We’re in the business of perceptions.
People go on a holiday when they feel they need it, can afford it, will enjoy it. Right now, people are beginning to feel good about India. Which is why we also believe that there will be a surge in Domestic Tourism.
We base this on an experience we had in those great days when Dr Manmohan Singh was hailed as ‘Singh is King’. A small trader’s family from our Himalayan town, people who have run kirana shops for generations, was enticed to travel to Tamil Nadu after they read one of our articles. They returned amazed. “They are such nice people in the South. In Madras even the coolies in the station speak English!” Today, thanks to the growth of TV and the social media, people want to break free of the artificial barriers of exclusiveness built around them by self-serving netas. Domestic Tourism is the most powerful driver of National Integration.
Moreover, domestic tourists do not ape fickle, over-sensitive, Caucasian visitors who want a sanitised tour. Give Indian visitors enough interesting things to see and experience, and the basic infrastructure to access destinations, and they’ll flock to new places, or to new attractions in old ones. Bihar’s Rajgir has been a Buddhist pilgrimage spot for many centuries, but today it has been re-discovered by a whole new generation of domestic travellers because the Japanese have installed cable cars to ferry visitors up to a magnificent stupa atop a hill. As a result of this increased inflow, the beautiful leisure park of Ghora Katora is being developed. The Domestic Tourism market is vast and growing and it is not subject to external whims and fancies. What we may lose in per capita earnings, we more than make up in volume. Can anyone think of any activity more fascinating than our incredible range of religious festivals? Virtually every temple, mosque, church, gurdwara and vihara has its own festival, many have more than one every year. In addition, there are a myriad regional and community festivals. If we made a concordance of these festivals, aligning them with the international calendar, and circulated them, visitors would be able to coordinate their trips to take in such events. The Carnival in Goa was a local festival until it was discovered by hippies fleeing from being drafted into the Army. Pushkar was a local festival until it was discovered by the diplomatic corps in New Delhi. We need to discover our festivals to widen our attractions exponentially. Domestic Tourism is dependable and bound to grow as more and more of our citizens have more and more disposable income.
Domestic Tourism opens up new areas for development by local stakeholders. The Kerala Tourism Mart is a superb example of locally generated tourism development. But it is even happening in our little Himalayan state. During the tour of a high-powered Environment Protecting Supreme Court Monitoring Committee, our journey was interrupted by villagers who said, “Give us tourism and we will protect the environment. Publicise our local attractions and we will make sure that our panchayat, the SDM and our netas give us the roads, electricity, water, hotels that our visitors need.” Development is fast becoming a grassroots movement. The entire Amitabh Bachchan-hosted Gujarat Tourism campaign, though in English, targeted the domestic tourist, not the international one. The UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) asked us to visit and assess the impact of three of their Rural Tourism projects. One was an unmitigated disaster. The second was almost as bad. The third, in Gujarat, was brilliant. Moreover, it had encouraged local people to develop their own village tourist facilities rivaling the UNDP-sponsored one. Domestic Tourism generates development from the grassroots as ordinary citizens demand facilities from their local representatives and have little patience for top-down Five Year Plans.
Finally, Domestic Tourism taps the powerful Aspirational Drive that burns in all Indian egos. Speaking to a speciality chef at a five-star hotel, we learnt that he came from a small village in Garhwal. “They don’t know what a chef is,” he admitted ruefully, “But my folk are impressed because I work in a big tourism organisation!” Everyone has a higher perceived status in the glamorous travel, tourism and hospitality industry than an equivalent salary-level employee in any other sector. It is much more status-enhancing to be a security guard at a five-star hotel than at a high-tech factory. Tourism also provides a much wider spectrum of employment opportunities than any other industry. This aspirational drive strikes us every time we travel down to our capital, Dehradun. There we see young men and women, who, in their dress and social skills, would attract envious glances in London, Paris and New York. They are cabin crew trainees from grooming ‘academies’ that have sprung up, tapping the aspirational urge of Uttarakhandi youth. Without Domestic Tourism, these good-looking young people would have been school drop-outs condemned to a life of drudgery in remote little mountain villages. Today, the world is their oyster with opportunities unlimited in the burgeoning domestic travel, tourism and hospitality sectors. Domestic Tourism is powered by the fact that, for all our socialist pretensions, we do not accept an initiative-sapping welfare state: give us the opportunities and we will self-propel our aspirations.
Incidentally, Domestic Tourism is not antagonistic to International Tourism; it complements it. Domestic Tourism acts as a trailblazer for International Tourism. In fact, the so-called International Tourist Arrivals trumpeted by various European countries, are, largely, domestic flows from one independent European state into another. By the same area-wise yardstick, movements of Indian tourists between Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka—states the size of European countries—would be rightly classified as international tourist flows.
We must educate our babus and netas. That’s the pecking order in the new dispensation—first the administrators, then the politicians. We must tell them that if they want to get ahead in their careers, they must assist us to cash into the Domestic Dividend.