Odisha’s new campaign is about being India’s Best Kept Secret. Indeed, this is the truth as the state has everything going for it, but perhaps lack of connectivity, infrastructure support, and inadequate funding for tourism have not allowed the kind of tourism centric growth that the state should have witnessed. There have been sporadic bursts of energy, one hopes this time around it would sustain and develop into a long term strategy of economic and social development. For this to happen, the private sector must become a more active participant. Tourism First speaks with Vishal Dev, the state’s Secretary for Tourism.

We have seen a spate of activity, in your state, sensing it from sitting in Delhi. The new shacks on your beaches, the camping site, the new logo and advertising campaign. Can you share the overall contours of this initiative?

With a view to enhancing the brand recall of Odisha as a relatively unexplored destination rich with diverse landscapes and experiences, the Department last year rebranded Odisha Tourism as “India’s Best Kept Secret”, while adopting the logo of the successful Sports Odisha campaign. This will help the campaign reach a wider audience and capitalise on the brand equity earned through the state’s watershed Sports Tourism events.

Experiences are at the core of any holiday or visit. And every experience is set in a context of a landscape, and ambience, a culture and its interactions. This is precisely why we have rebranded Odisha as India’s Best Kept Secret. It is about revealing beautiful secrets at every corner, and every destination in Odisha has several of them waiting to be explored.

We realised early last year that Odisha’s beaches in general and the Puri Konark Marine Drive in particular, despite housing a beautiful synthesis of heritage, nature, artistic finesse and food, were largely a day tourism destination. Its potential as a premium beach destination was underexplored. Given the grave impact of cyclone Fani, we had fortified our vision with the principle of sustainability. But our quest to develop the destination as an experience rich beach tourism hub of global standards was undaunted.

Dhenkanal Palace Heritage

Initial brainstorming sessions on beach camping, and comparative studies on emerging segments such as glamping made us hone in on this concept, which has worked wonders in destinations such as Kutch in Gujarat. Hence, we resolved, to undertake a project such as the Marine Drive Eco Retreat, which is Eastern India’s first tented city festival. While offering luxury stay just metres away from the sea waves, it also boasts of Beach Shacks with a vibrant ambience and delectable food accompanied by a wide range of beverages with a beach view that makes the most sought-after getaways pale in comparison.

How are these translating into numbers for the state?

The larger outcome of the campaign in numbers will be evident later this year after annual statistics are released. But we are confident of achieving over 12% rise in the footfalls despite the devastating impact of Cyclone Fani.

Particularly in terms of the Eco Retreat, the reception has taken us all by surprise. In terms of check-ins, we have registered an occupancy of just under 80% of cumulative room nights, with recent weeks registering almost 100% booking. By the conclusion of the Eco Retreat 2019 (by 15 Feb 2020), we should reach a cumulative occupancy of well over 70% of the total 2400 room nights.

We have online bookings through four aggregators including OTDC, Make My Trip, Go Ibibo and Yatra. There is also a facility for offline bookings in the public area at the Eco Retreat as well as at the OTDC office in Bhubaneswar.

For bigger groups including and longer stays exceeding 5 room nights, we offer customised discounts. We also offer corporate packages.

In terms of the daily footfalls including day visitors, during weekends we witness over 5,000 visitors, with weekdays seeing footfalls of about 2,500 to 3,000 – coming in to enjoy water sports, food stalls and having a good time at the beach shacks.

Eco Camp Satkosia

There is no denying Odisha has always had much to offer for the tourists. How is this present effort going to create a new awareness, in the international markets, and also within the domestic sector?

We are clearly prioritising our present focus on the national market, and in longer perspective on the international markets. We are hopeful of healthy numbers showing on our statistical dashboard.

For wide publicity and marketing of the tourism products of the state, massive publicity campaign has been undertaken in Print and Electronic media.

In the past year, the Department of Tourism rebranded Odisha Tourism as India’s Best Kept Secret with a view to capitalising on its enigmatic appeal to the discerning tourist. Aggressive Social Media marketing was carried out this year on all known platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, besides reaching out to celebrities, influencers, and the tourist community.

With a view to promote Odisha Tourism in the domestic market in major metros, Out of Home Branding has been undertaken at Airports of Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bengaluru besides Bhubaneswar and Jharsuguda. Mumbai Metro train-wrapping has also been carried out.

To attract more domestic tourists, Odisha Tourism has organized nine Roadshows jointly with FICCI within the country inviting Tour operators and Travel Agents on B2B platforms for promotion of tourism, with five more scheduled this Financial Year.

Puri Temple

To attract more tourists from abroad and create awareness about the State, Odisha Tourism participated in international tourism fairs and exhibitions such as WTM London and in domestic market, we participated in about 10 trade fairs & exhibitions along with the stakeholders of the State.

The Department of Tourism has lined up four Roadshows in South East Asian Countries and will participate in ITB Berlin 2020.

How are your stakeholders coming on board? One problem in your state has been the relative silent majority among the industry, as compared to say Rajasthan and in Kerala? Any special effort to get them involved in any bigger and more sustained way? What has been their response?

Our strongest focus has been on reaching out to prominent hospitality brands and getting them to initiate their investments in the state. We are working hard to consolidate an investment ready tourism land bank of over 2000 acres in the next two years. In the last year, we have conducted several familiarisation trips and site visits for established investors and entrepreneurs. The results have been very encouraging. Our outreach to watersports and houseboat operators and investors have resulted in several proposals to initiate projects. Since the middle of 2019, four new watersports projects have been operationalised – at Chandrabhaga, Gopalpur, Barkul (Chilika) and Tampara Lake.

At present, most of the new investments in the hotel sector are coming up in and around the Golden Triangle. The Department has also begun implementing its Development Masterplan for Talsari-Udaypur Beach which includes both luxury and budget hotels in its plan.

Among key investments coming up are Mayfair Hotels’ five-star deluxe resort including a golf course at Satapada, besides a complex with a world class Convention Centre and 250 rooms in Bhubaneswar.

The Swosti Group will be launching the Palm Beach Resort at Gopalpur by 2023.

Real Estate major DN Homes will be setting up two luxury properties at Gopalpur and Tampara respectively and are looking to begin operations in FY23.

Vivanta by Taj Hotels should be operational in Bhubaneswar by mid 2020.

ITC’s investment in Bhubaneswar under its chain of WelcomHotels will also begin operations this year.

Marine Drive Eco Retreat

Wonderla Parks and Resorts, India’s largest amusement park developer and operator is set to initiate investment in its fourth amusement park after Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kochi in Khordha, 16 km from Bhubaneswar City Centre.

Accor Group will be setting up its maiden hotel under the Novotel brand in Bhubaneswar in the next 2.5 years.

Apart from the above mentioned, the Department is also in contact with prominent brands such as WelcomHeritage Hotels of the ITC Group, Taj Hotels, Lemon Tree Group, Wyndham, Marriott and many others for setting up 4-star plus luxury hotels and resorts across the state.

One problem within the government has been the lack of a coordinated understanding of tourism, given the fact that tourism involves so many verticals and therefore so many of your government departments. How are you joining the dots together within the government, and what has been your success?

The under 5T (Teamwork, Transparency, Technology and Timeliness for Transformation) framework driven by the CMO, the Government in general and the Department of Tourism in particular have undergone a tremendous operational transformation in the recent months. We needed a successful template, which the Marine Drive Eco Retreat Project provided. We worked seamlessly among stakeholder departments and vendors, service providers and along the administrative hierarchy.

We are dedicatedly implementing the framework in every governmental intervention. The Ecotourism Board chaired by Chief Secretary Odisha has set a goal of increasing the ecotour room count from the present 300 odd to 500 in the coming years, while enhancing the overall hospitality experience through upgrades and the involvement of the private sector. The Departments of Tourism and Forest & Environment are working in perfect synchrony for this.

We are expediting the resolution of jurisdictional issues and increasingly working seamlessly to enrich the tourism experience and diversify our products and offerings as a state.

Connectivity has always been a concern for any destination. How are you resolving this for your state. To get more numbers, you also need more flights? How is international connectivity doing, if you want more people from the Far East to visit your state?

The State Government, led by Hon’ble Chief Minister Shri. Naveen Patnaik is aggressively reaching out to national and global carriers to explore direct connectivity within Odisha, nationally to key cities as well as internationally. The Government has been very proactive in pitching in through viability gap funding to ensure that the virtuous cycle is initiated.

Recently, new flights have been operationalised by Indigo from Bhubaneswar to Ahmedabad and Thiruvananthapuram, by Spicejet connecting Jharsuguda with Bangalore, and a Bhubaneswar-Surat flight by Air India’s Alliance Air connecting Jharsuguda with Kolkata. Indigo is also slated to begin the Bhubaneswar-Varanasi flight by February end.

Air Asia is set to start flights connecting Bhubaneswar to Bengaluru and Kolkata.

Air traffic growth at Bhubaneswar’s Biju Patnaik International Airport has been galloping at over 40% per annum, while early last year it also won the Award 2018 for Best Airport handling two to five million passengers per year, under Airports Council International’s (ACI) Airport Service Quality (ASQ) programme. Operations at Veer Surendra Sai Jharsuguda Airport operationalized under UDAN-3 took off impressively, generating over 85% flight occupancy on an average. Responding to the State Government’s sustained campaign for boosting air connectivity infrastructure within Odisha, the Government of India has sanctioned INR 160 crore under UDAN-4 for development and operationalization of Jeypore (Koraput), Utkela (Kalahandi) and Rourkela (Sundergarh).

Internationally, we hope to resume the Bhubaneswar – Kuala Lumpur Air Asia flight soon. We are also constantly in touch with SriLankan Airlines to initiate direct connectivity with the island nation. Most importantly, we are working overtime with the Union Civil Aviation Ministry to boost international connectivity. I am sure our efforts will reap rich dividends soon.

Refreshing the tourism product is critical for any tourism city/state. We constantly need new products coming on stage. What has been your effort in this direction?

We are diversifying our tourism products which are geographically dispersed throughout Odisha. While the state’s road network is excellent, we are working hard to complement it with air transport infrastructure.

Niche segments such as Camping, water recreation and Houseboat Tourism are being increasingly explored to geographically diversify tourism and decongest the Golden Tirangle.

We have made great progress in water sports and recreation, with about seven prime water-sports projects operationalised within a year at places such as Ramchandi, Tampara, Barkul (Chilika Lake), Gopalpur on Sea, etc. We have also joined hands with the Surfing Federation of India to revive the Surfing Festival.

Houseboats and cruise tourism are niche areas on which Odisha is betting big. Before the conclusion of FY21, we wish to see houseboats operating in Chilika, Hirakud and Bhitarkanika backwaters. We are working closely with IWAI and Inland Water Transport Department, Odisha Govt., who have identified several navigable stretches of National Waterways and other channels in Odisha for operation of cruises. In a special initiative of cooperative federalism, we are collaborating with KSINC (Kerala State Inland Navigation Corporation) for receiving technical assistance in seeing the projects through.

An unknown aspect of Odisha is its royalty heritage of 51 properties in the state. We hope to operationalise 19 heritage homestays by 2021. We will also be roping in hospitality brands to scale them up as heritage hotels based on mutually agreeable modalities. 

(As told by Vishal Dev to Navin Berry)