Foreigners keen on experiencing a slice of Indian elections are being treated to guided tours of this holy city and many of them have taken this opportunity to create awareness among voters urging them to exercise their franchise.
As political decibels rise, Varanasi is turning into a tourist magnet. "These tours are part of 'Heart of India', designed by a US-based operator which takes them to different parts of the country before ending in Varanasi. And, as the city has riveted the attention of the entire country, I thought it was only fitting to show them the heart of Indian democracy too," Som Nath, who conducts the tour here, told PTI.
Guided by Nath, 18 American tourists wearing starched- white Gandhi topis and holding placards then walked the streets of the holy city and urged people to vote.
"It felt great to be here in Varanasi during this time. And, I wish India luck. But, people not coming out to vote on polling day, is an issue in our country too. And, so we feel happy to raise awareness about the same here," Sarah Alsdorf, 67, part of the team had said during the walk. Another group of American travellers are scheduled to arrive in the temple town on April 24, incidentally on the day when BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi will file his nomination for the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat. "After our successful trip in the first week of April, another group of American tourists will be visiting Varanasi on April 24. This time we are planning to take them to Benares Hindu University and interact with the students and crowd there to give them a feel of the polls," Nath said, adding, "The idea is to give them a slice of elections in India."
As foreign tourists interested in Indian politics might also want to witness the "political jamboree", a tourism official said, operators are formating tours on "election themes", to woo travellers heading towards the holy city.
According to Uttar Pradesh tourism official data for Varanasi, there is a steady increase in foreign tourists footfall in the last three months gone by -- 30,960 (January), 32,273 (February) and 41,593 (March).
Also, for the March month, there is a constant rise in footfall for foreign tourists in the last three years, with March in the current year seeing a huge jump over previous years -- 22,455 (2012), 24,895 (2013) and 41,593 (2014).
A group of travel and tour operators from Gujarat, under the umbrella of Tourism Development Corporation Society, has launched travel packages linking them to what possibly they say would be "an electoral spectacle" in Varanasi, given the presence of political heavyweights in the spiritual city. Varanasi Tourism Guild President Sushil Singh said, the elections are going to push up economy in the city further, and travel and hospitality industry both will benefit from peoples' movement in and out of the sacred city.
"Airline traffic has already shown increase. And, there is already a 20-25 per cent increase in tourist influx and small budget hotels, guest house, lodges and dharamshalas are all seeing at least 30-40 per cent hike in occupancy rates," he said.
With high-profile candidates like Modi and AAP's Arvind Kejriwal in the fray, the spotlight has ready turned on Varanasi in a different way, and as polling date nears, hotels and travel industry are seeing a spike in an otherwise off season, according to Mrityuanjay Mishra, Assistant Director, India Tourism office in Varanasi. "Hotels are seeing a jump of about 40 per cent in booking despite April-June being an off season here. This election has made all the difference this summer. And, with the city becoming a prime ministerial candidate seat, the excitement is bound to go up. It is happy time for all stakeholders of the sector," Mishra said.
Rahul Mehta, President of an NGO 'Tourism Welfare Association' said, party supporters are flocking in from different parts of India, and tour operators are "very happy" and the nature of this election will be "drawing more and more people".
"People are coming in from Ahmedabad and Delhi in support of their respective parties. And with Modi vs Kejriwal battle assuming centrestage in the city, the entire country is looking at Varanasi. National as well as international press will also be coming for coverage. Some are already here, and it is going to be a boom time for tourism," Mehta said.
Chairman, Diamond Hotel, S K Singh, said, "Two weeks before the polls here, a massive crowd is expected to descend on to the city now. And, with about 2,000 hotels, lodges, motels, inns and dharamshalas in the city, Benares is ready for business."
Nath said apart from regular American tourists that he handles for his US-based client, "Travellers from the UK, France, Germany are also expected to visit the ancient city, as I get them from my colleagues who operate in the European sector. Lots of South Asians tourists would anyway come due to Buddhist sites like Sarnath nearby, election or otherwise."