Kolkata, Dec 30: West Bengal, in its bid to prioritise sustainable development and eco-friendly practices, has got the ball rolling to promote eco-tourism on a large scale in the state. This includes plans to set up a bird sanctuary in Kolkata on the lines of Singapore's Jurong Bird Park, a step the government hopes will catapult the site to the top-five tourism spots in India.
From the scenic hills of northern Bengal's Dooars region to the coastal delights in Hooghly district and ecological wonders of the Sunderbans, the government has flagged off work on three mega eco-tourism hubs.
The board will be chaired by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to facilitate implementation of the proposals in a manner that doesn't damage the environment.
"The two priorities for us are - balance between nature and industrial development and eco-friendly practices. We certainly don't want to disrupt natural systems at the cost of progress and we will monitor the implementation of projects in accordance with that," Tourism Minister Bratya Basu told IANS.
Work has already started in Jharkhali (in the Sunderbans), at Gajoldoba, 35 km east of Siliguri in the Terai-Dooars forest circuit, and at Sobuj Dweep in Hoogly district.
The tourism department is designing a Sunderbans tourism roadmap taking into account the two priorities, Basu said.
To tap into the relatively virgin locales in the Sunderbans, Banerjee recently launched a Rs.400-crore project to boost tourism infrastructure in Jharkhali on a public private partnership model.
Nearly two dozen industrialists of the state, including Harsh Neotia, Sanjay Budhia, Utsav Parekh, Sumit Dabriwal and Sanjay Agarwal, accompanied her during the trip.
Jharkhali is one of the entry points to the Sunderbans - home to the endangered Royal Bengal tiger. The proposed hub will have an eco-tourism park and hotels for tourists.
To ensure ease of travel, Banerjee also unveiled a 725 metre bridge - named Mridanga Setu - that will connect the Sunderbans with the mainland.
The thrust of the Trinamool Congress government is on helping tourists learn about the delicate and intricate eco-systems and the importance of preserving them.
Another ambitious project is the world's first mangrove zoo to come up in Jharkhali at a cost of Rs.25 crore. The hub will mimic the mangrove ecosystem to ensure compatibility with the animals.
Banerjee said it would mainly help conserve the endangered flora and fauna of the Sunderbans.
The Trinamool supremo also inaugurated a tiger rescue centre in the area named 'Byaghrosundari' (Bengali for 'beautiful tigress').
The chief minister has had an active year visiting these locations and many more potential spots in her effort to build a "gateway to the Sunderbans".
She has also reached out to the picturesque hilly regions to boost tourism, including the Buxa Tiger Reserve (BTR) where she took an initiative to revive a car safari that was stopped four years ago.
The reserve, spanning 762 square km in Jalpaiguri district, has 12-15 tigers, according to government sources.
Banerjee plans to make Jayanti, one of the villages in the BTR area, a model village, spruced up with homestays where tourists can enjoy a slice of local culture.
The state will also float a global tender for a 100-acre eco-tourism park at Banarahat in the district, complete with resorts, budget hotels, craft villages, convention centres and a youth hostel.
Over the next two years, the project is likely to fetch an investment of more than Rs.300 crore.
Similar to Jharkhali, Gajoldoba, at the confluence of two rivers in Hooghly district, is being pegged as the 'gateway' to the Dooars.
"The coastal spots will have water sports and other adventure activities while the ones in the ecologically-rich areas will have safaris, trekking, bird watching etc. Activities will be specific to the locations of the eco tourism parks," said Basu.
The tourism department is also working on developing two new eco-tourism hubs at Sylee, adjacent to Malbazar, and Kunjanagar near Falakata in the Dooars over an area of 90 acres, with a focus on tea tourism.
During the year, the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation conducted several roadshows across India to attract investments.
The sprawling Eco Park in Kolkata, with gardens and water bodies, has been headlined as a success story for snaring bigger deals and projects.
During her Singapore sojourn to tap investment, Banerjee toured the famous Jurong Bird Park to plan better for the five-acre bird sanctuary slated to come up inside Kolkata's Eco Park.