India is a land of opportunities in terms of Talent, Trade, Tradition, Tourism, and Technology - the 5-T mantra of development for the new government at the centre. These are core strengths of a new, confident and young India. It is these core strengths that will form the keystone to the bridge of opportunity for our enterprising youth, ushering India into a economic prosperity decade.
While implementing the aforesaid mantras, a strategic impetus needs to be given to tourism to showcase Indian tradition and culture to the world. Today, India is among the top 25 countries in the world in terms of Foreign Tourist Earnings (FTEs), yet with about seven million annual Foreign Tourist Arrivals, it ranks behind Singapore (16 million) and a much smaller country Thailand (26 million). Our neighbour, China had an inflow of nearly 55.7 million FTAs in 2013.
A recent report suggests that growth in FTAs in India was only about five per cent in 2013. For Thailand, the figure stands at a robust 20 per cent. With more than a thousand tourist destinations, India has a lot to offer to varied segments of tourists in terms of attractions. From astounding natural beauty and wildlife strewn across the country, to ancient historical sites that elicit awe every time they are visited, India is among the best destinations in the world. There is no reason why India cannot become the top international tourism destination.
If we aspire to match China’s figures by the turn of the next decade, a radically different approach to tourism has to be taken. There is need for the tourism promotional bodies to get involved at field level. In a way they need to travel along with tourists and look at issues from their perspective. Their intervention needs to extend beyond the tourist entry point. The challenges are:Entry Point Challenges
- Visa Services
- Immigration and customs
- Tourist-friendly multilingual airport services (taxis, info, guides)
- Safety and security
- Unsolicited hawking/touting
- Tourist grievance-addressing mechanism for inadequate services
- Quality assurance on services/goods
- Friendly assistance from law enforcement agencies
- Seamless travel across the country
Safety and hygiene are the two most important issues that affect growth of tourism. Safety, of course, remains the prime concern. To add to the difficulty is an unfamiliar law enforcement system and its procedures. To address this, special training must be given to popular foreign tourism destination district police officers from sub-inspector level and above. A new standard operating procedure needs to be prescribed for police stations to deal with tourist complaints, and even minor ones must be recorded on a website specifically for this purpose. ‘Safe Tourist - Anek Tourist’ policy, i.e. each safe tourist will send many more tourists, should be popularised among stakeholders, namely hoteliers, tour operators, taxi owners, local shopkeepers, law enforcement agencies, and other service providers.
Hygiene is an equally large hurdle in tourism growth. This would need a focused cross-departmental coordinated effort for tourism, urban development, and rural development. The menace of plastic from small towns and villages has to be eradicated completely. Taking it up in two or three willing districts on a proof-of-concept mode can be done before rolling it out in willing states. A thought can be given to creating dedicated civic bodies for managing important tourism destinations, which can be given a one-time grant and after that they will have to generate their own revenue.
Seamless travel would be a big step to ensure a smooth experience for a foreign tourist. India being a diverse country, requires focused planning for connectivity in terms of road, rail and airways network. There is great need to develop a robust connectivity network that will link major national entry points with strategic tourism zones of the country. A multimodal travel card accepted by all transport authorities such as railway, metro, state transport corporations, Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) system, and city buses must be launched. A Universal Travel Card (UTC) for the entire country, something akin to the iconic Oyster Card of London but on a much bigger scale, should be created. State transport corporations can be taken on board by sharing card sale proceeds with them. There is need to have a dedicated railway tourism corridor that will connect major destinations and allow tourists to move from one tourist location to another in a hop-on-hop-off fashion.
Such proactive approach will help resurrecting India’s strong tourism profile. The development of undiscovered and untapped tourism sectors, implementation of 'Safe Tourist - Anek Tourist' policy, seamless UTC, and development of dedicated civic bodies for important tourism destinations are among the major initiatives that will show great improvement in the tourism sector.
Today in India, only a few states account for a major share of FTAs. As per recent reports, Maharashtra welcomed 4,815,420 foreign tourists with a 24.7 per cent share in the national figure. This is followed by Tamil Nadu with 17.3 per cent share, Delhi with 11.1 per cent, Uttar Pradesh with 9.7 per cent, Rajasthan with 6.9 per cent, West Bengal with 6.2 per cent, Bihar with five per cent, Kerala with 3.8 per cent, Karnataka with 2.9 per cent, and Himachal Pradesh with 2.5 per cent. Thus, the top ten states account for nearly 90 per cent FTAs in the country, while the remaining 19 states and seven union territories put together share a measly ten per cent.
These statistics suggest the need to promote the remaining 19 states and seven union territories to foreign tourists. This would require special assistance and help in extensive publicity. This will also attract 'already visited' tourists into the country, who would now be interested in exploring the hinterlands. The most pressing need is to create an information and publicity campaign centering around lesser-known destinations and positioning India as a destination that invites tourists to the hinterlands.
With tourists lining up to visit the world for Educational Tourism, Medical Tourism, Spiritual Tourism, Food Tourism, Diplomatic Tourism, Cultural Tourism, and Business Tourism, we need to develop various segments in the country on similar lines. For example, Tamil Nadu can be developed as the country’s Medical Tourism hub with exceptional institutions such as Christian Medical College and Hospital - Vellore, Sri Ramachandra Medical College (SRMC) - Chennai, and others; while Uttarakhand with its exquisite natural beauty and places like Har-ki-Doon, Bedini-Bugyal, Gangotri, Rishikesh, and Haridwar can be developed as India’s spiritual quest centre and Ecotourism hub. Chhattisgarh with 32 per cent of its population tribals and 44 per cent forest cover is ideally suited for being developed as the country’s largest repository of ethnic art, craft, and culture, and a mega bio-diversity and water sports hub. The incredible Nubra valley and breathtaking beauty of Pangong lake in Jammu & Kashmir can be made a hub for adventure and photography.
In this way, the entire country can be visualised as a mosaic of specialised tourism hubs, making it irresistible for any foreign tourist.
Tourism is not only a valuable economic contributor and money-multiplier, but also a demonstrable soft power tool. A healthy tourist inflow adds to a higher international standing of the country as well. So let’s begin.