The Statue of Unity will be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi tomorrow. Located facing the Narmada Dam, 3.2 kilometres away on the river island called Sadhu Bet near Rajpipla in Gujarat, the monument along with its surroundings occupies over 20,000 square metres, and is surrounded by a 12-sq-km artificial lake. It is the world’s tallest statue with a height of 182 metres (597 feet). The Statue of Unity is almost 100 feet taller than China’s Spring Temple Buddha, the world’s current tallest statue at 502 feet. The Sardar Patel statue will be almost twice as high as the Statue of Liberty in New York, which is 305 feet tall. The Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, checking in at a mere 170 feet height, is almost tiny when compared to the new wonder in Gujarat.
The Statue of Unity surely deserves a place in the history of the world. It joins an impressive list of manmade structures that have earned the admiration of the world through generations. The Tower of Jericho came up on the West Bank in about 8000 BC. It was 28 feet high, but was at that time the tallest structure made by man in the world. Mankind progressed significantly over the next 5,000 years. The Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt that was constructed in 2560 BC was 481 feet tall. In the modern era, the distinction for heights obviously belongs to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the tallest building in the world, at 2,722 feet high. By comparison, the Washington Monument in Washington DC is 555 feet high; the Eiffel Tower in Paris is 986 feet high; the Empire State Building in New York is 1,250 feet high. Not all the comparisons are apple-to-apple but the Statue of Unity is surely a marvel of Modern India and puts India on the tourism map of the world.
The massive Statue of Sardar Patel has cost somewhere in the vicinity of Rs 30 billion. There has been much debate about whether the money spent in celebrating and commemorating the memory of India’s Iron Man could have been better spent on other projects more directly beneficial to the common man. But history shows that once-in-a-lifetime structures such as the Statue of Unity create opportunities around them especially in terms of tourism, that create a positive return on investment in just a few decades.
The most apt comparison would possibly be with the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The Eiffel Tower was built by Gustave Eiffel for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, which was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. It was actually nothing but a ceremonial entrance tower to the 1889 Expo and was widely criticised in its time. But the wonder of the Eiffel Tower has endured and grown year by year, decade by decade. The Tower has been the heart of Paris, and the prestigious venue for a lot many events over the years. Since the 1980s, the monument has regularly been renovated, restored and adapted for an ever-growing public. Over the decades, the Eiffel Tower has seen remarkable achievements, extraordinary light shows, and prestigious visitors. A mythical and audacious site, it has always inspired artists and newer architectural challenges. The Eiffel has been the stage for numerous events of international significance — light shows, the Tower’s centenary, the Year 2000 pyrotechnic show, repainting campaigns, sparkling lights, the blue Tower to mark France’s Presidency of the European Union or the multi-coloured Tower for its 120th birthday, unusual fixtures, such as an ice rink, a garden, etc — keeping it constantly visible and attractive to the entire world. The Eiffel Tower today attracts 7,000,000 visitors every year, around 75 per cent of whom are foreigners, making it the most visited monument that you have to pay to visit in the world. Almost 300 million visitors regardless of age or origin have come from all over the planet to see it since its opening in 1889.
The moot question to be answered today is whether the Statue of Unity can become quite as iconic as the Eiffel Tower. Can it attract global audiences? Can it become the new magnet of tourism for India? If not global visitors, can it at least attract a sizeable number of local Indian tourists? Well, the Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the world, attracts about 8 million visitors annually; only 10 per cent of whom are foreigners. The most important factor in figuring out potential visitors to the new statue will be its location. The Statue is 421 kilometres away from Mumbai. Google maps show a travel time of 7 hours 43 minutes by road. The Statue is 200 kilometres from Ahmedabad with an indicated travel time of 3 hours 41 minutes. Travel time of 18 hours 3 minutes, and surely an overnight trip, would be required to travel 1063 kilometres from New Delhi if you wanted to see the towering Statue of Unity. One must not forget that the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and other such major tourist attractions are all located within well populated and much thronged cities. As a standalone site, the Statue of Unity is disadvantaged geographically and locationally.
The Ajanta Caves attract about 10,000 visitors a week, though that number has climbed to about 18,000 according to Maharashtra Tourism claims after major investments in tourism infrastructure over the past few years. Tourism data also show that most tourists, whether from abroad or India, prefer to visit pilgrim centres and not tourist destinations like national parks or historical monuments. The Ranthambhore National Park, the undisputed number 1 destination among tiger reserves earned a piffling Rs 230.6 million in revenue in May 2017, its highest ever. That in many ways indicates the challenge that the Statue of Unity might face in recovering some of the huge costs incurred in its erection.
The Statue of Unity is ambitious both in its scale and its design. The soaring Structure will be complemented by an integrated complex housing a hotel, a memorial garden and a visitor centre, 3.5 kilometres away from the Sardar Sarovar Dam. But for it to become a magnet for tourism, the Statue will require a lot of effort, time, money and astute marketing. This will have to be not just a one-off effort at the much publicised launch tomorrow.
The government will need to take the following steps:
- A sustained worldwide advertising campaign to inform and educate about the new marvel.
- A substantial internal marketing effort domestically all across India to attract visitors from not just Gujarat and Maharashtra, but all other Indian states.
- Easy connectivity by train, road and by air. Also, easy transportation from the nearest train station and airport to the Statue complex.
- Easy, plentiful and comfortable arrangements for boarding and lodging at different price points to attract all kinds of tourists.
- Lots and lots of good eating places. Gujarat is as it is a dry state, and that in itself is a limiting factor.
- Interesting things to do while at the complex. A good light and sound programme for visitors staying overnight.
- Marketing the Statue as an interesting venue for events, especially global, so that it gets international media coverage.
- A concerted effort to attract the MICE crowd. This could create a positive spiral of economic opportunities.
All of the above are not easy deliverables. The Statue is really far from any big city. Connectivity so far needs a lot of investment. The touristy infrastructure has a long way to go. Besides the statue itself, there is nothing much else to engage visitors. So, any ambitions of becoming the Eiffel Tower equivalent in India are still faraway dreams. The one positive for the Statue is that the Iron Man is very popular in his home state, and that itself could become its most important source market for tourism.
It is still early days for the Statue of Unity. Tourist traffic does take time to build up. At a glance, the world’s 20 most visited locations, according to Travel+Leisure, are