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Where Is The Tourism Windfall?

Sutanu Guru wonders why India still lags behind when it comes to tourism; despite all the hype, India managed to attract about 7 million tourists in 2015

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There was a recent news report that India has jumped about 12 places in tourism competitiveness rankings. This has led to the usual chest thumping about how "Incredible India" will soon emerge as one of the top tourist destinations in the world. There is a lot of praise for the manner in which the Narendra Modi regime has made life easier for tourists with a visa on arrival policy that will soon extend to 150 countries. Every now and then, you read about how there has been a 150% jump in visa on arrival e-applications. As a peripatetic and indefatigable traveler, Prime Minister has indeed worked hard as a de facto brand ambassador for attracting not just more foreign investments, but also foreign tourists. This author has been reading such feel good stories about tourism in India since the 1980s when the then Prime Minister launched the Festival of India jamboree organized in many major countries.

But what is the reality? The fact is that India continues to be a minor and insignificant player in the global tourism industry. In 2015, despite all the hype and hoopla, it managed to attract just about 7 million tourists. In contrast, authoritarian China attracted close to 60 million tourists. According to recently released data, isolated and remote Tibet which is now a province of China will attract 20 million tourists. Forget the global rankings; India doesn't even feature in the top ten tourist destinations of Asia. Thailand, geographically puny compared to India, attracted close to 30 million tourists. Singapore, arguably smaller than Delhi or Mumbai, attracted more than 12 million tourists. Compared to these numbers, 7 million looks modest at best and laughable in reality. Even Morocco and Tunisia in west Africa attracted more than 10 million tourists in 2015.

These numbers appear more incredible than the Incredible India campaign if one looks at what India has to offer as a tourist destination. It has everything that a variety of tourists seek: mountains and snow, jungle safaris, marvels of architecture, beaches and the sea, white water rafting, adventure and thrills, spiritual and wellness centers, the birthplace of Buddhism (which alone can attract more than 20 million tourists a year from countries like China and Japan), world class medical facilities at a fraction of first world costs and much more. And yet, despite all that it has to offer, India remains a minor player. In fact, if you calculate the dollars Indian tourists now spend every year on overseas holidays, the Indian economy sees a net outflow of foreign exchange each year. This is nothing short of scandalous.

Tourism perhaps has the biggest potential to generate jobs and livelihoods for unskilled, semi-skilled and even skilled workers. Increased tourism means more flights, more taxis, more hotels and lodgings, more eateries, more souvenir shops, more support staff and more of almost everything. It is a depressing mystery why the center and state governments have not partnered more meaningfully and aggressively to push this. For Indian tourism to bloom, there has to be a massive dose of investment in areas ranging from transportation to hotels to security. Almost halfway into the term, there seems no transformational impact made by the Modi regime.

Will India keep missing even the tourism bus?

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