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India's tourism potential unrealised

December 02, 2009 15:00 IST

It is time to think and do something drastically differently to boost tourism into India, writes Mahesh Vijapurkar.

Now that the winter is upon us, overseas tourists have started trickling in. Soon, they would be seen in greater numbers provided nothing happens in India that scares their governments into issuing travel advisories that could see the flow drying up suddenly. It has happened before and can happen again.

This is an annual feature, like the wintering birds. The arrivals, though the numbers fluctuate, most often they crawl upwards year upon year. Therefore, this the right moment to take stock of the tourism industry as is in vogue now in India and see where we go right, if we do at all, and where we go wrong, which we do in almost all cases.

Let me hark back to a comment, a while ago, by a senior member of the Egyptian consular corps. He lamented that in Mumbai -- 'your best city yet' -- a tourist walking about cannot find a decent toilet, not even in the hundreds of restaurants that dot the city. Where available it is filthy and stinks. "One likes not to recommend India as a tourist destination to people back home. If this is the case in Urbs Prima in Indis, one can well imagine the travails of a tourist across the country."

Not value for money

He should know. Egypt has refined the art of dealing with tourists, close to eight million of who visit that country annually. It has everything India has -- history, culture, cuisine, sites and sights, and yet runs an efficient machine that makes the tourists want to come back. That is so with most foreign destinations, except perhaps India. Most countries, like Switzerland and Egypt, for instance, are dependent on the foreign exchange the tourists bring to sustain their economies, and appreciatively give them value for money and a nice experience.

From the tourist point of view, unless one pays through the hat for a swanky hotel and an expensive taxi, and have a reliable guide, doing India is tough for a variety of reasons. For instance, everyone is out hustling to dip into the tourists' pockets without returning the value for money. Entry tickets at places of interest are dual-priced, the foreigner paying more than an Indian. Even the air ticket bought back home for domestic travel here costs more for them.

Then there are the gawkers, the touchers, the feelers and the beggars who throng the tourist sites which are far from clean and normal routine facilities are missing or inadequate. The tourist guides are myth-makers who can concoct and tell the visitor a tall story which some of them swallow hook, line and sinker because it is 'oriental' and 'could well be true'. Then there are the strong odours that they have to contend with, one cause being the absence of good toilets.

Poor offerings

Elsewhere, lot of thought goes into managing tourism, where little things matter a whole lot. In Hamburg in Germany, one does not have to run scared from the itinerant taxi guy out to fleece you -- for they have a hop-on-and-hop-off bus route that goes around the town in both directions. You get off where you please and do whatever you want to do and then get onto the next one that takes your fancy.

In Switzerland, hotels offer you free bus tickets which would, of course, take you on a route which has the most tourist activity and yes, restaurants and night spots, so that everyone does business. All participants in the tourism industry chip in and raise a regular corpus to work with government to make tourism better every passing day. People rave about their experiences.

Different India experience

With India, it is quite a different experience. There are tourist-sites far from clean and normal routine facilities are often missing. If they are in place, they are woefully poor in maintenance. Even the domestic tourists contribute to the mess by their poor practices. Then there are the myth-making tourist guides who concoct stories.

Their travails start from the time they book tickets. If bought from overseas, the dollar-priced tickets cost more, their entry to places of interests have tickets that are priced higher too. They find that the hustlers try to corner them and spend a lot more on private operators who charge more for accommodation than the government facilities cost but are woefully poor in their quality of the offering.

It is as if the country expects only the well-heeled tourists who travel first class, stay in five start hotels and hire high-end cars and guides as if there are no other middle-class, backpacking tourists who also contribute to the volume of foreign exchange they bring in and the demands they make on the infrastructure. Since the country has not gone in for a policy that is counter to the policy of mass tourism, they ought to be taken care of but are not.

Forever, sunrise

And yet, we talk of tourism being the sunrise sector and it has been so forever without much being done which can be a paradigm shift from what is. The tourists get much of the same though we know that dollars count, they matter to the economy and that every tourist who comes in ensures that several jobs are created to serve him better. But that has not penetrated the planners and the administrators who continue to remain sanguine that tourists are happy just doing the few routine circuits -- the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur sector, Goa, or the temples of the south and Kerala.

The tourists are surely keen on savouring the other India, as manifest by the more macabre tourist trips to Mumbai's Dharavi to see the poverty there. There are a lot more who would just like to savour the Indian life. However, that area is totally unexplored much to the detriment of the country.

And yet, we talk of engineering a tourist boom when the country's tourism-related infrastructure has no carrying capacity, be it train-seats, hotel rooms. The only saving grace is the boom in the airline sector and the number of seats available on demand. And we talk of the numbers which, by any count, are poorer than what other countries can boast of. The country already faces a demand-supply mismatch and in terms of the realisable potential, we are way behind the curve.

Poor numbers

Last year, due to the economic meltdown, the country faced a poor arrival of tourists and the terror attacks on India during the peak season did not help much. And yet, some 5.37 million tourists visited India. But we are behind Ukraine which notched 15.62 million tourists, troubled Croatia had 8.6 million flocking there. France saw 79 million, Spain 58 million and China 49 million. In terms of pecking order, we are in the 40s among 152 countries. As a share of all tourists going to all destinations worldwide, India has about a half per cent which is abysmally low.

Let us look at it another way. For every 1,000 population, Seychelles gets 1,601, Mauritius 435, Thailand 113, even Sri Lanka 18 tourists per 1,000 local population, And India remains satisfied with a grand 2.19 tourists per its 1,000 people. That shows how poor we are in realising the potential.

Time to think and do something drastically differently, I think. Tiny steps were taken in educating people on how to conduct oneself with the visitors by the Athithidevobhava campaign of the India Tourism Corporation which starred actor Aamir Khan in the advertisements. But that is not enough. The country needs to reinvent its tourism from which it earns about $9 billion annually.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a commentator based in Thane

Mahesh Vijapurkar