Uttar Pradesh on the heritage revival route – Lifestyle News

Uttar Pradesh on the heritage revival route – Lifestyle News

In the 2015 film Bajirao Mastani, viewers got a peek into the fascinating history of Mastani Mahal in Mahoba, a princely district in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh (UP). With an intricately designed architecture, the fort is a living witness to the love story of Bajirao I (1700–1740), known as the greatest leader of the Maratha empire, and his second wife Mastani. There are several such places in Bundelkhand, which comprises seven districts in UP and six in Madhya Pradesh, each with its own story to tell.

From the dense forests of Chitrakoot, where Lord Ram, Sita and Lakshman are said to have spent 14 years of their exile, to the deep ravines of Chambal, home to some of the most notorious dacoits in the history of the country, from great warriors such as Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, the Chandela kings and the Bundela rajas to poet-saint Tulsidas, who was born in the region, Bundelkhand is replete with epic tales and historical milestones.

Today, this rich cultural heritage of the state can be relived, thanks to the UP government’s ambitious plan to revive some of the major historical hotspots and promote heritage tourism in a big way, which include conversion of forts and havelis into hotels and development of international airports in key cities for faster connectivity, among many other initiatives.Over 31 forts in the Bundelkhand region alone will be converted into heritage properties. Some of the highlights include sound and light shows, camping and trekking facilities at Kalinjar Fort, water sports and adventure tourism activities in Barua Sagar lake, to mention just a few.

The UP government is apparently taking a cue from neighbouring Rajasthan, which is home to more than 300 fortifications on hills and mountainous terrains, of which Kumbhalgarh Fort, Ranthambore Fort, Gagron Fort, Amer Fort, Chittor Fort and Jaisalmer Fort were designated as Unesco Heritage Site in 2013. With its vivid culture, stories of bloodshed, heroism and architectural marvels dotted in the historic past, Rajasthan has already gained global appeal for being one of the most tourist-friendly states.“Rajasthan was always promoted as the heritage tourism centre of India,” says Delhi-based heritage conservationist Ajay Kumar.

“But locals were fast to catch the momentum and convert havelis into hotels or self-promote their structures in no time. A similar situation is likely to happen in Uttar Pradesh only if the state can live up to the expectations, with people adopting the change and the state authorities giving ample security to tourists and investment opportunities in infrastructure,” adds Kumar, who is credited to have led the repair and conservation of over 50 buildings of historical importance in Delhi including the over 180-year-old St James’ Church and the 13th-century tomb of Ghiyas Ud Din Balban along with a cluster of unnamed structures in the Mehrauli Archaeological Park.

The roadmap

The UP government seeks to achieve a $1-trillion economy by 2027. The roadmap to achieve the target has been set in the state’s biggest-ever budget of Rs 6.9 trillion for FY24, almost Rs 40,000 crore bigger than the previous budget, with special focus on welfare of farmers, youth and women, and infrastructure development.Under the UP Tourism Policy-2022, the tourism department has laid out targets to make it a top tourist destination domestically and aim to be on top in terms of foreign tourist arrivals, attract investments worth Rs 20,000 crore and create 1 million additional jobs in the tourism and hospitality sector. It also plans to improve the image of 

the state in terms of safety and a tourist destination for experiential tourism.UP will also become the only state to have five international airports, including Lucknow, Varanasi, Kushinagar, soon-to-be-completed Jewar  in Noida and, more recently, Ayodhya.Global Investors’ Summit 2023 data shows that the tourism and hospitality sectors received proposals worth Rs 98,193 crore and Rs 20,722 crore, respectively. Key cities like Ayodhya saw more than 20 million people visit in the first six months of 2022, while overall the state witnessed the arrival of 248.7 million tourists to the state, of which the number of foreigners was 4,10,000. In 2023, Japanese hotel chain Hotel Management International Company Limited (HMI) signed an MoU of Rs 7,200 crore with the state government and plans to develop 30 new hotels in cities, including Agra, Varanasi and Ayodhya. Over 10,000 people will receive direct job opportunities as a result of this.

Then there are investment proposals worth Rs 9.54 trillion, of which Rs 4.28 trillion is earmarked for Bundelkhand.With the beautification and tourism development in Ayodhya, Varanasi and Prayagraj, the development of the Spiritual Circuit in Gorakhpur-Devipatan, Jewar-Dadri-Noida-Khurja and Govardhan has been proposed. A first-of-its-kind night safari is set to come up in Kukrail in Lucknow with an allocation of `50 crore.

The government has identified 100 historical-mythological places, and rolled out tenders to revive heritage structures and convert historical-mythological places like Chattar Manzil, Roshan-Uddaula Kothi, Kothi Gulistan-e-Iram, and Kothi Darshan Vilas, Chunar Fort in Mirzapur, Barua Sagar Fort in Jhansi, Barsana Jal Mahal in Mathura, Shukla Talab in Kanpur Dehat, and Tikait Rai Baradari in Kanpur into five-star heritage hotels.The projects will be developed on a public-private-partnership (PPP) model under the expert guidance of those who have operated heritage hotels in the past, and can run on a long term lease of 90 years. The properties will provide all the facilities without making any change in the original architecture of the heritage forts and palaces. Renowned hospitality groups such as Oberois, MRS Group, Leela Group, Mahindra Group and Ramada Group have shown interest in overseeing these unique heritage hotels.

“The development of old forts and havelis as venues will not only change the look of the many districts but will also become a major tourist attraction,” says Mukesh Kumar Mesharam, principal secretary, tourism and culture, Uttar Pradesh government.Mesharam explains that the properties will enhance the historical and mythological significance of the places. Neighbouring areas and villages need to be developed in the process, with at least 25% of local citizens gaining employment through the project, he adds.“They can construct lookalike structures nearby or within the campus to be in harmony with what these buildings have. They can make use of structures for museum guesthouses, wedding destinations, cultural centres or craft villages,” Mesharam told FE.

For both infrastructure development and conversion, the state has estimated an investment of Rs 30 crore for small-size structures, Rs 100 crore for mid-size structures and over Rs 200 crore for large projects, adds Mesharam.On an average, UP has 35 hotel rooms per 100,000 population as compared to other better performing states like Rajasthan and Uttarakhand, which have more than 100 or 200 rooms per 100,000 population. “Hence, the state needs to match up to the level of other states. The state should expand into a destination of experiential tourism with more foreign tourist arrivals,” says Mesharam.

A positive outlook

The key to development has been for the state government to understand that the common citizen is also a stakeholder of the forts and havelis. “Converting buildings of historical value in Uttar Pradesh is a good sign of responsibility and passion to build a strong heritage ownership in the country. The mindset of the government is changing from thinking themselves as sole owners of these heritage buildings and citizens as interlopers. Even the states are realising this as an opportunity and we are surely seeing a change in the ‘we won’t do and we won’t let you do’ attitude,” says Aman Nath, founder and chairman of Neemrana Hotels.

“Many states have tried it but there have been hurdles most of the time for making such transformations possible. But as far as Uttar Pradesh is concerned, the state government has completely reversed it. Given this fact, we as a brand are already present in 12 states in the country,” adds Nath.Neemrana Hotels is known for having pioneered the concept of turning abandoned ruins into experiential ‘non-hotel’ hotels, reliving history and spaces where royals and nobles once lived, for the past 38 years. The brand has picked fort-palaces and grand mansions from the 14th century till the 21st century and restored and revitalised them into ‘monument’ hotels.The company ventured into Uttar Pradesh with Mudfort Kuchesar, a heritage village located in the Bulandshahr district. It transformed and restored the fort to run it as a hotel in 1988, but gave it up after almost 20 years due to law and order situation.While the UP government is proactive, Nath finds that their attitude is what stands out and they really mean business.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for the state. Of course, there is no comparison with the Rajasthan model of heritage conservation. They had started it, had the right tourists, but UP is getting better now. Also, the law and order has also improved in UP. We have seen enough challenges. But my definition of PPP is Public Party’s Problem. If it’s Public Private Partnership (PPP) then it means PPP in the real sense. The government has to give infrastructure, roads and water. I hope other states will also follow the UP model,” says Nath.According to heritage conservationist Ajay Kumar, repeat clients or customers in any state are always welcome, and such clients come only if they get a sense of security, good infrastructure or if the investor has the ease of doing business. “It will be a successful model if the roads are spruced up, markets are lit up, tourists visit cities for beautiful sunsets or engage with different clientele,” he adds.

Status report

However, converting centuries-old forts and palaces into hospitality establishments is no small feat. “It involves a delicate balance between preserving the architectural integrity of the heritage sites and integrating modern amenities to ensure a comfortable stay. The meticulous restoration work often requires expert craftsmanship to revive fading frescoes, intricate carvings, and ornate interiors. The adaptive reuse of these historical gems demands a profound understanding of the past and the present,” says Akshita M Bhanj Deo, director of the Belgadia Palace and Mayurbhanj Foundation that has cemented the success of heritage tourism in offbeat locations like Mayurbhanj in Odisha and Ladakh.

“The conversion of palaces into hotels in Odisha has brought about significant impacts on various fronts, ranging from tourism and the local economy to cultural preservation and heritage conservation. It also brings a multifaceted impact that extends beyond tourism and contributes to the local economy, and heritage conservation, while also giving travellers a chance to engage with the state’s rich history meaningfully,” adds Deo. In Odisha, there are 15-30 palaces and forts which are ready to be tourist hotspots, and The Belgadia Palace is a testament to the shifting travel priorities.

Meanwhile, Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, MD of The MRS Group that owns and operates Suryagarh in Jaisalmer and Narendra Bhawan in Bikaner, Rajasthan, feels heritage conservation is a business opportunity in the market. “Over 70% of India’s heritage structures, including historic hotels, are in need of urgent restoration. These structures are not merely old buildings but hold the potential to boost tourism and local economies significantly. Preserving heritage while embracing modernisation might seem like a paradox, but it’s a necessary balance to strike. Some historic hotels have successfully managed this transition by incorporating contemporary amenities and services without compromising their core identities,” he adds.Shekhawat started restoring old forts and palaces to make them into culture hubs and incubation labs for reimagining traditional knowledge systems and local craftsmanship.

In Madhya Pradesh, apart from Fort Kuchaman in Nagaur, Shekhawat owns Mahendra Bhawan in Panna, Keoti Fort and Govindgarh in Rewa, and has plans to conserve these sites.Heritage conservationist Ajay Kumar sounds a word of caution, though. While restoring heritage properties, the artworks in mural or decorative stone work should be retained and maintained as per the ethics of conservation and they should be conserved or recreated if missing, he feels. The laying of plumbing lines and placement of washrooms, the system of heating and ventilation has to be planned.“While all this is a good way to attract tourists and boost tourism, this sort of development has to be a people’s movement and not a government’s,” adds Kumar.

The idea is to preserve the piece of history so that the future generations get a slice of heritage experience. “Heritage hotel owners must ensure that history is preserved and showcased in such a way that guests get to relive it during their stay at the property,” says Faiz Rashid, director of Jehan Numa Group of Hotels.While retaining the old world charm and family legacy, Jehan Numa Palace in Bhopal exhibits a collection of family photos, artifacts and memorabilia of the royal family of Bhopal along with audio guides for each section explaining the royal history in a walk through timeline. The museum at the property is a living heritage of Bhopal’s history and culture.

Similarly, Royal Orchid Hotels has several heritage properties in its portfolio in Karnataka and Rajasthan and continues to build the portfolio in havelis and palaces across India, including UP and MP. “We operate in an asset-light approach with revenue share, minimum guarantees and lease models, which are different for each opportunity. The focus is on religious tourism, cultural and heritage circuits with support of the state government. The digital economy, improved distribution platforms, burgeoning domestic travel requirements and expanding aspirations of the middle class align with heritage and luxury properties,” says Philip Logan, COO of Royal Orchid Hotels.


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