In conversation with Priyank Kharge

Honourable Minister for Tourism, Govt. of Karnataka

Priyank Kharge, the Honourable Minister for Tourism, Government of Karnataka,

answers the questions of our editor Dr.Simha Shastry about the current scenario of Adventure & Wildlife Tourism and Policies in the state in a one on one interview.

A&W: Sir, Adventure and Wildlife tourism sector is growing at a fast pace across the country and so in

Karnataka as well. What are the offerings from the tourism ministry for the enthusiasts?

Priyank Kharge: We as the department of tourism, we have broken up the stakes into various circuits:

Wildlife, adventure, religious, heritage, colonial  architecture circuits. So we have sort of streamlined these circuits across the state that’s inclusive of beach tourism, coastal circuits and things like that. So one advantage Karnataka has is that we are very rich in natural vegetation and the biodiversity is high, and also we have the great Western Ghats that flow right into our state. So adventure and wildlife is a very integral part of our circuits and we already, if you are aware, that we were the first ones to start any eco resort in the country through Jungle Lodges way back in 1980s. So Kabini was our first foray into adventure and wildlife tourism and now we have 21 resorts under the Jungle Lodges & resorts (JLR) catering to wildlife and nature

tourism. So, we have wildlife safaris, we have trekking, we have water sports, we have activities that are offered like river rafting. So we have all whole host of initiatives that we have planned for adventure and wildlife.

A&W: What are the destinations you currently have for various adventure activities across Karnataka and types of adventure activities?

Priyank Kharge: So like I said, we are heavily concentrating on Jungle Lodges and we have 21 destinations and 21 resorts by JLR which have both high adrenalin surging activities as well as relaxing nature resorts as well. Besides that, we are also looking at extreme sports like rock climbing, rappelling. We are trying to come up with circuits for triathlons, quadrathlon in the outskirts of Bangalore. For example one of the things that we are trying to do is like we are trying to have the extreme run on top of Nandi hills and cycling down Nandi hills in the same way. So we are also discovering along with the Department of forest, we are coming up with new trekking routes. So, we have identified 32 new trekking routes all over Karnataka which will be endorsed by the government and we  will be running curated treks as well as night treks here.

A&W: Are there any guidelines set on safety norms, operators criteria and standards?

Priyank Kharge: Yes, the department of youth services takes care of that. We have a General Thimayya

National Academy of Adventure (and sports). So all the licenses are given through this institution and it’s well curated so that at the end of the day we do not allow any unauthorized trekking routes, unauthorized trekking camps, night safaris, or adventure sports to be run without license. So we try to regulate them. he idea is not to have the complete license-raj over there. The idea is they just need to come forward to take these licenses. So we are ready to collaborate with these people as well.

A&W: Fine and would you like to collaborate with ATOAI that is The Adventure Tour Operators Association of India. The south chapter is going to start in some time…

Priyank Kharge: Why shouldn’t we collaborate? We as a government are open to any collaboration that will ensure that the ecosystem flourishes. For us the larger picture is to ensure that the nature and wildlife and adventure enthusiasts experience and explore Karnataka better. And so if it’s going to come through private people, our policy allows that already. So our policies are one of the best policies in India. So, public private initiatives have always been a part of that policy. It is not a deterrent at all.

A&W: Are you going to add more destinations for the adventure enthusiasts in the immediate future?

Priyank Kharge: Yes we are doing a recce and survey on most of these destinations so it’s just not new destinations. It’s just yesterday that I went to Nandi hills to see how we can ensure that we can participate in aero sports. And we are also getting some proposals to encourage beach tourism and also how we can make a international surfing destination in Mangalore. And at the Dev bagh beach also we are trying to do some sports. So adding new destinations is always a constant endeavor of any Department of tourism.

A&W: Incidentally, we had this hang-gliding association of India which we started about 30 years back. And we used to do it from Nandi hills. So after we stopped it, it didn’t take off again,  when we grew out of it. So I think some academy like this will help promoting the sport.

Priyank Kharge: As I mentioned, yesterday we had a meeting on that so we are quite open to that, as a part of our initiative it’s just not that we are trying to do only the wildlife and adventure tourism outside Bangalore. Within Bangalore also there are lot of places we can do that, namely Ramanagara, Nandi hills where we are trying to do whole host of things. It will also go to be a green initiative from our end. So we are promoting green tourism, green urban tourism also in those circuits. Yesterday we spoke about the aero sports whether its paragliding, hand gliding, we are trying to see how we can kick start it. If there are some associations which really want to do those things then we are happy to evaluate that. That includes sky diving as well. We have Jakkur and HAL airports. We can collaborate.

A&W: It’s heartening to know the tiger conservation has paid off and in fact we are number one in the country, there is a good increase in the number of tigers in the reserves of Karnataka, but the increase in population shall increase the man-animal conflict, what are your plans on handling this problem?

Priyank Kharge: See man-animal conflict I think is going to go on for a longer time. So the government of Karnataka is quite serious about trying to give the animals their share of rights here. In fact we are very proud of the fact that we host the highest number of tigers in India and also highest number of Asiatic elephants . So man-animal conflict is not just with tigers but also with elephants. So we have come up with elephant corridors, we have got a lot of tiger reserves, we have got leopard reserves, we have got the hornbill reserves. So its not just limited to tiger alone.

A&W: So what if you start something to educate the communities around the periphery about this particular thing and how to handle it. Would it help?

Priyank Kharge: See even just answering the previous  question, the Department. of forests is trying to bring up solar powered based  fences, elephant proof trenches are there, deployment of anti depredation camps in  areas of these conflicts. We are trying to strike a balance between both the wildlife vertical as well as human part of it. The farmers also lose a lot of crop because of the intervention of the elephants and animals everywhere. It’s a very delicate balance to strive for because of the nature of the problem. So we are trying our best. I think the department of forests, as well as the department of tourism have handled it pretty well.

A&W: Sir, What are the programs you have envisaged for the development of communities in the forests?

Priyank Kharge: So development of communities in the forest place is top priority for us. We have setup these eco development committees, and we have village forest communities which have been formed in almost all villages. And they support the department in conservation and the government also takes up eco development communities in these villages to solicit the support of the locals as well as we ensure that the  natural vegetation does not die down. So we have water conservation activities, afforestation, development of community centers, schools, creation of employment generation activities within the forest department. We employ forest guards, we employ them as probably tourist guides. I think we are one of the few governments to  supply LPG so that they don’t cut fire woods in the forest areas. Of course the solar initiatives also are  our high agenda.

A&W: Will you allow private lodge operators close to the parks to engage in community tourism activities, so that the communities develop? Would you be taking their help?

Priyank Kharge: Yes, I mean, we don’t mind doing the PPP, it’s the part of our council. And if you are able to ensure that the ulterior motive is not more of capitalistic centric one. Because these are all very eco sensitive zones. It’s just that we have to protect the flora and fauna. So if the private partner intention is right and if they have long term vision on community engagement, as well as preservation and conservation of wildlife and flora and fauna. Then we don’t have any problem with that.

A&W:  Yeah. Like in Uttarakhand. There are a lot of these resorts who take tourists for these community activities, which is very very popular.

Priyank Kharge: Even in Chamarajnagar we engage the Soliga tribe, and also there are the Jenu kurubas, who traditionally practice honey collection from the forest. And they are all very backward. Now we are also giving skill development to them and the PPP model also helps them for employment. So like I said if the intention is right , our policy allows it to do that. We are not shying away from that fact.

A&W:  And recently we saw a lot of reports in media about home-stays and streamlining them. See I also run a popular wildlife resort, the issues we have is we are not big, we cannot have a huge setup. So normally it is 4:5 and we are popular and part of Tour operators for Tigers, certified and audited as an eco friendly resort . And what these people are facing is the licensing. They don’t know where to go, they are paying the panchayat. So they think that is the licensing. But suddenly the police asks for some other license. So they are all facing problems and I agree that there are some issues with non standard activities happening. But I think 95:98% are doing excellent work. So how do you intend to streamline that?

Priyank Kharge: I might differ with the percentage that is doing the good work. But point taken. And In the last two months what we have done is that I have simplified the registration process I have made two things.

Number One- I have made registration of home-stays compulsory. They initially had to pay a fees of Rs.10,000  which I have reduced to Rs.500. And like you said that there was a misconception that you need to go to the panchayat for everything. So a step by step approach has been detailed out in our website and all they need to do is self certify and upload everything. So until and unless the DC or the SP gives them the go ahead it is deemed approved. And we come back to them within a month saying that these are the certificates that are needed.

A&W: But it also says NOC is required by the police…

Priyank Kharge: Yeah, self certification is there. So as soon as you upload it, you can start operating, that is subject to approval by the local authority. But if the self certification is seen as a malicious one or a malified one then we are going to take action. Like I said we have done two things one, registration I have made it compulsory, cheap and affordable, with self certification, which was not there prior and the second thing is the ratings. So like you pointed out, you might be doing good. How does a tourist get to know you. It depends on how you do your search engine optimization online or you have to spend..

A&W: And people look at trip advisor. So now that is the barometer.

Priyank Kharge: Yes trip advisor and you don’t even have enough money to advertise on big magazines, big news papers…

A&W: Definitely not, It isnt such a big paying thing.

Priyank Kharge: Absolutely, So what I have told them is before the ratings were compulsory and 15,000 was minimum with no ceiling limit. You could charge 35,000-40,000 whatever the rating agency wanted. What I have done is that I have got down the minimum  limit to Rs.10,000 and the ceiling limit is Rs.25,000. You cannot charge more than Rs.25, 000 for the rating.

What happens if you do the rating? The rating is going to tell you whether you are 1 star, 2 star, 3 star, 4 star, or 5 star depending on the facilities, your hospitality, the quality of food you serve, whether you have CCTV camera, whether you have wifi, the hygiene standards that you follow. So if you get rated, I will promote you. The department of tourism will promote you. How will I promote you? I will list you on my website, which becomes the benchmark for all other websites to take it from, because we are the valid, verified authority as we are the government. So if I am endorsing your home-stay, that means it is clean in all kind of ways. Like you said, there are lots of activities that go on that do not come to our notice- anti social activities, illegal activities, gambling, prostitution goes on. Luckily no atrocities have happened. Once they happen, The Department of Tourism is going to get blamed.

So I have given them a deadline of Nov 14. So by that time you register with me. If you are not going to register with me, I am going to shut you down. I am going to take action. I am not asking you to be rated. If you are rated, then well and good. I am going to promote you on my billboards, on my website. For example: Coorg is there, my property is there, also I’ll put your property. Under Home-stays of coorg, I’ll promote you, Don’t worry about that. But if you are not registered with me, I will deem you illegal.

A&W:  In fact, last week we went to Muthodi, a beautiful property, it’s a house, deep in the jungle, and it is not a luxury one, but extraordinary experience we had. We were about 20 of us, we went for trekking. So things like that. For them it becomes easy, if officers from your department could identify these people and ensure that they are rated.

Priyank Kharge: So it works two ways; one, we spoke about the home-stay part of it, where we are talking about small home-stays. What about resorts who are running on home-stay licenses. There are lot of people, they might have only 10 lodges. They claim to be home-stays, but they are giving service, they have a villa, they have a po-die, how do you say that it’s a home-stay. So there is a flip side to it which nobody looks at. So what happens is that it’s a revenue loss for me. And its not cheap. You are charging Rs.20,000/villa which is as good as The Taj in coorg. So there is a flip side to that also. I am not trying to regulate anything. All I am trying to do is that I’m just trying to ensure the safety of my tourist, I’m also just trying to ensure that you give the best service to them.

If you have registered with me, I am fine, you are rated with me, well & good, You are 1 star, fine. Its up to the tourist, if he wants to come to you. But it’s my job as the government to ensure that I provide the tourist with the information that, these are the legally existing properties. Here if you go, we have already done our hygiene test on that, it is safe. These are the features available. There is no CCTV camera but registration is compliant, wi-fi is there, food is hygienic. These are the things we have checked. So it is a 3 star. And the rooms are of this much size, you can get an extra cot, you can get an extra bed. It is child friendly. It is disabled friendly. All those things. So I give them information.

A&W: Regarding the Pravasi Bharat event that is coming up , Karnataka is playing a key role in it. What do you think is the message?

Priyank Kharge: So this is the first time Pravasi Bharat is happening outside Ahmedabad. And we hope to put up a good show. Bangalore has always been an anchor for such mega events, whether it is Aero India, whether it’s the All the flag ship events that happen in India, most of it are held in Bengaluru. And this time, we are coming up with our own policy for non-resident kannadigas and non resident Indians,  so that they get certain special  privileges of course to ensure that we get some investments as well from them. So its going to play a dual role of showcasing Karnataka as a investment destination and showcasing Karnataka as tourist destination as well. Which I said this event is primarily driven by the ministry of external affairs. So they’ll do their bit. But when it comes to putting up a good show that will define the next, we are very confident of pulling it off.

A&W: That’s Great, Sir, Thank you so much for giving us your valuable time.

Priyank Kharge: Thank you.