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Thursday, 01 February, 2018, 16 : 19 PM [IST]

India-ASEAN: The Tourism Imbalance

In a nutshell, the 69th Republic Day celebration was special and at the same time different. It was special because of the presence of large number of heads of states from the ASEAN at the VIP enclosure to watch the majestic parade. And, therefore, the whole show turned out to be different in its organisational grandeur. The heads of ASEAN regional grouping was in Delhi to participate in the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit to mark the silver jubilee of ASEAN-India Dialogue Relations. The leaders also signed the Delhi Declaration to strengthen relationships between the region and India in a wide range of areas like economics, trade, connectivity, socio-cultural, etc., at the Summit.

Considering the shared values and cross cultural and civilisational linkages between SE Asia and India dating back to several centuries, the Delhi Declaration reiterated the commitment to cement ‘cultural linkages by promoting cultural tourism and further enhance people to people contacts’. The overall spirit of the Declaration, including the one to expedite the implementation of Trilateral Highway project connecting India with SE Asia through Myanmar to Thailand and further to Cambodia, Lao PDR and to Cambodia was definitely aimed at enhancing connectivity and hence strengthen travel and tourism linkages.

However, from a tourism standpoint, the point of concern for India is growing imbalance in tourism traffic with the ASEAN. While Indian travellers are the mainstay of many leading countries in the ASEAN, the reverse traffic to India is just paltry. Thailand, the leading tourism destination of SE Asia, received 1.40 million Indians at the last count and the numbers are increasing at a good double-digit y-o-y. On the reverse, the number of Thai tourists India gets is just over a lakh, 1.15 lakh as per 2015 statistics of Indiatourism. Same is the case with Singapore, while more than a million Indians visited the city-state in 2016, what India received is 1.5 lakh Singaporeans in return. Even for Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, relatively large constituents of the ASEAN, the numbers are vastly tilted against India. It is 2.7 lakh against 6.3 lakh in favour of Malaysia, 3 lakhs against 35,000 in favour of Indonesia and 1 lakh to less than half in the case of the Philippines.

The reason for this imbalance is largely the result of a very skewed marketing strategy of India in the ASEAN regional market based heavily on Lord Buddha and Buddhist circuit. None other than a high-ranking diplomat from an ASEAN country pointed out how that strategy has backfired for India over a period of time. Because of the overdose of destination marketing based on one product, India is largely understood as a pilgrim destination by people which makes it less appealing beyond a section of travellers.

The misfortune is that our tourism strategists always believed in the ‘Look West’ policy as the best policy with scant regard for ‘Look East’ policy of the successive governments!

P Krishna Kumar
Bureau Chief, New Delhi
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