The problem

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FOR most part of our history as an independent nation, tourism has been dismissively treated as a leisure activity of the rich, a somewhat unnecessary distraction for a poor, developing economy that should instead focus its scarce resources in meeting the basic needs of its citizens – roti, kapada, makaan and naukri. Little surprise that the range of activities constituting the tourism sector were never cohered into a national policy and the episodic demands to grant it the status of an industry went unheeded. Left to the initiatives of private, often unorganized, players the tourism sector suffered from all the infirmities of an unplanned and uncoordinated activity. And the figures speak for themselves – our share in global tourism revenues remains unforgivably low, even lower than city states like Singapore or small provinces like Bali, what to speak of favoured destinations in the region like Thailand or Malaysia.

Fortunately of late, official thinking about the potential of tourism has been undergoing a transformation. In part, this is a reflection of a growing number of travellers able and willing to spend money to enjoy a wide variety of goods, services and experiences. Equally, it is being recognised that the income and employment generating potential of tourism per unit of investment is higher than manufacturing or agriculture and more, it cuts across class, social and geographical divides. Given the backward and forward linkages of the sector, resources invested in the promotion of tourism can stimulate demand for an immense range of goods, services and skills, both traditional and modern, and the consequent incomes generated can be widely dispersed and shared.

Nevertheless, as a recent retreat on tourism under the aegis of the Seminar Education Foundation (Sardar Samand, February 2005), bringing together policy-makers, industry players, image consultants, cultural activists and researchers highlighted, extant thinking and strategising about the potential of tourism continues to be marked by confusion and worse.

Take for instance our understanding of who we recognize as a tourist – the client whom we expect to spend money. Despite the proliferation of research and publications on the sector, we still seem obsessed with the white, western tourist, that too from the English speaking Anglo-Saxon world. Consequently, not only do we miss out on the diversity of the western traveller, we are even less sensitive to the concerns of visitors from other parts of the globe, be it from the affluent and growing economies of East and South-East Asia, countries of the Middle East or those from East and South Africa, even China, all of whom today account for a substantial and growing share of global tourist traffic.

Nor have we been able to map and tap the various segments of the tourist market. People travel to India not only to experience the exotica of the cultural and spiritual East – the golden triangle of Delhi-Agra-Jaipur, the forts, temples and palaces – but increasingly also for business, medical and other reasons, not to forget more specialized and niche experiences like wildlife tourism and mountaineering. Without continuous research and monitoring of the different kinds of travellers and their varied preferences, it is difficult to arrange for and provide a worthwhile experience.

Even more surprising than the above is the relative blindness to the domestic traveller. It is only now sinking in that many more Indians are travelling, and not merely for social engagements or pilgrimage. Both as a result of increasing disposable incomes as also provisions like the leave travel concession, Indians are now travelling for pleasure and new experiences. It is even less realized that in the last few years, more Indians travelled abroad than our inflow of foreign visitors, resulting in a net outflow of foreign exchange. Hardly surprising since our policies continue to discourage local travel – viz. the airfares from Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram exceed those to Bangkok or Singapore. Equally, we give greater attention to airports than railway stations and bus terminals, or to luxury hotels than budget accommodation, clearly indicating our preference for a specific category of tourist.

Some of this distorted attention is reflected in the practice of clubbing the tourism ministry sometimes with civil aviation, at other times with culture, but rarely granting it the independent status it deserves. Further, we have failed to develop the many forward and backward linkages affecting visitor experience – from visa difficulties and inefficient airports, overpriced hotel rooms, the absence of safe and convenient travel infrastructure and, above all, ill-maintained sites and locations that do little to attract the traveller. Little do we realize that unwholesome and unwelcoming experiences only drive away the potential repeat visitor.

Another major problem is our inability to distinguish between, and thus prepare for, the differential requirements of mass/charter and boutique tourism. The obsession with increasing figures of arrival make us miss out on the higher revenue per capita potential of niche tourism. Not only does mass/charter tourism place greater burden on an already stretched local infrastructure, much of the money spent by the charter tourist is cornered by foreign airlines and tourism agencies leaving less for domestic players. It can, as Goa domestically has shown, escalate tensions and lead to cultural clashes. Instead, we need to learn from the experience of boutique tourism in Kerala, some of our wildlife sites and so on, which have succeeded in creating models wherein the local populations gain from visitor arrivals in a sustainable manner and thus develop a stake in preserving and improving the local resources.

All of the above demands that we give tourism the attention it deserves – not only grant it the status of an independent and important ministry but also place the subject on the concurrent list enabling greater coordination between centre and states, rationalize the multiple taxes imposed on various goods and services and, above all, move away from short-run considerations of maximizing immediate returns to foregrounding long term considerations of sustainability. We need, for instance, many more imaginative models of public-private partnership – from financing and maintenance of tourism related infrastructure; expansion of sites and experiences for travellers, both foreign and domestic; marketing and sales of associated goods and services, and so on. Then there is a more ‘radical’ proposal of treating tourism as a by-product of enhancing the quality of local resources and infrastructure for citizens rather than tailor policy and packages for the external visitor. This, it is argued, will improve the environment for all visitors.

Fortunately, a more liberalized environment and greater confidence about how to live with and manage the growing connectivity has now made it possible to think afresh. With both the government and private players excited about the potential of a growing market, we will hopefully witness the evolution of a better, facilitating policy, making visitor experience more memorable. This issue of Seminar debates some proposals for improving the climate for tourism.