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Dry lakes: Udaipur to see fall in tourism
Kishore Singh in New Delhi
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January 29, 2005
Udaipur's lakes have dried up; but now there's a son-et-lumiere as compensation - is it enough to bring visitors in?

Architects who've always wondered about the foundations of the Lake Palace, may find this the best time to visit Udaipur.

With Lake Pichola reduced to a puddle, the 18th century palace hotel usually afloat in the lake, is securely anchored to its silted bottom, and the construction appears disappointingly prosaic.

Visitors to the Lake Palace can just about get to the City Palace jetty and back through a canal that has been deepened for the purpose, but guests often use a dirt track to drive up to it - and to the neighbouring Jag Mandir, the lake city's most exotic party island where, famously, actress Raveena Tandon had her sangeet party before the big wedding in the City Palace.

Udaipur feeds dreams, and tourism feeds the city that was created by Rana Udai Singh, scion of the house of Sisodias that had occupied Chittaurgarh and Kumbhalgarh before it moved lock, stock and zenana to Udaipur.

It's full season currently in the city, accommodation is hard to come by, and flights are so choc-a-block that visitors don't consider a change in their travel plans for fear of cancellations.

Udaipur's 25 per cent increase in tourists over the previous season in an indicator of its growing popularity - Rajasthan has to grow by 52 per cent to achieve the same levels of occupancy - but there's a sense of impending peril.

This year, the shrunken lake hasn't mattered too much, but overseas travel agents are concerned their clients will cancel bookings for the season of 2005-06 unless it rains, the catchment areas fill up, and water fills up the lakes Pichola and Fateh Sagar.

And there's no way anyone will know what the monsoon heralds till September, when it's already too late to change plans. Local tour operators and some hoteliers fear those cancellations may come sooner; there have been a few already, but not enough to indicate a trend.

But no one's writing off tourism - or the season - just yet. At the heart of efforts to create constantly new attractions in Udaipur is the major custodian and informally appointed CEO of the city's tourism infrastructure, Arvind Singh Mewar.

And the latest in his list of achievements for the city is a son-et-lumi�re show at the City Palace's Manek Chowk that was commissioned last Sunday.

The hour-long infotainment package priced at Rs 200 in the balcony (Rs 100 for children, and in the stands) draws on the dynasty's 1,500-year-old history and is a spectacle of voices and visuals that should draw the tourist in the late evening when there's little else to do in Udaipur.

Tour operators who were scared the drying lake might cause visitors to limit their stay in Udaipur to a single day from the largely two (even three) days they currently spend here, may find succour in the English son-et-lumi�re show, India's first at a private attraction.

Even so, there's already another half-hour sound and light show on Rana Pratap at his memorial in Udaipur, in Hindi, while preparations for another at Kumbhalgarh have been on for a while.

However, the Rs 4.5 crore (Rs 45 million) meant to clean up Kumbhalgarh (under ASI) and to stage a son-et-lumi�re there has received a setback since the new government took over at the centre.

The BJP's tourism minister Jagmohan had adopted Kumbhalgarh as one of his pet projects, and corporates such as Philips had been roped in to provide the lighting.

Some of the clean-up attempted at the fort might look synthetic, but it has at least helped preserve the falling plaster. The tracks through the winding fort were repaired, gardens laid, and much of the arrangements for the lighting are already in place, but with a change in government, the task has been put on hold.

The camp office organised for Jagmohan is yet to be visited by the current incumbent Renuka Chowdhury. It might be a while before the monument with the second-longest ramparts (after the Great Wall of China) in the world gets its evening attraction, but day visitors to the fort have reason to be pleased with its near-pristine condition and romantic setting.

But Kumbhalgarh (and Chittaur or Ranakpur) aside, Udaipur needs to feed water into its lake or else the prime attraction might just stifle tourism to the region.

It is a strange situation: the lake is owned by Arvind Singh Mewar, so the government - despite the threat to tourism - may not do anything to channel water to it.

It isn't as if it didn't rain in 2004; it did. But the catchment areas are increasingly under threat from encroaching city-dwellers, and so the water is not flowing into Udaipur in the manner it was intended to.

If nothing is done to prevent the catchments from sealing up totally, even a downpour in the monsoons won't be sufficient to fill the lake - or keep it filled.

For the moment, therefore, Arvind Singh - who has already launched a strong campaign for the use of solar panels not only for electricity but also for powering boats and rickshaws - may have to direct his energies towards ensuring water for his lake.

And since tourism in Udaipur revolves around his personal fiefdom of architectural treasures - you can't think of Udaipur without the City Palace, for instance - he's bound to be able to get the tourism industry together to campaign to ensure water for the lake.

But till that happens, the grand spectacle of the sound and light show must suffice. For, as one industry professional said at the launch of the programme, "We're used to seeing the lake full of water, but the foreigners are enjoying this as it is." Perhaps.

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