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Pune: Road to perdition?

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Living in the shadow (literally) of the financial capital of Mumbai in Maharashtra, the city of Pune has its own claim to fame. Not only as the ‘Oxford of the East’ with its various institutes of higher education, as a hub for the automotive industry and ITes or even as the cultural centre of the state, Pune has many facets which makes it unique.

Nikhil ThakurdasNoshir IraniPunit ShethShubhada Joshi

But when it comes down to the business of tourism, has the city been able to leverage its real potential? In an effort to gauge the travel and tourism potential in Pune, Express TravelWorld and Express Hospitality organised a Knowledge Exchange on ‘Positioning Pune: Waiting in the Wings’. A panel of nine industry leaders brainstormed as to why Pune, despite having the potential has not been able to promote herself as a destination to be reckoned with. Speakers included Shubhada Joshi, director of Girikand Travels; Ajit Luthra, VP, asset management and finance for The Westin Pune Koregaon Park , Sun-n-Sand Hotels and Shangri La Mumbai; SK Jain, VP and chairman, Civil Aviation Committee of Maharatta Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture (MCCIA); Punit Sheth, EAM, The Westin Pune Koregaon Park; Rajendra Kelshikar, director, Inn-Venue Hospitality Management; Nikhil Thakurdas, CEO, Uniglobe Odyssey Travel; Yogesh Dossa, CMD, Galaxy Travels; Sudhir Patil, president, Maharashtra Tour Operators’ Association and Noshir Irani, head of Pune chapter of TAAI. The session was moderated by Reema Lokesh, editor, Express Hospitality and Express TravelWorld.

Sudhir PatilYogesh DossaRajen KelshikarAjit Luthra

Troubled times

Something is amiss with the development of travel and tourism in the city of Pune. Tackling the subject first Joshi said that most people who travel to Pune, do so not for tourism but for business. “While Maharashtrians are avid travellers themselves, they don’t welcome tourists to their own state. It is a mindset challenge which needs to be addressed first,” she added. At the same time there is definite potential in the city to capture the interest of the tourist. “But ‘we don’t care’ attitude has to change,” she affirmed. It is also true that no one has taken any initiative to look at Pune as something beyond a business city. The ability to convert a business stay into an additional night of leisure is sadly lacking. Thakurdas revealed that the luxury train Deccan Odyssey is also skipping Pune as a halt in its 2012 itinerary. As an hotelier Luthra added that at his hotel in Pune, 90-95 per cent of the guests are corporate with very limited leisure travellers.

Kelshikar was vociferous that no initiative to promote Pune as a destination will be a 100 per cent success without the involvement of the state government. The challenge is that even while there have been initiatives taken up in the past, they never come through. “As I see it, the tenure of a bureaucrat or a government official is never long enough for them to see a project through. There is no questioning the ability of these officials but they are never given enough time,” he said.

S K Jain

An important factor to promoting any destination is air connectivity. Jain who has been pushing for the Pune airport project as part of MCCIA said, “It is the corporate and private sectors which have been pushing for the growth of the city. The tragedy is that the state isn’t even promoting Pune as a commerce hub!”

It took two years to decide on a location for the airport and a feasibility study was conducted. He adds that the lack of an airport is a huge drawback with corporates spending twice the amount of travel time to get to Pune. It has taken years of effort and communications to add three slots during the undeclared curfew at the Air Force airport at Pune. “Without an independent airport in Pune, we are losing out on as much as 3.5 million passengers in a year,” Jain he added. He further said that there is a ray of hope with AAI’s assurance and full support for not just commercial flights but also cargo in the future. Dossa who has been working hard to include Pune as part Silk Air’s route informed, “In principle, Silk Air has agreed to fly in and out of Pune, but the plans are currently stuck in the bilateral agreement talks between the two nations.”

For hoteliers in Pune these are troubled times with oversupply of rooms being one of the biggest challenges. Luthra threw light on the haphazard way plans are made and executed in the public offices. MTDC’s Tourism Policy of 2006 had provided hoteliers with an incentive scheme. “But when we try and claim the exemption,” he said, “we are told that this policy has not been approved by the state government.” Kelshikar added that what makes it worse is that as entrepreneurs, we do not know who to approach to clarify or rectify the situation. While Pune has been established as a business destination and hotel business during the week does reasonably well, it is the weekend which has become a sore point, as Sheth pointed out. A high-end hotel in the city has an ARR of Express Hospitality Express Hospitality Rs 3000 – Rs 4000 with an average occupancy of 40-45 per cent. The situation will become worse as 2,000 rooms are slated to be added by 2015. The hospitality scene in the future is only going to get gloomier, predicted Luthra, who is quite clear that Pune is not a place where he will plan any future hotel investments.

Bringing all these facets together, Joshi made an observation, “Tourism is a complete finished product. While private sector with different efforts are bringing in people to the city there has to be adequate infrastructure development to cater to all of that. And this is not in the hands of the private players.” Kelshiker added that there is a need to get the product – Pune – right.

Beyond the blame-game

“Of the six economic divisions in Maharashtra, if one leaves aside Mumbai and Konkan region, as much as nine per cent of the country’s GDP comes from Pune and the rest of Maharashtra,” Dossa said with pride. While the blame on government lethargy is undertsandable, Patil pointed out that even the private sector players are not pushing themselves. “Hoteliers do not network. Local tourism service providers need to come together to create awareness and promote Pune,” he said. Mumbai is a captive market for Pune; with economic slowdown it is a great opportunity.

While five-star hotels are continuously reaching out to newer audiences to create business, it is the two-, three- and four-star hotels who need to work closely with travel agents, tour operators and other distribution channels. Sheth gave an example as to how his hotel promotes small leisure trips in and around the city. “This is one of our efforts to create repeat business for the hotel,” he explains. Patil further added that despite the connectivity challenges, Pune has a great potential to be a MICE destination.

Leading the pack with a plan for way forward was Thakurdas who said, “There are so many small niche categories that can be tapped. The Derby season, music concerts, wine tourism, etc, are just examples that make the city vibrant. We can come up with an informal calendar that we can share with our clients and guests enumerating events that create a buzz for Pune.” Irani added adventure tourism and heritage as part of the calendar. Pune chapter of TAAI too will take proactive steps to promote Pune as a destination, he assured. Dossa added that different segments within the city’s travel and tourism fraternity need to come together and have a greater interaction to understand and plan what more can be done for Pune.

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