Posted by: John Elliott | October 29, 2009

“Incredible India” is a diversion from reality

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.

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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.

Branding IndiaThe 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.


  1. Very good article.

    Incredible India adverts especially the one at the New Delhi international airport in front of the immigration desk, are a seriously devious attempt to promote fantasies about India.

    The only thing incredible about India is its chaotic tourist infrastructure. I have been living in Goa for the last 4 years and cannot stand the disastrous mess in Candolim and Calangute which are more of a big bazaar rather than a tourist’s delight. That is why I live far away from the centers of Candolim, Calangute, Baga and Anjuna beaches, the face of Indian tourism in one of its top tourist states GOA.

    And the statement by my classmate in school, Suhel Seth, considered by some to be India’s # 1 bullshit artist, that “tourism is seen as an elitist industry by those in power, not an employment and revenue generator” is, well pure nonsense. In Goa, taxi drivers survive because of tourism since the residents have scooters, motorcycles and cars and don’t need taxis. Tourism in Goa alone generates employment for people from several states in India. The state Government in Goa promotes tourism in order to generate employment and wealth for Goans, who by the way have the highest per capita GDP of any state in India.

    Branding is akin to putting lipstick on a pig and is therefore not a solution to problems on the ground. India simply lacks the infrastructure for tourists who have other options. In particular, Russian tourists with families and kids, often harassed in Goa as being members of the Russian mafia, turn to Thailand, Israel, Egypt and Turkey for vacations in winter because those places have much superior infrastructure for tourists. Infact, Indian tourists from Bombay and Delhi prefer Thailand to Goa for a beach vacation as Thailand is cheaper and better.

    Unless India changes its ground reality, conferences and big speeches, including those by Modi, will result in no significan improvement in business whetehr it is for tourism or for Make in India.

  2. As I told Kamal Nath in Davos, where he launched the “Incredible India” campaign several years ago, the slogan was unintentionally all too accurate. The image of the country that it sought to project was completely incredible because slick PR was no substitute for an abject failure to undertake neces
    sary reforms. He was not pleased. Of course. We can only hope that this government will prove to be more serious and worthy of its citizens.

  3. Very nice it really gives an insight into the travel industry of India and the initiatives taken by the Indian Government to improve it.

  4. India’s lack of success in the tourism sector is a function of a simple malady that plagues our nation – that of a lack of a consolidated coherent INDIA-ness. Across the political, economic, cultural, societal, diplomatic, foreign-policy and sporting arenas, there is no single, synchronous, consolidated campaign to truly combine the cumulative energies available within, and drive the nation ahead.

    For a truly successful tourism sector, surely there absolutely HAS to be the development of a suitable BRAND and that brand has to point to a suitable “product”. In India’s case, the govt and relevant authorities have done an abyssmal job of packaging the fantastic gambit of historic, cultural and natural tourism attractions that are available within india, and which can provide a truly buoyant driver for booming tourism action. Without a suitable product though, how can there be any effective branding and marketing? In contrast, China has performed superbly at creating a very tangible China brand and a well packaged “story” around Chinese heritage, history, culture.

    Its time that the Indian govt realises that outsiders will not give a crap about the historical, philosophical, ethnic, cultural, geographical wonder that is India, if we ourselves do not take the trouble to create a consolidated and readily accessible and suitably branded tourism “PRODUCT”. For this, there has to be a well funded and suitably deployed campaign to:

    >> conserve/maintain/promote sites, venues, concepts and areas of tourism/historical/cultural importance.
    >> develop suitable infrastructure to facilitate effective tourism action (information centres, informational material, marketing collateral, public amenities at tourist sites)
    >> deploy effective and pro-active branding/marketing campaigns domestically and internationally
    >> develop suitable partnerships with entities in the private sector (hospitality, travel etc) to enable a seamless and smooth tourism experience for the target market.

  5. No matter how much people criticize, India remains the same.

    Coz this kind of rubbish living has been the norm for indians for centuries for No good reason.

    And look at what Indians have access to – such a huge land mass, massive amounts of resources, enough food to feed all of its people, the most intelligent people in the world, the land of Buddha and rich spiritualism!!

    We are capable of being such a great nation, if only we apply a little more intelligence.

    It is time for this whole nation to take a rebirth (as a phoenix)!!! It is really time….

  6. A late comment but confirmation that the exceptionally beautiful Incredible India campaign is beside the point unless there is some practical action to ease the process of getting to India and once there travelling around.

    Just one example: getting a tourist visa. I hold a UK biometric passport (born in the UK) but live in France where obtaining a tourist visa takes up to 3 weeks, and since I cannot be without a passport for such a length of time I make a special trip to London.

    In the UK as in France the process has now been outsourced, which at least has the advantage that queuing is now in a stuffy crowded room instead of in the rain on the pavement outside the High Commission. However with or without an apopintment, waiting time is more than 3 hours to file an application. Interestingly, the application form is not the same in the UK as in France – 4 refereees are required, 2 in the UK and 2 in India, apparently not thought necessary in Paris where different information is requested. 2 to 3 working days later, there is another queue for about an hour to recover the passport with a visa limited to 6 months.

    As a former resident in India where I worked in the 90’s, and involved in a not-for-profit organisation working to preserve India’s cultural heritage, I visit once or twice a year and have done so for the last 10 years but cannot obtain a longer period to avoid this hassle expense and waste of time for each visit. In this day and age of computerised files surely someone could invent a better system? The conclusion must be that no-one is interested in making life a little easier for the tourist.

    Visitng Incredible India has to be merited, no doubt.

  7. If India wants visitors, Indians need to clean up their country first.

    Who would want to go to India to get sick?

  8. It is true India’s global efforts are aimed at the well-to-do. Foreign tourists are most welcome, but considerable wealth generation can be ensured by paying one-tenth of the attention to domestic tourism. Lakhs of middle class Indians go around to various places. The officialdom’s intention be to make money, not foreign exchange only.The Incredible India is,one should remember, an advertising blitz which may result in exaggerated expectations. The international tourists may get disillusioned when they come to India. In real terms it may turn out to be counter productive.

  9. “Incredible India” – I hope this branding would slowly get into good pace . . I have developed this hope from the developments that TN State is making on its tourism under state minister and secretary Iraianbu IAS.

  10. India’s tourism performance is really put to shame by the records of Hong Kong and Singapore. Last year, “arrivals from abroad” were almost 30 million in the former and more than 10 million in the latter. Admittedly, in Hong Kong’s case that number includes business travellers and 17 million arrivals from the mainland, but the residual 13 million from elsewhere is pretty impressive. On the other hand, if big increases in tourism led India to be plastered with Disneyworlds and garish casinos, maybe it would not be such a good idea…

    Don’t be too harsh about “Incredible India”. The slogan accurately, if unintentionally, describes the hype surrounding the foreign PR campaigns mounted by the government and business before the economic crisis caused them to think better of it. At the last such event I attended, in London 18 months ago, some members pointed out that the speakers’ confident forecasts of double-digit Indian GDP growth forever might be overshadowed by the storm clouds then starting to gather over the global economy. We were assured that these were simply passing distractions that would have no serious impact. Incredible indeed.

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