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Sunday, July 6, 2014

What ails Indian tourism?

Tourism along with railways has always been a key focus area of the new prime minister even before he became one and it is now time that these sectors are actually harnessed for the national good. Unfortunately tourism, an activity of the masses has always been looked upon with an elitist undertone and therefore the sector rarely got the attention and the priority it rightfully deserved despite its unmatched multiplier effect and capacity for generating employment.
There has always been an ongoing debate over whether tourism is a state or a federal subject and voices to bring it on the concurrent list were always getting raised. Yet the fact remains that merely being on a list is not a guarantor of growth or development and what really matters are intentions and also the efforts to convert them into reality. During my earlier roller coaster stint in the federal ministry of tourism I always wondered whether merely putting Agra, the home of the Tajmahal in order should not be the starting point for setting right the entire gamut of tourism in the nation. Yet it was never to be as we always aspired to do something big while failing in achieving the small. 
Another issue that has always been on the top of my mind is whether the primary role of the tourism departments at the federal and state levels is tourism for the mandarins or tourism for the masses. For masses obviously it has to be, yet the tours beyond the confines of the shores have continued unabated, cutting across states and shades of governance. Our focus definitely needs to shift from beyond the shores to setting our own house in order and then zoom forward.
It is not merely about how many visitors we receive from beyond the shores. Tourism to my mind is more about enabling our countrymen to explore the richness of their own country, something that gets shrouded by the glimmer of what is regarded and worshipped as foreign stuff.
It is also of essence that the national perspective on tourism does not remain confined merely to figures both of foreign tourist arrivals and the home population moving within the country. Unfortunately the national mind-set is guided and also led by statistics, and therein lies the malaise. Even while remaining confined to statistics, the essential difference between the tourist, who is basically an explorer, and the traveller, who may be moving for many reasons needs to be   appreciated, though both form part of the tourism statistics that are regularly being churned out and touted by those who matter in the matter of tourism in the country.
Another fallacy is related to international advertising. Our sheer inability to appreciate that the bottleneck in so far as foreign tourist arrivals is concerned is not the inability to showcase but the  number of seats in the aircrafts plying between the homeland and the rest of the world. It is time to realize that advertising is not merely for increasing the numbers but also for improving the image perception and creating the desire to visit and it therefore has to be primarily driven by the Indian ethos, culture and achievements and not merely the numbers game.
And it is also about infrastructure. The much-needed basic tourist infrastructure is a dire necessity and merely releasing grants to the State Governments who permit only a trickle to reach the ground is not making the difference it actually should. The release of funds alone is an inadequate measure unless it results in an actual conversion and in its absence a pat on the back is not really in order. The emergence of a good monitoring and executing machinery is the desperate need of the hour.
The India Tourism Development Corporation is indeed the sad story of Indian tourism. An inherently profitable commercial organization also entrusted with the national mandate of development of tourism has been brought to seed by inept leadership provided by high ranking bureaucrats. Is it not really unfortunate that along with Air India, ITDC is also now regarded as the national symbol of sloth, inefficiency and corruption? Both these commercial monoliths could have given a tremendous push to the cause of tourism as well as travel within the country, something they did till professionalism remained at the core of their operations. Yet both can turnaround provided………
It is beyond doubt that tourism as an activity almost always happens on its own, without prodding from the governments, and that it helps local economies to grow at a pace much higher than in other sectors. Its employment potential as well as impact on economy many times over the investment in the sector have already received adequate national hype and now it warrants real inputs not merely rhetoric  from the governments. 
It is now time that the handling of tourism moves beyond the established clich├ęs and it actually starts  driving local economies, besides giving a thrust to the re-emergence and positioning of ancient Indian heritage, art, culture and thought. It would indeed be futile to look at tourism without looking at all that the country stands for. The sectors encompassing tourism and culture are complimentary and a much higher natural synergy will now perhaps be achieved after the merger of the two ministries.
The role of the Government of India Tourist Offices, popularly known as GOITO’s that earlier formed the backbone of the national effort to give a thrust to tourism need a much deeper understanding and appreciation. Merely finding faults without suitably empowering them to function efficiently in a fast changing international scenario is causing more damage than good. Perhaps an injection of fundamentals of administration and management is the need of the hour. It is also necessary that the unfortunate state of affairs in which these offices and the men who man them stand castigated should cease once and for all. 
Lack of cleanliness and hygiene is also a bane of the tourism sector in the nation. Perhaps it is an issue related to the mind-set that is prevalent, yet there is no alternative to maintaining in a state of utmost cleanliness both our tourist destinations as well as places of human habitat in general. The recent clean india campaign marked a good beginning, yet the effort has lost steam midway or so it appears.
And make it easy for the private sector to invest. That the number of hotel rooms in the organized sector is far lower than that in the city state of Singapore indeed says it all. A multi-pronged strategy focussed on cleanliness, private sector participation, infrastructure development, promotional advertising and tourist facilitation would make all the difference in proper positioning of the country as a tourist friendly nation in its own national interest, is indeed the need of the hour.

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