The Pioneer, Tuesday, 27 September 2016 | Sugyan Choudhury | in Bhubaneswar
A Keralite by birth but an Odishan by choice having four decades of experience in travel and tourism; Benjamin Simon is the unofficial brand ambassador of Odisha tourism. He is a member of the advisory board to Odisha ecotourism and a member of the advisory board to Odisha Tourism. Having had his schooling from the celebrated Infant Jesus School and his college education from the Fatima Mata National College, Kerala, Benjamin has an additional advantage with his brilliant accent and suave manners to interact with foreign tourists and entice them and to market Odisha tourism overseas. “Odisha with its 480-km-long coastline, sylvan shores, dense forests with flora and fauna, tribal heritage, Buddhist monuments, adorned with quintessential temple art and architectures is like a sleeping giant, which needs to be awakened to the level of world-class tourism second to none globally,” opines Simon. In an interview to The Pioneer, Simon, a living encyclopedia on Odisha tourism, shared his brilliant ideas with Sugyan Choudhury for turning Odisha into a vibrant tourism State to earn huge foreign exchanges for banishing poverty and unemployment from the State.
How and when were you initiated into the tourism sector?
It is like a story of my yesterday. It was the year 1977. As a student of history, I had my visions settled in Konark, and I wanted to visit the place somehow or other. I came to Odisha without knowing a b c about tourism. Once while I was sitting with my uncle in the lobby of Prachi Hotel now called Marion, I chanced upon an American executive with his friends. They loved my accent and manners and wanted me to accompany them in their daily tours. They were feeling like fish out of water owing to the communication gap with local people. I helped them for a month and they gave me some dollars. It was both paying and as well as exciting for a young man like me to come in contact with foreign tourists and being appreciated by them. This motivated me and I began travelling to the inaccessible regions like Similipal, Kandhamal and Koraput. Sometimes, I had to walk 30 km with the help of local postmen. My foreign visitors loved to enjoy those sites. They loved to see the nature in its pristine purity at Similipal, Koraput and such other places. They loved to see the Kutia Kandhas and other aboriginals. At times, they loved to spend 21 days at a stretch to experience nature in its glory and grandeur. They felt they were spending time in Odisha which has something worth its own, conspicuous by its absence in the din and bustle of the civilised world. And it was paying for me too to act as their guide and guardian. I then began preparing write-ups about the tourist spots with active cooperation and guidance of professors of the Utkal University, who appreciated my efforts to explore Odisha tourism. Those write-ups were despatched to agents both at home and abroad. When domestic and foreign tourists came with those despatches, they visited those spots and felt as if their dreams came true. I then introduced many innovations into the profession and, unknowingly, had begun an innings in tourism.
You’re a pioneer in dealing with foreign tourists. What are their impressions on Odisha tourism?
Their impressions are simply amazing. I have dealt with thousands of foreign tourists since 1977-78. I have handled former ILO Chairman and Princess Anne of the British Royal family. They love to see something natural, not artificial. The Odishan tribes are not like the African ones. African tribes speak English. Odishan tribes neither speak Odia nor English. They speak a dialect of their own. Foreigners appreciate the natural lifestyle of the tribes — their tattooed arts besides noticing the natural flora and fauna with all their freshness. I spent some days guiding the Portugal Prime Minister who visited Odisha some six years ago. After visiting a span of 250 km tourist destinations, he felt amazing. He gently chided me, “Benjamin, you are sitting over a gigantic cultural heritage! You have not explored even an inch of the same. People in Portugal do not know about the gold mines of your Odishan tourism.” He found his words at a loss to explain the infinite variety of art and architecture, the beauty of the natural sceneries, the flora and the fauna, the pulsating wildlife of Odisha. At a Press conference, he appreciated the beauty of Odisha tourism and asked me and all those present to take it forward to lofty heights. Finally at the Mukteswar Temple dance festival, when he was called to the dais to acknowledge the Odishi dancers, he felt sentimental and declared that he had received the highest honour of his life, regardless of honours and accolades that he had received earlier as a globetrotting PM. Hence, Odisha tourism is like a sleeping giant, which needs to be awakened.
The Odisha tourism data show foreign tourists are gradually declining. What are the reasons and what are the remedial measures you would like to suggest?
I have completed almost 40 years of my journey in the Odisha tourism sector. Initially, the growth was amazing. It was headlong, almost 20% growth, year wise. Foreigners’ first choices are Agra, Delhi, Udaypur, Jaipur where they spend two to three days and the rest of the journey they use to spend here in Odisha. Imagine, they used to spend 15-21 days in Odisha and the stakeholders and the community were reaping a rich bonanza out of it. We have overlooked it. The Italians love activities; the French and the Germans love cultural tourism; the Japanese love culture, nature and Buddhist art and monuments. All these tourists had their field days in Odisha. But today, the official figures are inflated, putting it at 70,000. We have other methods to determine the number of foreign tourists which comes to around 7,000 in reality. We cannot take into account the number of Chinese technicians visiting our industries every six months. The reason of the foreign tourists on wane is simple. After the 2012 incident of kidnapping of two Italian tourists in Kandhamal, there was a lot of negative publicity. Partly, I must not hesitate to blame your media, both print and electronic, which blew the things out of their proportions. Foreigners thought Odisha is not a safe place for foreign tourists; there is the danger of kidnapping. The two Italians returned home safe. There we are all the stakeholders including myself and the Odisha Government also failed in their duties to assuage the feelings of our foreign friends that Odisha is a safe place for tourism. And that was a stray incident. Friends from media should know that Odisha tourism is no Thai tourism. There are no sex activities or no nightlife like Thailand. When a foreign tourist visits Odisha, he or she has in his or her mind that he or she is going to witness a rich cultural heritage and aesthetics of art and architecture. But today, Odisha is under shadow after the Kandhamal incident. Tourists are only going to Chhattisgarh, Gujarat for experiencing tribal tourism.
To improve the situation, there are many ways. For example, we have Buddhist links. We can approach tourists of Thailand, Sri Lanka and Japan to visit Odisha on a contractual basis for a year. When a tourist of Odisha can stay in a three-star Thailand hotel for Rs 1,200, we should also be prepared to accommodate a Thai tourist at Rs 1,200-1,500 in Odisha hotels. Then, we will find a good number of flights will come to the Biju Patnaik International Airport and a good number of flights will go to these countries from Bhubaneswar. The Indian Airlines along with private airlines will earn huge revenue. Besides, the Biju Patnaik Airport should establish rapport with other tourism market-oriented foreign countries to visit Odisha. Besides, Odisha Tourism should collaborate with neighbouring States like Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal and Tamil Nadu for an integrated hassle-free sightseeing tour. Cruise liners should be introduced to Paradip, Dhamra, Gopalpur-on-sea so that foreign tourists can visit tourist destinations at a low cost. You can recreate Odishan history by staging it on the marine drive like the Kalinga War, Art village, Odishi dance festivals besides providing toy trains to domestic tourists for travelling 30 km from Puri to Konark. You can also facilitate travel by boats by surfing on the Bay of Bengal in these 30 km. This would bring huge money both from domestic and foreign tourists. Odisha can earn huge foreign exchange in the model of Switzerland and like Kerala, where two lakh domestic tourists and 30,000 foreign tourists visit every month. Kerala is earning today thousands of crores per annum which is in reality no match to the rich Odisha heritage tourism.