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2017 Study Tour in West Bengal, India

Nine members of the International Cultural Tourism Committee (ICTC) of the International Committee on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) took part in a Study Tour of the Sundarbans from December 4-8, 2017, sponsored by Banglanatak dot com. The intent was to visit The Sundarbans World Heritage site (WHS) region, experience the different arts and craft opportunities taking place, and determine where there may be opportunities to build upon the existing cultural heritage opportunities to support local community economic development.

The Minister of State for Tourism, Shri Indranil Sen, expressed that the West Bengal Government has as a strategic aim to expand both national and international tourism numbers, particularly with the emerging Chinese and Japanese markets. As part of this approach, cultural tourism represents a significant growth area within national and regional economic development strategies. The state government recognizes that an increase in high end hotels, small airports, road improvements and the promotion of large-scale cultural festivals are pre- requisites for the successful delivery of packaged cultural tourism experiences as part of mass tourism. Such experiences embrace and celebrate West Bengal’s wealth of culture – music, dance and literature – that, alongside the natural heritage, elevates the profile of key areas like The Sundarbans as a unique destination within India.

By encouraging local scale cultural tourism which respects the heritage values of the people and place, supported by key organizations like Banglanatak, opportunities for increased pride and prosperity are generated, directly benefitting local communities. Tourism development strategies which safeguard the local culture and protect the environment also enhance sustainable development. Subsequently, national and international exports of cultural products and local hospitality that includes cultural experiences can support West Bengal in fulfilling many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) targets.

There are a number of challenges that the region faces in promoting cultural tourism products including: 
  • Coming to terms with, and strategizing around impacts of climate change and sea-level rises, and the engagement of tourism and cultural heritage interests. 
  • Challenging infrastructure for visitor access to tourist sites, jetties and boats. 
  • Lower standard accommodations in place in the towns, with most of the higher end guest lodges are sequestered on The Sundarbans buffer zone islands. 
  • Low overall literacy rates and comprehension of languages other than Bengali (i.e., English and Hindi). 
  • Limited or no access to computers and the Internet for communications, marketing and reservations purposes.

The opportunities to develop cultural tourism offerings in the region include: 
  • Promote The Sundarbans as an ideal setting to present how cultural and natural heritage are intimately woven together, where cultural tourism activities can be presented to nature-based and ecotourism operators as a new, unique product to draw visitors to the region. 
  • Identify potential value-added tourism products related to the design, construction and use of the unique timber boats that traverse The Sundarbans waterways. 
  • Consider the development of key jetties or embarkment points in The Sundarbans where tourists could study to and around The Sundarbans. These jetties could also serve as interpretation centres and/or tourist service centres providing essential help for visitors. Having such centralized facilities could also prevent/minimize the impact of unregulated tourist and transport development to the communities. 
  • Provide further ways to bring interpretations of the habitat – both that of the tidal mangrove forest and of the villages (including fishing and farming). 
  • Improve language comprehension and literacy in order to better communicate with tourists prior to, and during their visit to the region. 
  • Expand the use of computer literacy and connection to the Internet, either via a central hub, or in individual communities where tourism could be concentrated.
  • Promote cultural tourism activities to nature- and eco-tour operators as a new, unique product to draw visitors to the region. 
  • Link cultural practices to support increased preparedness and resilience to the inevitable future extreme weather events. Potentially, the thinking around tourism and especially cultural tourism, can also help focus decisions around the most suitable locations for sectoral development. 
  • Work with fashion boutiques and publications to encourage and promote tours to the locales where the unique handwoven fabrics and crafts are produced.

A re-branding exercise for The Sundarbans emphasizing sustainable tourism development is suggested as an important next step for the West Bengal government to use cultural tourism to market and increase visitation to the State, while supporting local community economic development.

Document: Full Report

The following ICTC professionals participated in the Study Visit:
Luisa Ambrosio, Portugal 
Jim Donovan, US 
Jonathan Karkut, UK 
Ian Kelly, Australia 
Fergus Maclaren, Canada 
Sue Millar, UK 
Ian Tan, Singapore 
Kenneth Wong See Huat, Malaysia 
Aysegul Yilmaz, Turkey