While Uttar Pradesh has consistently ranked among the top three states in terms of both foreign and domestic tourist arrivals in the country over the last decade with a share of around 13 to 15 percent in both categories, the state remains far from reaching its potential in this domain.
Tourism activity has remained largely confined to the three attractive destinations in the state — Agra, Varanasi and Prayagraj.
What is common between these three destinations other than their critical place in Indian history and civilisation? Good connectivity.
Agra, along with Jaipur and Delhi, is part of the most popular tourism circuit in India, called “Golden Triangle“. It is close to Delhi, where a large number of foreign tourists land, and also has its own airport.
It is linked to Lucknow through the Lucknow-Agra Expressway, and to the National Capital Region through the Yamuna Expressway.
Varanasi and Prayagraj, only 120 kilometres apart, form a triangle of their own with the town of Sarnath, and have good rail and road connections, and their own airports with flights to major state capitals and urban centres.
Ayodhya, despite the limelight it has received over the last three to four decades, hasn’t developed into a major revenue-generating tourism centre, largely due to the lack of good connectivity infrastructure.
The case of Chitrakoot, the second most important place in the Ramayan circuit after Ayodhya, isn’t very different.
Forget connectivity with other cities, there is not one direct road link between the two temple towns of Ayodhya and Chitrakoot.
A result of apathy of successive governments unwilling to touch anything associated with Ram even with a 10-foot-pole, this is now changing.
Both Ayodhya and Chitrakoot are getting separate expressways, linking these towns with neighboring districts and the National Capital Region.
The under-construction Purvanchal Expressway, which will link state capital Lucknow with the town of Balia on the border with Bihar in the east, passes through seven districts. One of these districts is Ayodhya.
Given that Lucknow is already linked to the National Capital Region along the western boundary of the state through the Lucknow-Agra Expressway and Yamuna (Agra-Greater Noida) Expressway, this would make for seamless connectivity from both eastern and western parts of the state to Ayodhya.
Both Delhi and Agra, the two cities that receive the largest number of foreign tourists, will be linked with Ayodhya through this network of expressways.
Despite delays due to Covid-19 outbreak, the main carriageway of the 340-km-long expressway is likely to be opened by the end of this year.
The Purvanchal Expressway, and consequently the district of Ayodhya, will be linked to Gorakhpur, another major temple town in the state, through the Gorakhpur Link Expressway.
Gorakhpur is the seat of the much-revered Gorakhnath Peeth, which for decades under three Mahants — Digvijay Nath, Avaidyanath and Yogi Adityanath — played a pivotal role in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
As Chief Minister, Adityanath continues to head the Gorakhnath Peeth as Mahant.
Work on the Link Expressway is already under way.
The Adityanath government is also upgrading the existing airstrip in Ayodhya to a full fledged airport for better connectivity.
Currently, airports in Lucknow and Gorakhpur, both within 150 km east and west of Ayodhya respectively, serve tourists coming to the temple town by air.
Ayodhya’s railway station is also getting a much-needed upgrade.
The railway station is being massively improved and remodelled based on the Ram Mandir at a cost of Rs 104 crore. Work on the first phase of the station began sometime in 2019 and is likely to be complete in 2021.
An artistic view of redeveloped Ayodhya Railway Station: Redevelopment work of Ayodhya Railway Station going on in full swing.
अयोध्या रेलवे स्टेशन के पुनर्विकास का एक कलात्मक दृश्य: अयोध्या रेलवे स्टेशन का पुनर्विकास का कार्य तेजी से हो रहा है। pic.twitter.com/6CAP4qusWO
— Ministry of Railways (@RailMinIndia) August 4, 2020
A majority of domestic tourists are expected to reach the temple town via rail.
Within the city, multiple other existing facilities and tourist attractions, including the city’s bus station and the ghats along the Sarayu River, are being revamped.
The Purvanchal Expressway is not the only new road that Ayodhya is getting.
In February 2019, Nitin Gadkari, Minister of Road Transport and Highways, laid the foundation for five National Highway projects in Ayodhya.
These projects include the construction of a 46-km-long four-lane ring road around Ayodhya to reduce traffic congestion on the narrow lanes inside the town, 275-km-long Kosi Parikrama Marg as a pilgrimage circuit around Ayodhya passing through six districts, and the 262-km-long Ram Vangaman Marg.
The Ram Vangaman Marg will be the first and much-needed dedicated road link between Ayodhya and Chitrakoot.
Starting from UP’s Pratapgarh, which is linked to Ayodhya to its north through National Highway 330, the new highway will reduce the distance between the two temple towns by around 50 kilometres.
Chitrakoot, along with the seven districts part of the Bundelkhand in UP, is also being linked to the National Capital Region with the Bundelkhand Expressway.
The 296-km long Bundelkhand Expressway, to be ready in 2022, will link Chitrakoot with the Agra-Lucknow expressway near Etawah.
The region is electorally important for the BJP — of the 19 Vidhan Sabha seats in the seven districts that form Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand, the party had won all 19 in 2017. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the party had won all the four seats in the region, repeating its performance of the 2014 polls.
Bundelkhand is flanked in the east and the west by the two most popular tourist circuits in the state. To the east lies the Prayagraj-Sarnath-Varanasi triangle and the Agra-Mathura-Fatehpur Sikri circuit lies to the west of the region.
Located where it is, Chitrakoot can attract tourists from both these circuits.
A plan to expand the existing runway in Chitrakoot into an airport with commercial flights is also afloat and the state government has expressed interest in developing it into a full-fledged airport to service the Bundelkhand region.
Two other infrastructure projects of the Adityanath government, Jewar Airport and Ganga Expressway, will further improve connectivity in the state.
Jewar Airport, coming up in the western part of the state near Greater Noida, will be the state’s first truly international airport. Work on the airport, touted as India’s biggest, has already begun. The state government has allocated Rs 2000 crore for land acquisition in the 2020 budget.
The Ganga Expressway, as its name suggests, will pass through the districts the Ganga River flows through. The 1,020 kilometres long expressway will be completed in two phases, and work on this project is already underway.
In the first phase, a 600 km corridor will link Meerut in western UP with Prayagraj in the eastern part of the state, passing through Jyotiba Phule Nagar, Sambhal, Badaun, Farrukhabad, Hardoi, Unnao, Rae Bareli and Pratapgarh.
In the second phase, two extensions will be built, one on the eastern end and the other on the western end. A 110 km extension will link the western end of the expressway in Meerut to the state’s boundary with Uttarakhand, near Haridwar. Its eastern end in Prayagraj will be linked to Balia near the border with Bihar, through a 300-km-long extension passing through Varanasi and Ghazipur.
The expressway will link all temple towns on the bank of the Ganga River.