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'We must take pride in our local heritage'

Recently, I read a report by MasterCard, listing the top 20 cities, which received international tourists in 2014. London topped the list, with 18.9 million visitors. Mumbai had only 4.9 million and did not make it to the top 20 list. Neither did any other Indian city.

Common sense suggests that a large chunk of the arrivals into Mumbai are business visitors. Although many meetings and conferences are held in Mumbai, we are not among the world’s most popular conference venues.

Why? I think it’s because conferences are not just about business — they’re also about entertainment. And Mumbai, despite being the entertainment capital of India, has no entertainment for tourists.

(Right) Deepa Krishnan in Null Bazaar, while explaining spices and fragrances to a tourist.
(Right) Deepa Krishnan in Null Bazaar, while explaining spices and fragrances to a tourist.

In other countries, people queue up to fork out significant amounts of money to see professionally-run movie-studio tours. A VIP experience of Universal Studios costs $300; and a regular-Joe tour costs $80.

Dadar Flower Market is a delightful melange of chaos and colour. PIC/SHADAB KHAN
Dadar Flower Market is a delightful melange of chaos and colour. Pic/Shadab Khan

The studios actively promote these tours. They make money, not just from entry ticket sales, but also merchandise sales, restaurants, bars, performance show tickets, etc. But Mumbai has nothing comparable to offer.

Vasai Fort is a treasure that needs immediate help. PIC/NIMESH DAVE
Vasai Fort is a treasure that needs immediate help. Pic/Nimesh Dave

I think it will completely change the Mumbai tourism industry if Mehboob Studio or Film City makes a great studio tour, with movie history, dance, music, dining and other entertainment options. Just think about the possibilities! What if the entire Kapoor clan promoted an R K Studios tour? I’m told they still preserve all the costumes from their sets! What if the Bollywood Khans became ambassadors for Film City tours?

Mumbai needs more annual festivals like the Kala Ghoda Festival. PIC/sayed sameer abedi
Mumbai needs more annual festivals like the Kala Ghoda Festival. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi

I think Bollywood can make Mumbai not just a prized conference venue, but the number one leisure tourist destination in India for both international and domestic tourists. But none of the studios in Mumbai seem to share this vision. Forget studio tours, there is not even a daily song and dance show on offer based on the movies. What a waste of Mumbai’s potential as an entertainment hub!

A shoot in progress at Film City. PIC COURTESY/AFP
A shoot in progress at Film City. PIC COURTESY/AFP

Apart from entertainment, we also need to revitalise and improve other aspects of the city. We have a great art district in Kala Ghoda, which could be made into a pedestrian plaza with cafés, boutiques and art galleries, much like central Amsterdam or Brussels. It could become an attractive place to showcase Maharashtra’s unique crafts and cuisine. The nearby Ballard Estate, with its old-world charm, can also become an extended part of this tourism zone. It would inject life into this heritage zone, which otherwise goes eerily quiet after 6 pm.

I’ve always said that Mumbai’s heart lies in its bazaars and neighbourhoods like Bhuleshwar, Bhendi Bazaar, Lalbaug, Dadar, Matunga and Bandra. Each locality has its own charm. These neighbourhoods are tourism assets and part of our living heritage. Walking tours conducted by locals to highlight the architecture, culture and cuisine of these neighbourhoods, will not only attract tourists, but also result in a sense of civic pride and provide impetus to local heritage conservation efforts.

A major part of our effort has to be towards cleanliness. Mumbai’s street food is legendary. But does it have to be so unhygienic? Why should international tourists coming to Mumbai have to constantly worry about falling ill? In Kuala Lumpur, you can eat authentic food from small street carts and not get sick. The municipal authorities provide space for stalls, ensure hygienic water supply, and conduct regular inspections. We can learn from this.

Public toilets and good public transport are two major areas where we need to focus if we want to become a tourist destination. It’s a miracle if you can find a clean public toilet in Mumbai! The shameful reality is that tour guides in the city are constantly scrambling to solve toilet emergencies of tourists.

Elephanta Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but the clunky ferries that take tourists to the island have rickety motors, untrained staff, unsafe boarding practices and no life jackets.

I have personally been stranded aboard a ferry, drifting out to sea with 20 panicky international tourists. We had to be towed ashore by a second boat. The entire infrastructure around the Elephanta experience needs a major overhaul.

Lastly — I don’t think we can talk about promoting tourism in Mumbai without talking about how to develop the potential of nearby areas. Only if Maharashtra becomes an attractive destination, will more and more people consider coming to Mumbai. Maharashtra is blessed with a long coastline, great trekking potential, World Heritage Sites, sacred pilgrimage towns, unique craft traditions, and great cuisine. We need to raise awareness of everything this state can offer.

Deepa Krishnan owns Mumbai Magic, a company that offers walks and guided tours of Mumbai.

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