We, in the travel industry, are in the business of perceptions. We start by selling dreams and only then do we try to craft reality to match the hopes we’ve created in the minds of our clients. Sadly, in the last 12 months, the Perception of India has taken harsh and repeated beatings.
We were enthused about a Bullet Train but then a violent rail and road roko cut off all access to Haryana. It was one of the many cold, damp, reality checks that have shattered our dreams. There were others, too. In spite of the greatly hyped Clean India Campaign, Delhi became a noxious gas chamber. Battering our hyped hopes of better days ahead, the Internet highlighted reports of the continuing inequities in our society, gang rapes, murdering paedophiles, the suicide of a young achiever because of his ethnicity, and a flooded Chennai. We’re proud of our non-violent freedom struggle and yet we used a vicious colonial law against our students. Netas try to explain away all this by pleading “Give us time: we’ve only been on the job for a few years!” That would be convincing if our hyper-active, but inept, state publicity organisations had not morphed a shot of the PM flying over an inundated city and then a senior politician relied on a crudely doctored video to justify the hurried incarceration of a socially deprived student leader. The FTII problem still festers striking resonances with the film fraternity globally. Rightly or wrongly there is a significant erosion of credibility: pontifical pronouncements of well-being are greeted with cynicism.
Arguable, these could be largely problems of perception which have spread across the world like a dark tide. We reassure ourselves that if our clients actually visit India, they might find that the reality is quite different. But will they do that? With so many competing destinations worldwide, why should they make the effort?
We are a conversational nation, much of our communication is still done verbally and not through the electronic and print media.
Sadly, the tourism industry has made no effort to reach out and influence the argumentative Indian, the one who really holds the destiny of the state in his hands; the one Kejriwal and Nitish and Lalu influenced so successfully. The average citizen still views tourism as an elitist industry, or to use a recently coined phrase, a suit-boot activity. The repercussions of this image are clear in this year’s budget. We have not got even an honorary mention. But, having said that, we see straws in the wind which could predict a rosier shape of things to come. They give us an idea of how we should refashion our strategy. We need to be proactive in enhancing tourism products all across our country, even in creating new ones, instead of just marketing them.
Many months ago, Dr. Mahesh Sharma led a publicised convoy of netas and babus to examine a trickle of water that had appeared in a village in Haryana. He seemed to have got the impression that it could be the reappearance of the long-lost Saraswati. The state government was quick off the mark and set up an organisation to enquire into this hopeful phenomenon reasoning that its potential as a tourist attraction was high: which accounted for Mahesh Sharma’s presence. Now we learn that another Minister, Water Resources Mantri Uma Bharati, has set up a ‘task force’ to look into the veracity of the claim. The mantriji was reported to have said “The ministry will think further about the river only after the veracity was found.” Does that show a growing realisation in the corridors of power that the future of our vast and diverse nation does not lie in resurrecting the past? Possibly.
The creation of new tourist attractions cannot be left in the hands of the bureaucrats who are dedicated generalists, and detest change. Nor can it be dictated by self serving netas. We, in the travel industry, need to take charge of our own future. We’ve just received a newsletter from the highly creative tourism entrepreneurs of the Lake Geneva Region of Switzerland. Drawing on the fact that the late Charlie Chaplin lived there, they have opened Chaplin’s World in his former estate. As the newsletter describes it:
Personal items and multimedia experiences are mixed with HD and 3D images, state of the art acoustics, special effects and even virtual reality. In a nutshell, all the latest technological advances join forces. The key elements: a 3-hour walk through exhibits that are spectacular, amusing and touching…For fans who want to immerse themselves in Chaplin’s universe, a stay at the Modern Times hotel is a must… the hotel is linked to Chaplin’s World by a free shuttle.
This is edutainment at its best, as high-voltage and gripping as the PM’s election campaign was. Clearly, therefore, we have the expertise to create such attractions but when we focus on famous people, our museums take on all the solemnity of a funeral parlour. We could, however, create entertaining museums around our unique products serving both our Make in India thrust as well as tourism. In Malaysia we were enthralled by a Rice Museum built like a giant rice basket. It had a superb wrap-around diorama of the year-long activities of rice farmers, and sales counters. Nagpur could have a similar museum on Oranges, Kochi on Spices, Mysore on Silk, to name a few.
These creative suggestions, however, must come from the travel industry. We must draw on our knowledge of the myriad products and the multiple skills of our diverse people. Our netas and babus have neither the time or the desire to do, so.
There’s a charming Celtic legend which says that if you ever find the end of a rainbow, you’ll discover a pot of gold. Blessed by two monsoons, thousands of rainbows arch all over our land, we must help our nation to discover those hidden pots of gold.
We really should, very seriously, start chasing rainbows.