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Indian State Hopes Rich History, Technology Sector Will Lure Tourists

India's state of Andhra Pradesh hopes its rich history will lure international tourists. For now, most of the hotels in the state capital, Hyderabad, are filled with business travelers visiting the city's high-technology companies. But accommodating more visitors will not be easy.

As the late afternoon sun passes over the tombs of the 16th century Qutub Shahis Tombs in Hyderabad, Mohammad Abzal sings the Muslim call to prayer inside the tomb of one of the city's seven hi storical kings.

The necropolis of the Qutub Shahis rulers is one of the world's largest such grave sites and is one of Andhra Pradesh's many historic and religious landmarks, which draw millions of Indian travelers a year.

The Shahi kings, whose roots lay in ancient Persia, built the nearby Golconda Fort complex, using the wealth from the region's legendary diamond mines.

The necropolis and the Golconda Fort are cornerstones in the city's tourist attractions. They lay in ruins until wealthy local aristocrats rebuilt the site in the 19th century. Now, however, the once beautiful gardens are in disrepair and the ruins again are neglected. But that is about change.

G. Vishnumurthy oversees the tombs site for the state's Department of Archeology and Museums. He says plans for a $1.1 million restoration are under way, financed by the governments of India and Iran.

"These people came from Persia - the present Iran," he said. "At present, we are getting funds from India only and we're expecting money from Iran also because these rulers belong to that area - they are also showing an interest."

The work is another part of the Andhra Pradesh government's effort to promote tourism, an industry that already accounts for about five percent of the state's economy.

Chitra Ramchandran, a senior state tourism official, says restoration, as well as the seeking of World Heritage listing, are key steps to attract more tourists to the city.

"We want to take our time but we consider this as one of the landmarks in Hyderabad and we want to get [World] Heritage status for the tombs and the Golconda Fort," said Ramchandran. "If we're able to do that it becomes a major draw for people to come and see."

Andhra Pradesh was also a vital cradle in the early development of the Buddhist faith, and there are about 150 structures in the state of historical importance. In addition, millions of Hindus make a pilgrimage to the Balaji or Lord Venkateswara Temples in Chittor District.

The state attracts about half a million overseas tourists each year. But the state's tourism minister, J. Geetha Reddy, thinks the travel trade could become a much bigger part of the economy.

"This state has so much diversity. We are very famous for our temples - spiritual tourism is very famous worldwide. Also very famous for our business tourism - we have become the convention capital of the country," said Reddy. "We're also known for our medical tourism, eco-tourism, adventure tourism, we have trekking and camping. We are now trying to promote beach tourism."

Growth requires investment. The state has announced an investment program of about $162 million, including hotels, parks and convention centers.

Reddy says the government is looking for joint ventures and partnerships, and offers a range of tax and other incentives for tourism investments.

The boom in the information-technology industry in the region means Hyderabad already faces a shortage of four- and five-star hotels. City officials say the number of rooms is expected to double to 4,000 by 2008. The shortage makes hotels here among the most expensive in the world, often more than $250 a night.

International hotel brands such as Marriott and Novotel already have properties in Hyderabad. The Sarovar Hotels chain, based in New Delhi, sees Hyderabad as a key investment destination over the next five years. Another boon for Hyderabad's tourism business is the construction of a new airport, due to open its first phase in 2008.

But the expansion of the tourism industry presents challenges. Besides room shortages, traffic congestion in Hyderabad will place more pressure on the government to expand roads to accommodate the growing number of vehicles.

John Koldowski, a spokesman with the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), says several issues need to be addressed to allow India's tourism industry to grow at a steady rate.

"Yes, air capacity is growing but the hotels are facing crowding - more rooms are required. There are some issues with some airports from airport to downtown," said Koldowski. "Elements like this. Bringing each of the elements of the tourism equation into some sort of sync, so we don't end up with boom-bust cycles."

Officials in Andhra Pradesh say they realize the problems that must be addressed as the tourism business expands. But, they say, their plans include ways to expand infrastructure and ease crowding. The state's goal, the tourism officials say, is to make the region an easy-to-reach tourist destination that offers visitors a memorable experience.