September 27 being World Tourism Day as declared by the United Nations, it was heartening to see the Department of Tourism, Govt of Tamil Nadu, celebrating it with many events spread across the State. In the city, the festivities began on Sunday 26th, with me leading a heritage walk at Fort St George. The roster of events, and the degree of enthusiasm for participation augurs well for the State but what is of concern is the lack of even basic facilities across many tourist locations. It is high time that the authorities address these hygiene factors so that this industry can grow to great heights in Tamil Nadu. 

When you think of it, no State has it as good as our own – we have hills, rivers (well, at least some have water), a long coastline, forts, and plenty of built structures to mark our heritage. And what’s more, there is plenty of living heritage too, for unlike many other parts of the world, several of our heritage structures remain in active use and are not just empty buildings. And yet, not many are aware of what heritage Tamil Nadu possesses – too often we are dismissed as the State with temples and nothing beyond. We also score far less in terms of footfalls when compared to say the golden triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. However, as we score far higher in terms of medical tourism footfalls, our State remains complacent – taken together with regular tourism our figures become impressive. It is high time we bifurcate this and take a hard look at plain leisure tourism statistics. If done, this is bound to throw up some not-so-good facts. 

Tamil Nadu suffers from multiplicity of authorities when it comes to tourism. Our temples for instance come under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department of the Government, which has its own agenda when it comes to administration. The forts are with the Archaeological Survey of India, the forests with the Forest Department and so on. Too often, when the Department of Tourism takes up promotion of a particular spot, it falls foul of some other agency which works at cross purposes. The proposed wholesale demolition planned by the HR&CE of heritage houses owned by the Kapaliswarar Temple in Mylapore is an instance. If the entire neighbourhood is to become high rise, then what is it that is left for the tourist? Tharangampadi is another example – lack of clarity in ownership and responsibilities, no civic amenities of any kind in the entire town and no involvement of the locals have reduced what could have been a thriving heritage centre to a ghost town.

If the Department of Tourism is serious about its intent to promote tourism in the State, it has to work bottoms up. Each tourist spot needs to be mapped, and a committee comprising officials from the departments of tourism, civic administration, health, water supply and sanitation, HR&CE/Wakf/CSI along with local stakeholders such as the elected representative needs to be formed. This body needs to consult with the residents of the neighbourhood and arrive at what needs to be done to make the place a tourist destination. Any change has to be done only after considering environmental impact. These local level plans need to be dovetailed into a master document for the State based on which approvals need to be obtained, to be followed by timebound action. 

In the absence of such concerted action, all other schemes such as adding a toilet here, a tap there and a bench somewhere else can only be piecemeal efforts, with limited impact. It is time we transformed the State as a whole into a destination of choice.