Tourism, long regarded as a luxury by the powers that be, may finally be seen as a more integral part of the economy. At every step, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has indicated that he prioritises tourism as a way to make India more developed. As another World Tourism Day is upon us, it is a good time to look ahead at what can be done.
Undoubtedly the opportunities are immense. The Minister for Tourism Shripad Y Naik actually has the opportunity to transform the ministry as one of the low priority ones to a key one, which will be part of many a wider decision making process. Tourism has the clout of generating a positive soft power image for a nation, and many a nation, from major countries such as the US or France or Italy to diverse ones such as Thailand and Jamaica and Mauritius have made it a key sector for their economies.
Right now India gets about 6.8 million inbound visitors or Foreign Tourist Arrivals (FTAs). This figure is about .7 per cent of global tourism and India should aim at least 1 per cent of global tourists – and that is a conservative goal. The number of domestic tourists is harder to determine as many work trips also get counted as tourism, whereas a more accurate measure might be the number of hotel nights – more difficult to measure in India’s vast informal economy. The number quoted, a guesstimate – is about 800 million, though obviously not all of it is translating into hotel nights or adding to the economy. India needs to aim at least 8 million FTAs by 2015, preferably more.
Tourism infrastructure, or the lack of it, is huge deterrent for many tourists in India. Drastic improvement in the quality of existing tourism infrastructure is needed – from quality of roads and highways, accountable public transport, especially cabs, good, efficient, affordable air and rail connectivity are a must. An upgrade of India’s trains and more airports are urgently needed. Aspects that have puzzled foreign tourists such as the lack of clean washrooms on highways or adequate retail, or even pavements and pedestrian walkways in cities just need little application by authorities. Better maintenance of monuments and tourism attractions, more stringent laws to preserve heritage, better regulatory framework to punish those damaging tourism sites. Preservation of natural heritage similarly requires better laws and protection agencies. Sustainable tourism will be key as more and more Indians travel for pleasure.
Cleaning up India is must and should be done not for the tourist, but for citizens. India has a huge health burden simply due to unclean cities, polluted air and water, inadequate treatment of sewage. Rivers such as the Ganga and Yamuna are particularly badly affected, yet these rivers are also huge draws for tourists. Having more facilities such as pleasure boating, rafting, sailing etc on them could bring in a whole new level of tourists to India’s waterscapes.
There is definitely a need to make Indian streets and public areas safer, especially for women. What was largely a problem limited to some north Indian urban centres has today spread to other tourism hotspots, and the government could do well to enforce public safety in these places. Women’s safety in some places is of particular concern, and again the enforcement agencies, especially tourism police, needs to be far more proactive.
India definitely needs to market itself better globally. While the Incredible India campaign has done wonders, it is but a start. Some states, notably Kerala have also marketed themselves well, internationally as well as domestically. There is urgent need however to make more focussed pitches – India is too large a destination for any tourist to attempt to do it at one go, though there are some who attempt to. Marketing for the spectacular Himalayan valleys should not be pushed alongside the beaches of Goa. Hot air ballooning in Rajasthan over palaces and forts and desert landscapes is very different from seeing the architectural wonders of south Indian temples or chasing tigers in Bandipur or bird watching at Bharatpur. There being just 12 months to a year, the Incredible India calendar often leaves out entire states despite having spectacular sights, as Odisha pointed out earlier this year.
There is an urgent need to address the component areas of tourism and get experts in each area to develop the niches. From adventure tourism to cultural tourism to culinary tourism to desert tourism to wildlife tourism to beach tourism and so many more, these are being ignored. About 70 per cent of India’s inbound tourists are limited to the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Delhi-Jaipur-Agra, whereas so many more such circuits can be developed given the country’s diversity.
There are already dedicated tourists coming for the Buddhist circuit in Bihar and Nepal, for example. There can be so many more of these itself as remarkable sites related to Buddhism – from the remarkable stupas at Amravati in Andhra Pradesh to Khandgiri and Udayagiri in Odisha to the spectacular caves at Ajanta and Ellora or the unique styles of Buddhism in areas as distant as Ladakh and Tawang can all have more focussed circuits. The PM has referred to 50 circuits, and while having even a quarter to them in a couple of years will be a remarkable achievement, there is potential for much more.
The attitude of the tourism officials often leaves the tourist fuming. Urgent retraining to inculcate sensitivity and the knowledge of how to pleasantly interact is urgently needed. India’s top end hospitality does the job very impressively – they could be partners in this retraining process. Better visitor centres, trained guides, maps, walkways, all will help unlock India’s immense treasures in a much better way.
Making the visa process simpler alone will double inbound tourism it is estimated. It might just raise it further. Getting the Indian visa has been a major bugbear, and the government’s announcement to implement this by October will be eagerly awaited. The extension of Visa on arrival to citizens from more countries is also eagerly awaited.
This is one of the most exciting moments for Indian tourism, and Naik definitely has the opportunity to be a hero. On this World Tourism Day, he should make a beginning.