For so long, it was more a lack of vision than a quirk of fate that the Indian policy-making process always bypassed neighbours in its pursuit of international focus and goals.
The Look East policy of India is not just about business and expanding cultural ties, but also about building afresh, a renewed atmosphere of international relations with close neighbours. Thankfully, this year, the plans have started seeing some action, more so in China than in South East Asia, which is equally important.
Consisting of 11 countries reaching from Eastern India to China, South East Asia constitutes a ‘mainland’, comprising Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and an ‘island’ South East Asia that includes Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, and also East Timor, formerly part of Indonesia.
These countries cannot be lumped into a homogenous category other than the geographical area they are situated in. Their diversity is the basis for the region's rapid economic growth, which has a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of USD 1.9 trillion; a population of almost 600 million; and an average per-capita income nearly equal to that of China.
In other words, we are talking of almost two entities equal in volume of business and financial opportunities. However, the emphasis on China has started showing, but South East Asia still needs more attention. They cannot all be lumped in one strategy basket.The Chinese are coming, but not as many
While about 175,000 Chinese tourists visited India last year, quite a few of them were small traders here on business. Far more are drawn to Europe, despite the higher cost—France draws 1.4 million Chinese tourists a year. By contrast, 600,000 Indian tourists went to China last year.
Tourism figures indicate flow from China has been increasing by three to four per cent every year. Despite the lukewarm response so far, the Indian tourism industry remains upbeat. The recent steps to ease visa rules and processes can definitely prompt a steady growth.
The Ministry plans to induct about 200 guides trained in simplified Chinese, a helpline for Chinese tourists, and the Incredible India website translated in Mandarin for easy understanding. According to officials, these steps should be in place by year end. They seem serious because there is news that a menu with Chinese food and signages in Mandarin are soon going to be set up in trains covering the Buddhist circuit.Bigger push needed
The government’s focus on the East definitely includes a significant push for more Inbound Tourism from this region. Under the new economic policy regime, the aviation sector, especially better airline connectivity, is a critical enabler for a flourishing overall business environment and economic growth. If one were to observe the entire South-East region, air connections are not perfect at all.
There are simple and quite understandable reasons why the deluge isn’t happening. The six inhibiting factors are lack of connectivity, poor sanitation, unavailability of good local cuisine of the tourist nations, travel time, tardy infrastructure within the country, and a certain level of language issues.The New East Asian traveller
Not only the Chinese, but most South East Asian travellers are fresh off the block. Their travel is about actualisation, snob value, and excitement. There are more young Chinese and other South East Asians travelling across the world. It is important to attract them here. What India needs to do is instill the tourism mood in the Indian public sentiment.
The energetic and quite-in-your-face cleaning drive by the Prime Minister is one such positive step. Empathy to this region’s travellers’ needs is another important requisite. Lets’ face it; neither the public nor, I dare say, the larger tourism industry was in the habit of interacting with visitors from this region. There was always some kind of clumsiness in interaction with these very important neighbours at the public level.
The rather sudden push to be more open, welcoming and interested in tourists from the immediate neighbourhood is a welcome development. Similarly, the spurt of Indian tourism promotion activity in these states is well timed. A few months ago, the launch of the ‘Glimpses of India’ festival in Beijing marked the launch of the new initiative in May. To travel to a dozen Chinese cities till early next year, it will showcase India like never before. The spirit is aptly exemplified in the logo of this almost year-long programme.
Encompassed by a circle, symbolising perfection, with Indian and Chinese colours and motifs that symbolise harmony and life, the logo consists of a Kathakali and a Peking Opera mask side by side. The blending of typical cultural elements mirrors the friendship and cooperation between the two countries that is geared to result in more inbound visitors from the Asian giant.
Now how about quickly fusing the image with a Balinese dancer, Malaysian artistes, images of Angkor Wat, and Thai masks as well?(The author is a freelance writer based in New Delhi)