Amitabh Kant, who has done more for Indian Tourism than most of the other people we know, believes that the new Incredible India campaign should market India as a high-valuedestination. It’s a great idea; great for big business; great for five-star hotels and for those who claim to have an even higher stellar rating; great for all those who deal with only the “creamy layer” of tourists. But what about us, the lesser mortals who would also like to have a holiday?
So let’s take a reality check. Let’s start with those who want to attract international travellers. (We’ll come to the very important domestic market a little later)
What do the people of our traditional tourism generating areas, overseas, want? More importantly, what do they not want? They don’t want chaos and violence, because if they did they’d join ISIS. They don’t want insecurity.And they don’t want the sort of bulldozed, badgered, bullied uniformity trumpeted by Trump: the white, Anglo-Saxon, Wasp kind. Sadly, Europe and Britain, once self-styled “Great”, are heading the same, Brexit, nativism way.
So what can we offer those people who are fed up with being told how to think, and what to do? We can offer such sane people the three things we still have in plenty:
Serenity, Security and Diversity
Happily, those three qualities are exactly what our growing numbers of domestic tourists, with burgeoning disposable incomes, are also seeking. We know, because we live in a hill-station bursting at the seams with domestic visitors virtually 12 months of the year. But though we, in our little Himalayan town, can offer them Serenity and Security, we fall short of Diversity because our netas fall equally short of imagination. They still think in terms of fountains, when we have a growing water crisis. They allow cycles to further congest our over-crowded Mall Road choked with cars, motorcycles, scooters and cycle rickshaws. The visitor from the plains, who has spent his hard-earned money to escape to a high, cool, open environment where he can breathe pure Himalayan air finds himself back in an elevated urban setting breathing exhaust fumes from stalled, honking, traffic and dodging vehicles on roads which are much narrower than those back home!
This is why we’d like you to meet Ajay. He is the wide-ranging correspondent of a very independent national daily particularly popular in Northern India. Ajay doesn’t drive a pollution-producing vehicle and yet he’s travelled to the remotest little villages in our mountain state. He talks to people, walks with them, lives in their little huts, shares their food and festivals, and learns their folkways. He asks a lot of questions and is, obviously, not the favourite of local netas. In other words he is the sort of investigative journalist we have often read about, but seldom met. Because of this, Ajay has discovered traditions, customs, folkways, local cuisines, costumes and mores that have survived from long before the equestrian Iranians filtered into our land.
We need more Ajays. When Nepal’s Tiger Tops teamed up with Karnataka’s Jungle Lodges, they introduced a new specialist into our Wilderness Tourism scene: the Naturalist. He is much more than a Spotter. He knows the rhythm of life of the wilderness, the linked lives of its animals and plants responding to the change of seasons. He adds great value to any wilderness tour and creates a true environmental consciousness. We need such specialists to enhance our city and village tours. We need these Explorers to discover the rhythm of life of our diverse societies: what they eat, when, and why, for instance. What are the traditions of our rural artisans, how have they developed? Is the Kashmiris’ body-warming kangri still being made? If so, does is it have a Central Asian origin? The list is endless and endlessly adapting as the social environment evolves.
A good way for the social explorers to start is by following the threads of religious customs. In a village in Bihar we researched a family of idol-makers who used their own, inherited, techniques. Who else create such seasonal icons, the special festive decorations, the traditional food associated with those celebrations? Diwali sweets and Christmas cakes come to mind, but every one of our 6 dominant faiths and 82 Other Religions and Persuasions has its own festive cuisine.
This is the goldmine that should empower our new Incredible India campaign; global and local. It will also pour tourism money into our villages and the backwaters of our urban centres where it is most needed. And it won’t cost as much as Haryana’s well-meaning subterfuge of creating a make-believe Saraswati!
But then, as we said earlier, most netas and babus just don’t have the imagination to do better. We, in the industry, must bridge the development gap by making our Local attractions, Global.