Ancient Buddhist stupas at Sanchi attract religious pilgrims to the Bhopal area.
Ancient Buddhist stupas at Sanchi attract religious pilgrims to the Bhopal area.

It has been nearly a quarter-century since a gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide factory killed thousands of people in Bhopal. Today, the central Indian city is trying to reclaim its reputation as a major tourist destination.

Say "Bhopal" and most people do not think of pristine lakes, verdant hills, wetland wildlife and nearby archaeological wonders.

The image that often comes to mind is of one of the world's worst industrial disasters.

The December 1984 gas leak killed thousands of Bhopal's residents and sickened many more. Since then, the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh has struggled to lure visitors back. Few tourists see Bhopal, despite the city's historic palaces, the country's largest mosque, internationally acclaimed museums and a moderate climate year-round.

For the general manager of the Jehan Numa Palace Hotel, Kamal Bharti, it is frustrating to see Bhopal equated with disasters such as the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown, or the World War II atomic bombings in Japan.

"Today if we keep on saying that 'Nagasaki happened' and 'Hiroshima happened' and every year the people take out rallies and the total international media keeps covering those, so what will happen to [the image of] Japan?" asked Bharti.

Bharti and others in Bhopal's tourism industry believe that if the victims of the accident are adequately compensated, the city's image will be able to move beyond the tragedy.

Activist groups blame the government of India and Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide in 2001. They say both have turned a deaf ear to appeals for proper health care and financial aid for disabled survivors and compensation for families of the deceased.

Tourism officials say some potential visitors wrongly believe that poison still lingers in the air of Bhopal. Such perceptions have kept the city from reaching its full tourism potential.

Yawar Rashid is a member of the Mirazi Khel dynasty, which ruled Bhopal as one of the region's largest Muslim princely states for 200 years until the mid-20th century.

"Especially foreigners, Europeans, they're most skeptical about coming to Bhopal," he said. "You have to get over that aspect although the air is clean and it's healthy and there's no pollution at least compared to the rest of the cities or towns of this size. It's more open, fresher air and a lot of trees."

Hotel manager Bharti believes Bhopal's percentage of tourism visits could expand 20 times if people stopped associating it with the gas leak.

"Eight-five percent are business. And out of [the other] 15 percent, 10 percent are on family and personal reasons. Five percent are the tourist groups. The groups we get are mainly for the Buddhist [pilgrimage] circuit," he explained.

The ancient stupas at Sanchi, some 2,200 years old, are within an hour's drive from Bhopal. Hindu and Muslim historic sites are not much farther and have long attracted religious pilgrims.

To try to boost tourism, state officials plan to increase by six times the number of hotel rooms in heritage properties. Private investors are to be offered long-term leases on up to 60 palaces and forts in Madhya Pradesh for conversion into luxury hotels. Officials, investors and residents all hope such renovations will help restore Bhopal to its former regal reputation.