Efforts are on to turn Kolkata's Puja season into the local equivalent of New Orleans' Mardi Gras.
The four days of Durga Puja is the time to see Kolkata at its best. Sadly, very few outsiders, either foreigners or non-Bengali Indians, get to see it.
Happenings, an NGO run by around a dozen concerned Kolkattans, has been trying for the past four years to promote a tour-package surrounding Durga Puja, showcasing it as 'The Great Kolkata Autumn Festival', somewhat (as the Happenings website has it) like the Carnival in Rio, the Mardi Gras in New Orleans or even the Oktoberfest in Munich.
The Happenings offer is not for locals. Nor is it for sundry backpackers. Priced at Rs 25,000 for four days, it is a premium tourism package for big-spenders.
Intended as a pilot project, its objectives are to showcase the best of West Bengal and promote the image of the city as a "happening" place, while also developing a business model for tour operators to take up.
On the itinerary is a cruise up the Hooghly, a round of the Puja pandals by night, an introduction to the rituals around Durga Puja, and viewing the immersion of the idols in the river.
The Raj connection is showcased through a meal at the 180-year-old Bengal Club, golf at the Tolly turf, a ride on the trams, and a visit to Victoria Memorial.
As for cultural events, Happenings has arranged a Kathak recital at the Marble Palace with Bikram Ghosh on the tabla, a recital by Mamata Shankar's Ballet Troupe, and a fashion show based on the textiles of Bengal.
Strangely, despite its relative success over the years, no operator has come forward to develop this form of tourism. "Creating a market for a tour package is a lot of hard work - it is easier to make money by sending people outside the state."
Travel agents also say that at such high prices, people would prefer to go to Thailand. But there's some hope with Debangshu Bhattacharya of Wayfarers, which has been helping Happenings with ground infrastructure, promising to start a special Puja package next year.
Ironically, the public sector has been quicker to seize the idea, with Puja season tour packages aimed at the mass market. The West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation, for example, has started "Sharadotsav on the Ganga", which has a Puja on a launch in the middle of the river for visitors to watch.
Then there are day or night tours of traditional Pujas, as also a trip to the traditional ones in Kalna, Guptipara and Bansberia, some distance from the city. And all this for Rs 250 to Rs 850.
There's also the Kolkata State Transport Corporation, which is running conducted tours of the major Pujas this year.
And they are fairly popular, with WBTDC reporting a complete sell-out of its smaller tours, and STC, 60-70 per cent bookings for its two tour buses.
Clearly, the market is there. If only tour operators would realise it...
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