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Monday, 14 September, 2015, 18 : 00 PM [IST]

The Doldrums: Window dressing isn’t enough

Tourism is heading for a spell of stagnation. In spite of some of our movers and shakers rejoicing at the growth of monsoon tourism, we see slack days ahead for the industry. Unless…

Unless we stop deluding ourselves that mere ease of obtaining visas will bring in a flood of tourists. Open doors are welcoming, but unless there is something special beyond that entrance, why should anyone step in? We understand that a Grand Panjandrum of the industry promised a flood of arrivals with the introduction of the ‘e-visa’. But glib sales talk is one thing, performance is quite another. The reality is that tourism is everyone’s baby and the Ministry of Tourism has to bear the brunt of the obstacles and inefficiencies of a myriad other authorities.

The much-hyped (we’re great on hype!) tourism policy is a case in point. At the end of April, we drove down to Delhi to join one of the many discussions on the new policy. It still hasn’t reached the all-powerful Cabinet. It’s been circulating among the ministries, getting their inputs, which will then be consolidated before the Cabinet can deliberate on it. In the meanwhile, things have been happening in our country that are having an impact on our global image. Because two powerful politicians had a disagreement in Kerala, that once-liberal state imposed a skewed form of prohibition. Wine was no longer considered to be alcohol. Sprits could be sold at the two extremes of the market - in 5-star hotels and state-owned alcohol outlets. In Maharashtra, one of the prime entry points of foreign tourists - drawing 19.4% of them last year - the sale of meat is banned in certain areas on certain days. Before long, if the whimsical bans imposed by various authorities in our land continue, visitors will need ‘A Guide to the Prohibitions of India!’

We feel very, very sorry for the affable Minister of Tourism, Dr. Mahesh Sharma. His Ministry has been reduced to listing circuits. The Ministry has merely listed tourism circuits. It has not identified the destinations in the states to which such circuits would apply. There are 12 projected circuits: Buddhist, Coastal, Desert, Eco, Himalayan, Krishna, North East, Ramayana, Rural, Spiritual, Tribal, and Wildlife. Given the complexities of projecting an all-India tourism image, amid the conflicts of the fads and whims of states, the Ministry has played it safe. So the North-Eastern states can project the North East, as well as Buddhist, Tribal, Rural, Eco ,Wildlife, Himalayan, and Spiritual. They might be able to squeeze in Krishna and Ramayana. But Coastal and Desert are beyond their reach.

So what on earth has been achieved by sending such listings to the states? Window dressing to give the impression that something is being done? And has any survey been taken to establish how many tourists prefer single-theme circuits rather than having a wide variety of experiences? Apparently not. This, when the Central Ministry’s primary role should be to extend the benefits of tourism to as many colourful places as it can, rather than being fixated  on promoting an extraneous, mono-chromatic agenda.

An experienced travel industrialist, who had a look at the list of circuits identified for development under the Swadesh Darshan scheme, remarked, “This is designed to lure the NRI market. But, apart from gathering to applaud our PM in mammoth rallies abroad, have the NRIs really been drawn to their Indian heritage? I don’t think so.”

Come to think of it, neither do we. They or their parents fled India for better opportunities, and, as Bobby Jindal admitted, they do not appreciate a hyphenated identity; they do not like being called Indian-Americans. They prefer being called Americans, or Brits, or Germans, or whatever else. They flock to those great gatherings in their adopted countries to show the power of their vote in such adopted countries. It has little or nothing to do with an urge to rediscover their Indian roots.

Or, to express it in the language of Minister Dr Sharma, they’re very proud of their ‘cultural pollution’: t-bone steaks, live-in relationships, and well-run, serviced condominiums for their aged parents living active lives on their savings and old-age benefits. In fact, such silver-haired folk seek and can afford enriching travel experiences in such exotic lands as India. Cruise ships and luxury resorts the world over are filled with these fit, tanned, senior citizens with plenty of time and plenty of money to spend on their vacations. Those we have spoken to, scoffed at the thought of living in the intrusive confines of a traditional joint family.

But if we continue to believe that Our Ancient Cultural Heritage, as defined by a hyper-conservative group, is what we have to project, so be it. Tourism doldrums, here we come!
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