Tourism In India: Mission Impossible

India’s Target of 20 million foreign tourists in 2020

There were 1,235 million International Tourist Arrivals (ITAs) worldwide in 2016, a growth of 3.9% over the figure of 1,184 mn in 2015. That year, India’s ranking of ITAs was a meagre 0.64%. On a brighter note, a growth rate of 12% per annum, as estimated by the 12th Five-year Plan report, means India anticipates at least 20 mn Foreign Tourist Arrivals (FTAs) in 2020.

In November 2015, the Ministry of Tourism had determinedly set up a target to achieve 1% share of ITAs by 2016-17. This ambitious target was announced at a meeting of the Ministry’s Parliamentary Consultative Committee meeting in which the theme was “Swadesh Darshan and PRASAD Schemes.”

Under the Swadesh Darshan scheme, theme-based tourism circuits have been identified for infrastructure development across the country, while PRASAD’s (National Mission on Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive) objective is to augment religious and spiritual tourism in the country.

The Ministry of Tourism needs to carry out research before the development of each of its tourism products. This would help identify deficiencies in the planning and projection, help increase project viability and lead to steps to develop better tourist attractions. A product or tourism circuit launched before being completed in its entirety would ultimately lead to visitor dissatisfaction thereby defeating the intended purpose of the development.

The Swachh Bharat campaign announced on 15 August 2014, to “clean up” India by 2019, Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, is another ambitious project. The setting up of a time frame has never been considered by local civic administrators and the local community to be a fundamental factor in the completion of a project. Two-and-a-half years may be too short a span to “clean” all of India.

Despite attempts by well-meaning non-governmental organizations and public-spirited individuals, it is unlikely that the ghats of Varanasi are likely to reach world class standards that the Prime Minister witnessed in Osaka, Varanasi’s “twin city.” Many projects in Varanasi, pending for several years, picked up momentum only after the Prime Minister personally started monitoring the development of his constituency’s civic issues, pilgrimage places and heritage sites.

A visitor to Agra carries back home impressions of haphazard urban development and lack of civic and basic amenities. The tourist does not have much by way of entertainment activities as the city lacks cultural entertainment centres. The solitary convention centre can accommodate a maximum of 1,500 pax. Despite possessing a World Heritage site since 1983, Agra does not even have a civilian airport, and the touts are a perennial nuisance.

As a further disincentive, entry charges for foreigners visiting the Taj Mahal, and 31 other monuments under the Archaeological Survey of India, were raised threefold from the earlier fee of Rs. 250 from 1 April 2016. The number of foreign tourists visiting the Taj Mahal was 0.743 mn in 2012, falling to 0.695 mn in 2013 and further declining to 0.648 mn in 2014.

A progressive decline in visitor arrivals is a distinct possibility if a project is not completed in its entirety. An operational strategy, implementation, maintenance of the time schedule, synchronisation with other related departments, and regular monitoring progress of the project are essential adjuncts.

Despite India’s 5,000-year-old history, exotic destinations, sun, sea and sand, the number of Foreign Tourist Arrivals (FTAs) in 2016 was 8.8 mn up from 8.03 mn in 2015. Thailand got 32.5 mn in 2016, up from 29.8 mn in 2015 and Malaysia 26.7 mn in 2016 after receiving 25.7 mn FTAs the previous year.

Contrast these figures with major players such as France which received 83 mn and China 57 mn tourists in 2016. All these FTA statistics goes to prove that efforts towards the focused development of tourism in India have yet to be taken up seriously. This is despite India advancing 12 places to reach 40th position out of 136 countries overall in the World Economic Forum Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2017.

The Forum report considers India’s liberal e-visa policy and price-competitive destinations as positive while the negative points are underdeveloped tourism infrastructure, low ATM penetration and very few hotel rooms per capita by international comparison.

India currently has 200,000 hotel rooms in the approved category and an estimated 100,000 rooms in the unapproved category. The country would need over 200,000 additional rooms by 2020 to cater to the expected 20 mn tourists.

Apart from accommodation, both in the public and private sector, other infrastructure would include:

  • Accessibility
  • Tourist Information Centres
  • Reception centres
  • Public amenities
  • Commercial establishments
  • Cultural activities
  • Safety and security measures
  • Medical facilities
  • Waste management systems

There are several factors that influence the growth of tourism in a country. Some of these are the provision of foreign language-speaking guides at tourist places, assured safety of women and guaranteed security, availability of trouble-free transport and seamless connectivity.

Still more important is creation of awareness among the Indian public and stakeholders concerning their role in the country’s economic well-being, educating them about the importance of displaying our traditional culture by greeting visitors with a “Namaste” or the form of greeting in their mother tongue by all stakeholders and staff such as taxi and scooter driver, railway officials, airport staff, etc.

It is possible to create a situation leading to an ideal visitor experience through awareness and educating the public about the benefits of “sending a happy tourist home.” An immigration officer, taxi-driver, doorkeeper, guide, shopkeeper wishing a visitor from abroad with a “Namaste” with a smile would help raise visitor experience. More inter-active policemen with a helpful, courteous attitude would ensure that tourists do not face avoidable harassment.

All these qualities also need to be inculcated in children at the school level and in tourism industry stakeholders by NGOs. This will help in the process of building the foundations of responsible citizenship. Laws need to be enforced strictly to check road indiscipline, encroachments, littering, alms-seeking and other activities which constitute a nuisance value to visitors.

In 2009, the Ministry of Tourism launched a campaign titled ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ (‘Guest is God’) targeting the local population to educate them regarding good behaviour and etiquettes while dealing with foreign tourists. ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ aimed at creating awareness about the effects of tourism and sensitizing the local population about the preservation of India’s heritage, culture, cleanliness and hospitality. It also attempted to reinforce the confidence of foreign tourists towards India as a preferred holiday destination.

Then why is India lagging behind in attracting tourists in large numbers, as our neighbours are doing? Schemes such as Swadesh Darshan and PRASAD, campaigns like Swacch Bharat will not compensate for the lack of a National Tourism Policy which has been pending since 2015 even after action plan proposals of the previous National Tourism Policy of 2002 are in an indeterminate stage.

The government needs to promote Tourism by incentivizing and motivating the private sector to act as a force-multiplier; launch an investment cycle through the provision of active support to tourism-related infrastructural development; set up a matrix wherein the performance of the departments entrusted with tourism development is appraised in a time-bound manner. Only then can India expect to welcome close to 20 mn foreign tourists in the year 2020.

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