Sunderbans out of wonders race – a lost opportunity?

Kolkata : With the Sunderbans voted out of the race for the ‘New Seven Wonders of Nature’, tourism industry insiders say the world’s single largest block of mangrove forests may have lost a golden opportunity to become a global destination for wildlife tourism.

Sunderbans, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the single largest block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest shared by India (West Bengal) and Bangladesh. Nearly 60 percent of it is with Bangladesh and the rest with India.

It was voted out of the provisional list of the ‘New Seven Wonders of Nature’ based on the first count of vote results Nov 11. This has led to frustration among the people of West Bengal, including travel agents who say it would have helped the Sunderbans push up its tourist numbers way beyond the current 150,000.

“It’s really unfortunate for both Bengal and India. Sunderbans making it to the new seven wonders list would have opened new gates for the influx of foreign tourists in the state,” state Forest Minister Hiten Burman said.

“It would have been a hotspot for wildlife tourism on the world map,” he added.

Said Travel Agents Federation of India (TAFI) chairman-eastern chapter Anil Punjabi: “It’s indeed not good in terms of the tourism business.”

“The rush of foreign tourists would have increased if Sunderbans was voted one of the new seven wonders of nature. The economy of the area would have got a heavy boost,” he added.

The New7Wonders of Nature was a project undertaken by Canadian-Swiss Bernard Weber to make a list of seven natural wonders selected by people across the world through a worldwide poll.

The criterion was that the site was to be “a clearly defined natural site or natural monument” that was not created or significantly altered by humans for aesthetic reasons.

The initiative was started in 2007 and attracted 100 million votes from around the world.

Sunderbans was the only Indian entry in the final list of 28 that included the Grand Canyon of the US, the Amazon of Brazil, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, the Halong Bay of Vietnam and other natural sites.

The case of Sunderbans – home to a number of rare species of birds and animals, including the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger – was also diplomatically important as it had brought India and Bangladesh together.

Former West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Bangladesh Forest Minister Hasan Mehmud had declared that the neighbours would work together to ensure the land of Royal Bengal Tigers made it to the final list.

But Sunderbans Development Minister Shyamal Mondal said: “We are the only ones to be blamed. The Left Front government didn’t care much about the whole thing. What were they doing? Sunderbans getting selected would have helped both the countries.”

It is also believed that selection of Sunderbans would have triggered the flow of foreign funds in West Bengal which would have in turn helped the state in better wildlife conservation and unlocking new windows for eco-tourism.

Sunderbans, with its wild beauty, Royal Bengal Tigers and winding boat rides, attracts a large number of tourists throughout the year, especially in October-November.

The main tourism hotspots of the Sunderbans are the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve – the home of Royal Bengal Tigers; Sunderbans National Park – sanctuary to spotted deer, white bellied eagles, kingfisher; Bhagabatpur Crocodile Project – hatchery and home to the biggest estuarine crocodiles; and Halliday Island – sanctuary of the barking deer.

The tour operators and travel agents, however, feel the infrastructure needs to be developed according to international standards.

“The infrastructure needs to be developed and it will automatically attract foreign tourists to Sunderbans. Better roads, transportation and lodging facilities should be developed,” tour operator Raj Basu said.

Battered by cyclone Aila two years ago, the residents of the world’s largest delta are still picking up the pieces. Many are yet to be compensated. Over 300 people were killed and heavy losses were incurred in terms of infrastructure in the disaster.

State Tourism Minister Rachapal Singh told IANS: “We should start preparing for the next opportunity. It is very necessary to familiarise foreign travellers with the Sunderbans. We need to take up an aggressive campaign at all international tourism festivals.”

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