My headline is not a comment on India in general, though it could be because of all the disasters and shortcomings that this amazing country does little to correct. It’s actually a comment on the country’s very successful “Incredible India” tourism advertising campaign, which has been running internationally for several years and has lulled the government and others into believing that Indian tourism really is growing successfully.
But it isn’t, despite the advertising campaign. I can remember the government talking about achieving 6m foreign tourist arrivals more than a decade ago yet, incredibly, they only grew from 2.2m in 1995 to 4.5m in 2006 and then to 5.1m last year – and a huge proportion of those arrivals are businessmen and overseas Indians visiting home, so are not genuine tourists.
When Raymond Bickson, managing director of the Taj hotels chain, presented these figures at a World Travel & Tourism Council conference in Delhi yesterday, he added dramatic rises to 10m in 2011, and 18m in 2016. Next year of course the Commonwealth Games planned in Delhi will inevitably boost the figures, generating more false self-congratulation, but who can seriously think the total will more than double by 2011 – unless of course slow preparations for the Games means that they are postponed for a year.
For a country of India’s size, with its massive potential for different types of tourism ranging from visiting old monuments to climbing maintains, these statistics are awful, especially when compared with China, which went from 20m foreign tourists in 1995 to 53m in 2008, , according to figures provided by Bickson. Singapore similarly rose from 6m to 10.1m while Mexico, Turkey and Ukraine had around had 22m-25m last year.
As Suhel Seth, a branding specialist, pointed out at the conference, India’s basic problem is that “tourism is seen as an elitist industry by those in power, not an employment and revenue generator”.
That indeed has been the problem for decades, but there are also other reasons – not least that the big tourism companies, especially hotel chains, are far happier building splendid up-market hotels for the big-spending elite, than in tackling the lower end of the market. That is now beginning to change, not least with low-end Taj group hotels, but not enough to broaden the base of foreign tourist arrivals.
Then there is the biggest tourism deterrence – aviation – with mostly lousy airports and late flights. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Praful Patel, the aviation minister, who should have been at yesterday’s conference, cancelled at the last minute – presumably he was involved in post-assembly election manouvrings for his Maharashtra-based political party, the NCP.
If he had been there, he would have heard Bickson complain about the absence of a comprehensive civil aviation policy, about tough norms for granting international flight licenses, a ban on foreign airlines investing in the Indian airlines, the high cost of aviation turbine fuel, and inefficient airport infrastructure including a lack of aircraft hangars, hotels, and cargo facilities
But even worse than Patel’s cancellation was that of Kumari Selja, the minister for tourism, who also failed at attend. If she had been there, she would heave heard what are by now ancient calls for tourism to be given the status of an industry and improved infrastructure, for visas to be issued to visitors on arrival, and for a crisis management system on natural calamities and terrorism, plus other initiatives.
Kamal Nath, minister for highways, did turn up and usefully suggested setting up of a cabinet committee on tourism to co-ordinate policies and action between various ministries and departments. He also offered to improve road links to designated tourist spots. Jyotiraditya Scindia, minister of state for commerce, reiterated that tourism was a big employment generator and pointed out that unlike other sectors, for every single direct job it created, eight indirect jobs were created.
The conference was titled Energizing the Future, but I didn’t detect much energy, nor sign that India’s lamentable tourism record is about to change.
That is a pity because the Incredible India campaign generated interest and praise around the world after it was launched in 2002 by a team led by Amitabh Kant, a tourism ministry joint secretary. Kant had earlier been responsible for turning the state of Kerala into a leading international tourist destination, and he has written about his work in Branding India – An Incredible Story that was published a few months ago.
But branding is not enough – widespread government action is required, and there is no sign of that.