Coal mine adventure vacation? Western Coalfields initiative in India has immense potential

By: | Updated: May 15, 2016 9:43 AM

Ever thought about going to a coal mine for an adventure vacation? Quite popular abroad, the concept has been launched in India recently, and holds immense potential

THINK TOURISM and the images that come to mind are those of pristine beaches, lush-green rainforests, ice-capped mountains or gorgeous monuments from the past. Now, change the landscape to underground settings, more specifically coal mines, where oxygen is limited and temperatures can rise up to 48 degrees Celsius. Far from your conventional tourism hubs? Welcome to mine tourism.

Western Coalfields (WCL), a subsidiary of state-run mining company Coal India, has introduced this novel initiative with the aim of dispelling notions of pollution and environmental degradation related to coal and mining operations in India. Under this ‘eco mine tourism’ programme, WCL conducts free tours of two operational coal mines—Saoner underground mine and Gondegaon open cast mine, 45 km and 30 km away, respectively, from Nagpur, Maharashtra—to give people a chance to see how coal mining is actually done, understand sophisticated mining methods and machinery and to experience the conditions in which workers put in precious man hours. Not just that, in another green move, WCL has also developed an ‘eco park’ on the 15 acres that lie between these two mines. The park has underground galleries, mining equipment, etc, on display for visitors.

The novel idea came from an activity conducted at a local school in January 2015, says

RR Mishra, chairman and managing director, WCL. “A painting competition with the theme ‘environment’ was held for students. What surprised me was that many children depicted a polluted environment, attributing coal mining as the chief reason. I asked them if they had ever seen a coal mine. They said no,” recalls Mishra, who took over as CMD of WCL in October 2014. He decided then to conduct a trip for the children to an open cast mine to show them how mining operations actually take place and how they are not detrimental to the environment. Soon, he realised that conducting tours for the public was a very good way to show that the company cared for the environment. WCL started working on the eco park project in March last year and concluded it by October. The first mine tours for the public started a month later.

At the open cast mine at Gondegaon, there’s a designated viewing point from where tourists can see the entire mining operations. Located at a height, the viewing point makes for a safe and feasible option for the less adventurous traveller. The underground mine at Saoner, on the other hand, is an entirely different proposition. Tourists can actually go inside it after obtaining necessary medical clearances. Before going underground, they are shown a video of mining operations—how workers use the man-rider system to enter the mines and the different stages of mining—to prepare them for the trip. “Heart patients and medically unfit people are not allowed inside. For those who go inside, all precautionary kits, equipment and gadgets are provided by WCL. A technical mining expert and safety officer also accompany the tourists,” says Mishra, adding that the footfalls since the tours started have been increasing steadily, with many local tourists showing up in huge numbers.

More traction

Tourism in India is a growing sector. From breathtaking hill stations and beaches to world heritage sites, millions of travellers from across the globe visit the country every year to indulge in its rich offerings. In fact, the number of foreign tourist arrivals in India in 2015 stood at 8.03 million, a substantial increase from 2014’s 7.68 million, as per the ministry of tourism. Mine tourism could greatly add to that number. As it is, the mining sector plays a key role when it comes to contributing to the country’s economy. Over the years, mineral production in India has seen significant growth both in terms of quantity and value. India is home to many states rich in resources such as uranium, mica, bauxite, granite, gold, silver, graphite, magnetite, dolomite, fireclay, quartz, fieldspar, coal, iron and copper. In all, India produces more than 80 minerals.

Mine tourism is not a new concept. In fact, it’s a common and popular source of revenue for countries like Australia, the US, Canada, Finland, Germany, Norway, Japan, etc. But mining in India, keeping aside its contribution to the economy, has always treaded in murky waters, thanks to certain issues plaguing it, like claims of damage to the environment and the safety of mine workers. But now, authorities are hopeful that the new initiative will bring about some positive changes—WCL’s efforts even found mention in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mann ki Baat radio address earlier this year, where he said WCL had turned a ‘coal mine into an attractive tourist spot’.

“Mine tourism is an extremely niche segment and has seen minimal uptake with Indian tourists so far. But there is increased curiosity amongst the matured strata of consumers to try this unique concept. In fact, mine locations like Saoner and Gondegaon have now started attracting tourists,” says Rajeev D Kale, president and country head, leisure travel, MICE, Thomas Cook (India), which offers customised holidays, including visits to renowned mining towns like Kaapsehoop in South Africa and Sovereign Hill in Australia.

Image makeover

In a positive development, the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) has also come forward to add WCL’s eco mine tourism programme to its travel circuit. To begin soon, the plan is to offer boarding, transportation and dining facilities for mine tour packages in Gondegaon and Saoner. The price of the packages will range from Rs 600-Rs 1,300 per person. The fact that these mines are close to other popular tourist spots like Adasa Ganesh Temple, around 45 km from Nagpur, and Pench Tiger Reserve in Seoni is an added bonus. “We haven’t explored the tourism potential of mines and mining until now. For many people, it’s something very technical, but it can also make for an amazing experience,” says Valsa Nair Singh, principal secretary, tourism and culture, government of Maharashtra. “In this unique partnership, WCL will be in-charge of conducting the tours, safety precautions, etc, while the MTDC will be responsible for publicity and attracting tourists. The modalities are still being worked out.”

If and when the concept picks up, there would be no dearth of potential locations in the country that could serve as ‘popular mine tourism’ destinations. States like Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are replete with operational and defunct mines that could form a vast mine tourism circuit in the country. “We will gauge the success here (at Saoner and Gondegaon) and then try to add other areas. An image makeover is one of our primary goals,” says Mishra of WCL.

Popular mine tourism destinations across the globe

Tytyri limestone mine, Lohja, Finland
Limestone mining in Tytyri has been going on for the past hundred years now. The still operational Tytyri limestone mine, 110 m below sea level, is now enveloped within The Tytyri Mine Museum, which opened in 1988. Visitors can explore the mine and get acquainted with mining tools such as drills, hammers, mine trucks, etc.

Sovereign Hill, Victoria, Australia
Sovereign Hill is an open-air museum that depicts the story of Australia’s famous gold rush history. The gold diggings are, in fact, the centrepoint of the complex. There are two mines that have guided tours at regular intervals: Red Hill and Sovereign Quartz. Since opening in 1970, Sovereign Hill has become a top tourism destination for Australia, attracting around 4.5 lakh visitors each year.

Falun mine, Falun, Sweden
Sweden’s Falun mine was once the largest copper mine in Europe. It operated for almost a thousand years before becoming a museum that attracts one lakh visitors every year today. In 2001, it became a designated Unesco World Heritage Site. Apart from mine visits, tourists at the museum can also learn about the history of mining at Falun through special programmes.

Wieliczka Salt Mine, Wieliczka, Poland
Located in southern Poland, Wieliczka Salt Mine, which opened in the 13th century, was one of the world’s oldest salt mines in operation until 2007. Today, the mine is renowned for its statues and chapels that were carved out of rock salt by miners after commercial mining was discontinued. Often called the ‘Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland, it sees about 1.2 million visitors annually.

We will gauge the success here (at Saoner and Gondegaon) and then try to add other areas. People think that (the mining sector) pollutes the environment. An image makeover is one of our primary goals

RR Mishra,
CMD, Western Coalfields, a subsidiary of Coal Indi

Mine tourism is an extremely niche segment and has seen minimal uptake with Indian tourists so far. But there is increased curiosity amongst the matured strata of consumers to try this unique concept

Rajeev D Kale,
president & country head, leisure travel, MICE, Thomas Cook (India)

We haven’t explored the tourism potential of mines and mining until now. For many people, it’s something very technical, but it can also make for an amazing experience

Valsa Nair Singh, principal secretary, tourism & culture, government of Maharashtra

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