‘Atithi Devo Bhava’, which means that a guest is akin to god, is one of India’s most ancient maxims. If we had more successfully translated this into economic dividends, India should have been among the top 10 countries in the world for tourism. However, even today, we are ranked 40th globally by the Travel and Tourism index of the World Economic Forum (WEF).
This is a pity, because even at a relatively paltry figure of some eight million tourists annually, which includes NRIs, the World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that tourism generated $220 billion in 2016, which was 9.6% of our GDP. Tourism also supported close to 41 million jobs or 9.3% of total employment in the country.
Illustration: Chad Crowe
To be fair, we have made some progress. In 2015 our position was 52nd on the tourism global index, so we have moved up 12 places. WEF, in its annual report, identified India as ‘a bright spot in the global tourism scenario’. But if we see our performance on a comparative scale, there is reason to ask why India, which has everything from the Himalayas to the best beaches and wildlife sanctuaries, and an unparalleled cultural and spiritual heritage, not to speak of new sectors like medical tourism, is still lagging behind.
It should make us think why China receives 57 million tourists a year, seven times more than us, and has become the fourth biggest destination for international travellers. It is true that with our resources we cannot compete with Spain, France, Germany, US, UK and Italy. But surely we can ask why Turkey gets 40 million tourists, or Mexico over 32 million. In Asia, Malaysia gets 27 million, Thailand 30 million, and Indonesia over 10 million. Vietnam gets almost the same number as us. In fact Thailand, Vietnam and South Korea have doubled their number of tourists in the last decade. Other developing countries like South Africa and Morocco also get higher tourist arrivals.
Considering the contribution tourism makes to our GDP and employment figures, especially since it is educationally a low-threshold employer and jobs are scarce – the impact of a scenario where we can double the number of foreign tourists in the next five years – to say 16 million, which is still less than one-third of what China has achieved – is staggering. Can we take the necessary steps to reach this goal, and if so, what needs to be done?
Firstly, the government must realise the immense potential of this sector. Currently, tourism gets only some 0.1% of the central budget outlay. Perhaps this is because tourism is a state subject. But why can’t it be put in the concurrent list of the Constitution? I understand 18 states are agreeable to this move. A carefully crafted National Tourism Policy, to avoid ad hoc measures and promote holistic planning and standardisation, is also long overdue.
The introduction of e-visas is a good step, but some procedural hassles still need to be ironed out. Thought should be given to waive visa fees in the lean tourist season, from April to September. Special projects, like coastal and river tourism, need to be developed. Our luxury tourist trains – like the original Palace on Wheels – are a great product, but excessive haulage charges have made prices prohibitive and occupancy rate low.
The tax structure on hotels could be reviewed for India to retain its competitive edge as a tourist destination. Aviation capacities at metro airports, which are saturated with non-availability of new flying slots and parking bays, require urgent expansion.
Further, the disinvestment of Indian Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) hotels must be expedited. The government has rightly said that running and managing hotels on professional lines is not the work of the government or its entities. The vast ‘sarkari’ Ashok Hotel in New Delhi sits on by far the most expensive real estate of any five-star hotel, but its services are far from five-star.
Far more attention needs to be given to facilities at world heritage sites and prominent historical monuments. I was horrified to find, on a recent visit to Hampi which is a world heritage site, that there is no decent public toilet or even a serviceable café. I had mentioned this to our tourism minister some time ago, and perhaps this has been rectified. But facilities at other such sites do need to be upgraded.
It is time too for the next big idea to promote tourism globally, after ‘Incredible India’ which dates back to 2002. Government offices abroad do very little promotion, and should be closed. The best professional agencies, in India and abroad, need to be harnessed for a new campaign, and they should not hesitate to tackle some uncomfortable truths like foreigners being duped by touts, women receiving unwanted male attention, and lack of hygiene and cleanliness.
‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ is not merely a concept. It needs to translate into reality and become one of our most important engines of economic growth. A time-bound plan to double tourist arrivals by the year 2022 needs to be drawn up. In this doable task, a full time tourism minister would be of great help.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.
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