Odisha: Italian hostage crisis sparks mass tourist cancellations in state

, March 21, 2012

Bhubaneswar: Panic gripped Odisha’s fledgling tourism industry following mass cancellations of visit to the state in the backdrop of the Italian hostage crisis. Tour operators said they received a spate of communications from their counterparts in other states and abroad cancelling, in particular, package tours, most of which were scheduled for the last week of March and next month. “I had at least four package tours planned in the coming weeks. All have been cancelled. A major tour operator from Italy promoting a regular series of tours to Odisha has cancelled five bookings till October. The operator is now thinking of diverting the tourists to other states in the country,” said Benjamin, a city-based tour operator. “Many visitors have expressed their concern on the situation and are thinking of cancelling their program to Odisha,” he pointed out. Yugabrat Kar, a tour operator in Puri, echoed similar woes.

Maoists kidnapped four people on March 14 from a jungle on Kandhamal-Ganjam border, including two Italians, Bosusco Paolo and Claudio Colangelo, both of whom remain untraceable. Benjamin said ‘Foreign and Commonwealth office’, a London-based organization that reviews situations in other countries and issues advisories to prospective tourists, has ‘advised against all travel to specific regions of India and against all but essential travel to other specific regions of India’. “There is a high threat from terrorism throughout India. Terrorists have targeted places in the past which Westerners are known to visit, including public places such as restaurants, hotels, railway stations, markets, places of worship and sporting venues,” Benjamin quoted the advisory note as saying. “Violent extremist groups are also active in rural areas of Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Odisha. Two Italian tourists were reportedly abducted by a group of Maoists from Daringbadi area of Kandhamal district, in Orissa on 14 March 2012. Foreign visitors have not previously been targeted by Maoists. The Orissa government has recently imposed severe restrictions on the movement of tourists, especially foreign tourists, inside areas inhabited by tribes people,” the advisory added.

Tour operators felt the state government since the incident has not shown much sincerity in facilitating quick release of the two Italians. “It is nearly a week. There is no visible effort made so far for defusing the situation,” said a tour operator. He said after the government put restrictions on foreigners’ visit to tribal areas recently, affecting tourist to a great extent, the kidnapping of the Italians has added salt to the injury.

Adding to the atmosphere of fear among visitors is the specific demand of Maoists asking the government to ban tourists’ visit to tribal areas as the first step for release of the two Italians. Tour operators admitted they feared the extremists might attack tourists and would not hesitate to kidnap them in case they took them there. “The situation has been so complicated that it has become impossible for tourism to survive in the state, a trade that had been generating handsome income for locals,” said a tour operator. As per official reports, Odisha receives around 60,000 foreign tourists every year, nearly 5,000 of whom visit tribal areas.

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