs landing at or flying from Amritsar International Airport. Its food in taste can compete with the finest Dhabas in the walled portion
of Amritsar.

There are some other places close to Amritsar, which can become ideal day time recreational
places. One of them is the Harike Lake on the junction of Tarntaran, Ferozepore and Kapurthala districts, some fifty miles from Amritsar. This lake urgently needs dredging, because it is 90% silted up and in order to maintain proper flow of water into the canals irrigating Rajasthan and
Southern Malwa region, it needs enhanced storage capacity. The dredged soil can be spread and properly leveled on the banks of the Beas in all three districts. The scenery in all three districts is breathtakingly beautiful. Rare Siberian birds make this lake and the surrounding wetlands as their winter home every year. Nature loving holiday makers visiting Amritsar can
have picnics and day time recreation as well as bird watching activity during the winter months.

Another similar wetland near Amritsar is called “Kanjli Wetland”. It is located just West of the small city of Kapurthala on the Kapurthala Amritsar Road some 40 miles or 65 kilometers from Central Amritsar. This place is also very picturesque. It offers a breathtakingly beautiful view of
Kapurthala’s old European style royal palace Villa Buena Vista. The present Maharaja lives in there and he has maintained it quite decently. Rare Siberian birds visit this sanctuary too every year. The picnic area here needs fresh levelling and landscaping. A private player experienced in
tourism and recreation business can do a better job of maintaining this recreational area.

There is a third wetland located to the North of Amritsar called “Keshopur Chhamb” in Gurdaspur district. It also needs urgent repairs to the roads and the other facilities. This is the largest wetland in Punjab and its vicinity. It is the biggest camping area for rare Siberian birds.

The old Mughal Inn known as “Serai Amanat Khan” on the ancient “Sher Shah Suri Highway” some 25 kilometers to the South of Amritsar is another tourist attraction for the lovers of heritage. This heritage inn was built by a renowned calligrapher Amanat Khan, who did the art work in the Taj Mahal in Agra. This Serai is a beautiful specimen of art and architecture. It is ideal for day time tourism. Tourists can be transported by buses to this place from Amritsar along with soft drinks and refreshments, which are not available in the area. Another similar place is “Pul Moran” about 18 miles to the West of Amritsar. This place is associated with a famous love affair of Emperor Ranjit Singh with a Muslim dancing beauty called Moran. There is
no formal eating place in this area too.

As pointed out earlier, another historic town about 70 kilometers from Amritsar is Kapurthala.

It is famous for its French style state buildings. By far the finest building in Kapurthala is the Jagatjit Palace completed in 1908 on the pattern of French Revival Architecture. This 175 acre property is owned by the Punjab Government. At present it houses the famous Sainik School of Kapurthala. Its hidden potential for tourism deserves to be exploited. This architectural marvel deserves to be thrown open for tourism. There are no defence installations in this 175 acre campus, all that is needed is formal permission from the defence authorities for allowing selected tourists in some parts of this building plus its sprawling lawns and a forested area. This place is by far the finest specimen of French Architecture in Northern India. European tourists will love to visit this place. This is not hard to accomplish. Tourists can be transported by buses from the hotels in Amritsar after breakfast. They can spend about three hours in this building and its front lawns and then be served lunch in nearby newly restored 175 year old Gol Kothi.

There can be a tour of some other tourist attractions of Kapurthala including the Science City, the modern lush green campus of Rail Coach Factory and the Moorish Mosque as well as the Old State Court House. After a full day of excursion, in the evening the tourists can be brought back from Harike Lake, Kanjli Lake, Keshopur Chhamb, Pul Moran, Serai Amanat Khan or Kapurthala back to their hotels in Amritsar. All these places can consume half to full day of the tourist. These places can add one day to the stay of tourists in Amritsar’s hotels.

Due to the increasing popularity of Amritsar, one four star Ramada Hotel and another three star West Western Inn have already come up at nearby Kapurthala and more were being planned to be constructed. And then all of a sudden emergence of a dreaded Covid – 19 pandemic in March of 2020, completely upset the apple-cart of newly developing Punjab Tourism. From 90% hotel occupancy in Amritsar hotels in March, it nose dived to just 10% during the summer and monsoon season up to October due to the lockdown and curfew as well as the stoppage of international flights to Amritsar from the countries where Punjabi diaspora lives in big numbers.

Due to improved domestic tourism and increasing movement of the wealthy Indians, some improvement of hotel occupancy is being noticed lately. The tourist season of Punjab starts in October. But so far by the middle of December 2020, hotel occupancy in Amritsar has not
crossed 50% level, which is below the break-even point in profitability.
The princely town of Patiala, the capital of the largest former princely state of Punjab, where a lot of historic buildings were being rehabilitated recently, was getting ready for a big push for tourism far away from the already established Amritsar hub, but due to the impact of Covid-19
scare, it is also not yet getting the requisite response. A new 28 suite luxury hotel was coming up in Qila Mubarik, but due to Covid-19 pandemic the plans for increased flow of tourists to this historic fort are being hampered. In order to be successful, Patiala will need clubbing of historic
buildings of Sangrur in its circuit. The Baradari and the Darbar Hall in Sangrur have already been restored.

Some vaccines are being developed in North America and Europe to get over Covid-19. Due to the anticipated widespread use of these vaccines during the future months, some improvement in tourism is expected in the coming months.

Japan is hosting Olympics during the summer of 2021, world-wide tourism will get a realistic boost during this all world sports carnival. Certainly tourism in India will also benefit from the Olympiad.

(The author is senior advisor to The Fact News)