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Why India Remains A Tourism Has Been

On World Tourism Day, Sutanu Guru analyses why India has not become an attractive tourism destination

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In the run up to the World Tourism Day, Delhi last week saw a carefully choreographed extravaganza of an event that has become so typical of the Narendra Modi regime. Touted as a Tourism Summit, it claimed to be one of the biggest ever organized in India with a massive representation of investors from across the world. A galaxy of ministers in the Modi government took turns to wax eloquent about the promise of India as a magnet for tourists. Ministers and or bureaucrats-cum-technocrats from all the 29 states were there to make a pitch to investors. The Summit lasted three days and ended on a high note despite lack of prominent media coverage because other issues like the terror attack on the army base ruled headlines.

But what exactly will come out the Summit? There has never been any doubt that "Incredible India" has the potential, the destinations and the attractions to emerge as a major tourism player in the world. But results on the ground have been pathetic when you compare India with other countries. India now has the third (or maybe the fourth) largest economy in the world but struggles to rank in the top 50 when it comes to attracting tourists. In fact, it lags way behind even amongst Asian countries.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi often talks about the Indian diaspora acting as force multipliers for their mother country. There are probably more than 40 million of them across the world. Yet, only a tiny fraction seem to choose India when it comes to holidays. The world now acknowledges India as the fountainhead of Buddhism and various studies suggest more than 20 million Buddhists mainly from east Asia would be eager to visit Bodh Gaya and other destinations related to the life and teachings of Buddha. So far, not many have. Ever since the popular music band Beatles and many other famous global celebrities highlighted the "spiritual" heritage and attractions of India, there have been hopes of millions pouring into the country in search of answers and salvation. Those hopes have been belied.

Statistics support this depressing conclusion. 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.

This should be a matter of shock and shame for policy makers because tourism has the ability to create an incredible number of jobs-both skilled and unskilled- as well as livelihood opportunities. If India can somehow increase tourism inflow from the current 7 million to more than 20 million in a few years, it would lead to the creation of more than 20 million direct and indirect jobs. But India cannot do that. Tourists look for a few things before they decide on a holiday. The first is ease of getting visas, getting in and getting out. The second is a sense of physical security.

The third is availability of places to stay. The fourth is high quality transpiration services. The fifth is classical marketing. Despite a new policy in e visas, Indian airports and customs officials are rated as hostile to tourists. Some nationalists might scream conspiracy, but global coverage of crimes in India have dented its image as a safe place; something that the often brilliant Incredible India campaign has failed to effectively counter. But the real obstacles are infrastructure: hotel rooms and transport links. For decades, India policy makers have simply talked about the attractiveness of Indian destinations without building enough hotels and without developing good roads, airports and other services that a tourist now takes for granted.

All this is not going to be built overnight. In many ways, tourism will be a benchmark to measure the performance of the Modi regime when it completes five years in 2019. If there is a huge upsurge in tourism inflow, even critics would applaud. But can this regime deliver what previous governments over decades have failed to do?


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