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Indian tourism is a stepchild

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-08-17

HYDERABAD (India) - Mrs Renuka Chowdhury, a former fashion model from this capital city of the south-central state of Andhra Pradesh, has long been a popular figure in the Congress Party because of her forthrightness, wit and staccato-spray ideas for economic development. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made her the country's Minister of Tourism when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance came to power last May.

However, it's a debatable honour that's been bestowed on the perky Mrs Chowdhury. Tourism has long been India's stepchild industry, with the government spending barely US$70 million each year on promoting it domestically and internationally. Nevertheless, tourism is India's third biggest foreign-exchange earner - after information technology and jewelry - accounting for nearly US$4 billion of the country's annual revenues of US$65 billion.

"Every tourism minister talks big - but rarely in Parliament, which is where the real decisions about resource allocations are made," said Mr Naveen Berry, a maven of the Indian travel industry who also publishes several travel magazines. "And that's because tourism doesn't bring votes. It's still seen as an elitist industry, as anti-people, as an amoral business that wreaks havoc with India's traditional culture. These are all canards, of course, but they are powerful perceptions that come in the way of generating more tourism revenues."

Adds Mrs Ritu Dhawan, a senior executive of The Grand in New Delhi: "It's alarming how little the world knows about us - and those who do, think of us as a chapter out of Arabian Nights with mystical yogis, flying carpets and tigers roaming in the streets!"

For a geographically diverse land whose history dates back more than 5,000 years, whose every region is peppered with ancient monuments, and whose people are renowned for their warmth and welcoming attitude toward outsiders, US$4 billion in tourism income is a shamefully low figure.

So is the number of foreign tourists that India attracts annually - 2.8 million in 2003, and perhaps 3.1 million this year. Neighbouring Sri Lanka, which has fewer than 20 million people - compared to India's 1.1 billion - gets twice the tourist traffic. So does Dubai, which expects to increase its tourist arrivals to 15 million in the next three years. Thailand? Some nine million tourists a year. Singapore gets ten times the number of India's tourists.

And consider the tourist arrival figures for the world's biggest tourist attractions - France gets 70 million tourists a year; the United States, 60 million; and Britain, 45 million.

And US$4 billion in tourism income for the world's biggest democracy and second most populated country - after China - appears especially shabby when compared to annual revenues of the global tourism and hospitality industry - approximately US$625 billion. Tourism is the world's biggest legitimate industry (the turnover in illegal drugs is estimated to be US$2 trillion), and getting bigger each year. According to the World Tourism Council, the industry's revenues will exceed US$1 trillion in another three years.

So what's India's problem in getting more tourists?

Mr Nakul Anand, Managing Director of ITC Hotels - whose properties include the Maurya Sheraton in New Delhi - feels that by not adopting an open-skies policy, India is depriving itself of larger numbers of tourists. Ms Ruchita Sharma of Taj Hotels - who's widely known for her trenchant observations on thee tourism industry - points out that the number of flights by foreign carriers into India could easily be doubled without stressing the system. Mr Ashok Bhatnagar, Executive Director of the Pacific-Asia Travel Association, says that airports around the country are in abysmal condition, and so are highways and feeder roads to sites that might otherwise attract more tourists.

The Grand Hotel's Mrs Dhawan says that visa hassles inhibit potential tourists - it typically takes more than a week to obtain a tourist visa at most Indian diplomatic missions overseas. And Hyatt International's Ms Vinay Narang avers that a lack of activities related to fun and games, entertainment and nightlife make India dull, drab and boring for holidaymakers and leisure tourists.

Mr Pooran Chandra Pande, Assistant Secretary General of the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India, asserts that India is woefully in need of more hotel rooms. Only 1,570 of the world's quality 380,000 hotels are in India; and only 85,481 rooms of 1,540,000 of the world's total number of quality hotel rooms. South Asia has 175,000 of these rooms, including the ones in India; Bangkok alone has about 60,000 hotel rooms, as against 20,000 rooms in Mumbai and 18,000 rooms in Delhi.

Mr Pande says that when the number of informal hostelries is included in the "hotels" category, the figure available to tourists - especially low-budget travelers - rises to 10,000 facilities and 300,000 rooms. Not long ago, the Taj Group launched a low-budget quality hotel chain called IndiOne, which offers a standard nightly rate of US$25 per room. The concept has proven so popular that the group is planning to build such hotels in South-east Asia, Africa and elsewhere in South Asia.

What can be realistically done to increase tourism traffic to India?

More sensible marketing is one answer. The UPA's predecessor government, the United Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, launched an innovative "Incredible India" campaign. It consisted of vibrant photographs, posters and placards that were placed in strategic public places all across the country and in key cities abroad. Handsome Indians representing the country's 875 ethnic groupings were dispatched to many countries to appear on television programmes in behalf of Indian tourism. But churlish elements in the ruling UPA wanted to eliminate the campaign on the sole grounds that it was conceived by what's now the opposition. So far, at least, Minister Chowdhury has resisted such importuning.

Another solution would be to encourage India's 29 states and seven federal territories to emphasize tourism more. States such as Kerala in the south are already making tourism a priority, earning a record US$18 million last year. Says ITC Hotels' Mr Anand: "We need to promote India not just as a whole but as 'Islands of Excellence.' That is really our unique selling point [USP]...not just in Asia but also in the world. There is none who can match our 'unity in diversity.'"

Emphasis by India's diverse regions on tourism must be integrated into general economic development in those areas. For example, the fabled erotic temple carvings of Khajuraho in Central India did not get as much tourist traffic as they could have until the local government, in cooperation with the private sector, built modern roads and telecommunications systems.

The Hyatt's Ms Narang suggests that another solution for India's tourism woes would be to develop a cohesive game plan with the civil aviation, commerce, culture and urban development ministries working in tandem. "India can market itself better for the so-called MICE concept - meetings, incentive travel, conventions and exhibitions," she said. " And also essential is image management as a safe destination for all - especially single women travelers."

Still another solution, says Mrs Dhawan, would be to promote India and Indianness as the haven for salvation through ayurveda, alternative medicine, nature-based therapies and, of course, yoga.

It wouldn't be a bad idea for Minister Renuka Chowdhury to convene regular meetings with people in the private sector to brainstorm about tourism. Hope for India's tourism growth lies in more investment from abroad, especially since the government recently allowed 100 percent foreign direct investment in hospitality-related projects, and also raised the cap from 40 percent to 49 percent of FDI in civil aviation. Low-cost and no-frill airlines should also be encouraged to operate domestically.

Perhaps an India Tourism Promotion Authority - something along the lines of thee highly effective Singapore Tourism Board - should also be established.

And while Mrs Chowdhury's enthusiasm for her portfolio is obviously welcome, politically, at least, she's just a pretty face in India's parliament. Unless she pushes hard to make India a competitively priced destination, it will continue to lose tourist traffic to cheaper countries in the region.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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