Conducted tours for revellers a success

Conducted tours for revellers a success

Bengal packages several places to woo tourists

Conducted tours for revellers a success

Over two lakh foreign tourists participated in festivities

Taking a leaf out of Bengal’s passion for “puja parikrama” or marquee-hopping during the Durga Puja week, the West Bengal government’s tourism department has turned the festive season during the winter months, between December and February, into a joyous occasion. What started with conducted tours for revellers during Christmas and New Year has been extended to outings for people at sites related to Christianity across places in and around Kolkata.

Mother House, global headquarters of Missionaries of Charity in central Kolkata, is the centre of all attraction following Mother Teresa’s canonisation in September. Other popular sites like Bandel Church, churches in the former French colony of Chandernagore, and those in Kolkata dating back to the early days of British and other European settlers have been included. Also part of the tour is the South Park Street cemetery in Kolkata, which has a morbid roster of Who’s Who from the days of the Raj.

The tourism package offered by the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation was kick-started on Christmas Eve and will continue through January, which is the picnic season for most people across Bengal. In the run-up to Christmas, the government turned Park Street in central Kolkata — the two-km stretch has been a hub of gastronomic and musical entertainment for decades — into a sea of light.

While inaugurating the carnival of Park Street, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that even though the state-organised street party will end with Christmas, the lights will be in place till the end of January. True to the street’s spirits, revelry took on its own life in the days following Christmas. On New Year’s Eve and in days following, the party went on unhindered, and like every year, it will continue all the way till Valentine’s Day on February 14, said restaurateurs and nightclubs along the street.

State Tourism Minister Gautam Deb pointed out that ever since the Christmas carnival on Park Street was started in 2011, when the Trinamool Congress came to power, it has proved to be a major tourist attraction. So much so that in 2015 Kolkata had the sixth highest footfall in the country in terms of number of tourists arriving through the city airport during the season. The minister estimated that two lakh more foreign tourists and five lakh domestic tourists participated in the festivities this year.

Allen Park on Park Street, which has been the site for a food festival during Christmas for the last five years, will continue to have stalls serving a variety of cuisines from around the globe till the end of winter. Also, festivities will not remain confined to Kolkata with Deb’s department offering for tourists visiting Siliguri and the Raj era summer retreat of Darjeeling, where Christmas is a special time of the year. Similar tours to Bandel and Chandernagore along the banks of River Hooghly are also on offer.

While for Christmas Eve, the package tours started at 5 pm and went on past midnight as they did on New Year’s Eve, packages will be available for visitors till the end of January, with fishing trips to the Sunderbans set aside as an added attraction for foreign tourists, the minister said. Trips to Bandel and Chandernagore are not drawing any fewer crowds, including a visit to the 417-year-old Bandel Church, along with trips to several churches dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries in the former French colony of Chandernagore.

The Bandel Church, arguably the oldest in eastern India, was founded in 1599 by Augustinian monks. Salesian Father T L Francis, Prior of Bandel Church, pointed out that every year more than one lakh visitors, across religious beliefs, visit the church during Christmas and continue to flock in through winter. This year an added attraction has been be a colourful display of light and sound  at the newly erected musical fountain. The main attractions have been newly installed statues of Mother Mary, Mother Teresa, Don Bosco, St Joseph, and St Francis Xavier, among others, he said.

“There is also the lifesize Station of the Cross, depicting 14 scenes from the final hours of Jesus’ life with 54 statues and a Christmas crib depicting the birth of Jesus,” Fr Francis said. The Church, declared a mini Basilica by Pope John Paul II, is dedicated to Nossa Senhora do Rosario, Our Lady of the Rosary. “We wanted to do something spectacular for visitors during Christmas and New Year. The musical fountain is designed to harmoniously blend with the peaceful and spiritual ambiance of the iconic church,” said Subrata Ganguly of Church Art, a Kolkata-based firm specialising in such work.

Also on display would be the historic ‘mast’ of the Portuguese ship that gave the church and the town its name. Last year, Bandel Church restored the mast that was struck by a storm in May 2010.

The mast, declared a heritage item by the Archaeological Survey of India, was an offering from the ship’s captain after being miraculously saved in a tempest in the Bay of Bengal in 1655. Similar sites would welcome visitors at Chandernagore, where the Sacred Heart Church of 1884, the French cemetery, dating back to the 18th Century and the 1-km-long Strand by the river are all major tourist attractions.

Even in the trying times of demonetisation, Christmas came early to Kolkata with the government drawing up grand plans to celebrate the season and usher in the New Year. What was confined to a Christmas carnival on Park Street for the last few years has turned into statewide festivities so that people can forget their woes for a few days, indulging in joy, looking forward to a fresh beginning.