The travel & tourism industry in India was on the threshold of the peak inbound travel season when the Prime Minister announced that higher denomination currency notes were no longer legal tender. While this news sent shockwaves across the country, the next few days were marred by confusion and mass hysteria. This comes at a time when the tourism industry was on the verge of closing a stressful year, which started with a rather disappointing Budget and continued to show a slowdown in business and bottomlines. Further, the shoddy implementation of the demonetisation exercise has put the entire travel & tourism industry in India in limbo. In this entire hullabaloo, where travel agents, tour operators, TMCs, hotels and forex players (with the sole exception of OTAs) were trying to gauge the outcome of this development, foreign tourists were left in the lurch with no clarity on the issue. Foreigners on a visit to India for its culture, history and the Himalayan heritage were now looking for an alternative to the now defunct banknotes. While those with advance bookings and completed payments were relatively better placed, ad hoc business travel, students, medical tourists and backpackers, etc., who were already in the country were left completely helpless. Those who were not yet in the country formed part of the mass cancellations.
Inbound tourism makes a significant contribution to the economic activity of India. It was, therefore, imperative for the government to put in place emergency measures for foreign tourists, who felt stranded and were seen making a beeline to exchange currency, rather than invest their energies in a visual tour of India. This despite the ASI monuments accepting the older higher denomination notes. The financial system in India being thrown out of gear, saw a cap on currency exchange. This further led to diplomatic missions knocking on the doors of the Ministries of External Affairs and Finance to provide a solution. With the government having no contingency plan in place, these tourists/visitors are sure to return home permanently scarred with this experience in India. This situation and the resultant mismanagement that the country has witnessed is bound to throw up another major challenge in marketing brand India to the tourism world.
Although the intent behind demonetisation is appreciable, the lack of concern and communication from the government in addressing the ground realities is a huge disappointment for inbound tourism. India should take a cue from Thailand, which has a strong and proactive communication strategy in place for tourists during periods of turmoil. If Indian Tourism wants to realise its vision of attracting more than 13 million visitors annually by 2020, up from the current 8 million, as spelt out at WTM London, immediate concerted efforts have to be undertaken and travel advisories have to be issued to send out a message to the world, projecting India as a preferred destination for tourism against all odds!
Disha Shah Ghosh