India is spectacular. This fact has been impressed upon the world for a decade now by the slick ‘Incredible India’ advertising campaign.
It’s all there on video, on billboards, on the sides of buses. The latest commercial features a smiling young woman practising yoga in the desert; boating on the Dal Lake; riding a vintage motorcycle in Ladakh; drinking fresh coconut water in Kerala; using one of our world-class airports; making earnest conversation at the Golden Temple; zorbing, paragliding, snowboarding, rock climbing and mountain biking; getting an oily massage at a luxury spa; drinking lassi in the blue city of Jodhpur; jostling onto a crowded bus in Kullu; swimming with an elephant; gawping at rhinos and tigers; playing chess in Varanasi; disappearing in clouds of coloured powder on Holi. All the while, during this hectic itinerary, she works on that most distinctive of Indian gestures: an ambiguous head-waggle.
Watching this, who wouldn’t want to travel to India, to partake of its wonders? The answer is not nearly as many as want to go elsewhere.
Tourism could have been a panacea for India’s economic woes: a source of both revenue and employment. But, according to the World Bank’s figures from 2011, Malaysia attracts nearly 25 million tourists, Mexico 23 million, Ukraine 21 million, Thailand 19 million, Singapore 10 million, Egypt 9.5 million. In sharp contrast, India attracts under 6.5 million visitors. Fewer than Indonesia. Fewer than Bulgaria. Only half as many as Poland. Vietnam, about the size of Madhya Pradesh, attracts just as many foreign tourists as India. A comparison with China, apparently India’s rival and de facto benchmark, is embarrassing. At 57 million foreign tourists a year, China is behind only the United States and France as the world’s most visited country. To add salt to India’s wounds, consider this: Venice alone has 6.5 million annual visitors, as many as all of India. According to the Mastercard Global Cities Index for 2013, Bangkok has overtaken London as the most visited city on the planet, among cities where visitors spend at least one night. Bangkok gets nearly 16 million visitors. It is the first of seven Asian cities — including Singapore, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Seoul and Shanghai — that receive more visitors every year than India.
The truth about Indian tourism is that behind the confident smiles, the claims for rapid growth and unlimited potential, is the reality of too few hotel rooms, inadequate infrastructure, political indifference, mounting garbage, tawdry scams and violent crime, making the claims of ‘Incredible India’ seem as hollow as those of ‘India Shining’, another famously hubristic slogan. According to a Planning Commission draft report for the 12th Five-Year Plan (2012-17), the benefits of paying attention to tourism are significant. Tourism is the main source of foreign exchange for over a third of developing countries, and accounts for 30 percent of the world’s exports of commercial services. As an export category, it ranks fourth after fuels, chemical and automotive products. It is an industry that creates employment for groups that otherwise struggle to get jobs. In India, women account for 70 percent of the work force in the tourist sector; and nearly half of all tourism workers are under 25 years of age. According to the report, every million rupees invested in tourism creates 78 jobs compared to the 45 created by the manufacturing sector. In 2010, tourism accounted for 53 million jobs in the country.
In a period of economic downturn, as we struggle to generate jobs and growth, tourism is an industry that cannot be allowed to coast, to continue to underachieve and tout modest gains as proof of success. As of now, Indian tourism is a story of squandered opportunity. This is a country with thousands of kilometres of unbroken coastline and some of the world’s highest mountains. The landscape, flora and fauna are varied; the history is long and compelling. As the Minister of State for Tourism, Telugu film star K Chiranjeevi, said when he assumed office late last year: India has “everything, from mountains to backwaters to monuments”. But, he went on to ask, are we making full use of our natural advantages? The answer to that question, for all the illusion of progress since 1991, is a disaffected shrug.
Around the time that Chiranjeevi took over the ministry, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) announced that annual global tourist numbers had crossed the one billion barrier. Of those tourists, India attracts a little over 0.6 percent. In 1991, according to MP Bezbaruah, former tourism secretary and India’s permanent representative to the UNWTO, the government had drafted an action plan that aimed at lifting India’s international tourist arrival figures to one percent of the global total by the turn of the century. “The year 2000 came and is now much behind us but we are still far away from achieving that objective. It’s not that we haven’t progressed, but we are in a dynamic world and others have simply grown faster,” he says. For India, the goalposts remain fixed and unmoving. Chiranjeevi’s stated goal is still to capture that magical one percent of global tourist traffic.
According to the Planning Commission report, India should achieve that aim by 2017. It would require an annual growth rate of over 12 percent for the next four years. But India’s foreign tourist arrivals grew at only 5.4 percent in 2012. Cambodia and Laos, for instance, reported gains of 24 percent and 22 percent, respectively. To achieve those kinds of numbers, the tourism ministry would have to overcome decades of chronic mismanagement and apathy. As Ambika Soni, who was Minister of Tourism and Culture from 2006 to 2009, told Tehelka: “This was a ministry which was dismissed, as in ‘kisiko holiday dena hai toh tourism ministry’.” Subodh Kant Sahay, who was tourism minister until October 2012, said something similar, describing an assignment to the ministry as “tafri”, or time pass. Both former ministers claim to have professionalised the ministry in their time, but the scale of the task — to turn an underperforming bureaucracy into a lean, efficient, goal-achieving machine — is daunting, a logistical nightmare. The levels of coordination currently required between ministries and between state governments and the centre are byzantine. As a result, projects are often left half-done, never begun, or simply abandoned in a legal and political swamp.
Take, as a particularly egregious example, the fate of the Himalayan Ski Village (HSV). Back in 2006, a pair of American Indophiles unveiled their vision of a Himalayan winter wonderland. Alfred B Ford, a great grandson of Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, and his partner John Robert Sims, both prominent figures in the ISKCON movement, wanted to create an international standard ski resort in the towering mountains above Kullu district. The planned resort would rival anything tourists might find in the Alps. A slope, 14,000 feet high, a few kilometres from Manali, was picked out for a $300 million makeover. Designed to serve some 10,000 people at one time, over 100 acres were set aside for restaurants, spas, shops, villas, hotel rooms, what the resort’s website describes as “entertainment centres”, and a huge 20,000 square foot space to host conventions. HSV was going to be the largest foreign investment in Indian tourism, a sign of things to come for a booming economy. Himachal Pradesh was ready for its close-up.
Seven years later, the HSV remains a dream, bruised and tattered at the edges. Sims, the managing director, is embittered by the experience. For now, his plans for Swiss-style chalets, for ski lifts to ferry affluent tourists to the powdery slopes, are caught in the quicksand of Indian politics. “Tourism,” says Sims, “offers the best potential for hill states to prosper, yet it is an orphan child to hydro (electric) and other industries that create fewer jobs.” HSV is now reconsidering its investment. The project would have generated employment for several thousand people. Instead, says Sims, over the last few years tourism to Manali has declined. The airport that used to get a couple of flights a day now gets none. The skiers have moved to Kashmir.
Of course, it must be admitted that the HSV has been opposed by NGOs and local people concerned about the impact such a large, privately-owned resort might have on the environment, on resources vital to the people of the area. These concerns, though, are incidental to the politicians of the major parties who are embroiled in their favourite game of finger-pointing, politicking and buck-passing. For a while, after the project was approved by the ruling Congress government in Himachal Pradesh, everything had gone as planned. In 2006, an implementation agreement was signed, followed by a detailed project report in 2007. HSV then submitted an environmental management plan to the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
But when the state government changed, the company’s troubles started. The new government contended that HSV had been tardy in seeking environmental clearances, and sought to cancel the initial agreement. HSV took the government to court. In a 2012 ruling that was remarkably blunt, the Himachal Pradesh High Court observed that the company had complied with all requirements. The state government, it said, “had already made up its mind to cancel the project”. The notice it had issued was “merely a ritual”. The environmental and religious concerns might have been valid, but they needed to be addressed through dialogue with the company and local people. Instead, “Himalayan Ski Village simply became a football in the game of the politics of negativity,” says Sims. On 17 April this year, the state government withdrew its case against HSV, but the damage had been done.
The HSV debacle is a product of political uncertainty. Ultimately, the Central government’s schemes work only if the states choose to cooperate. Former minister Sahay points out that state governments often “allocate very few funds, around 3-5 crore, towards developing tourism. They, too, have to participate in the development process, build roads that connect to tourist spots.” An example of this infrastructural breakdown is the ‘golden triangle’ that strings together Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. It is one of the country’s most popular ‘circuits’, to use the term preferred by the tourism ministry.
Yet, its development has been haphazard, says Vikram Madhok, head of India operations for global travel company, Abercrombie and Kent, and vice-chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association’s India chapter. “You’ve created an excellent highway between Delhi and Agra but you haven’t connected it to the Taj, so tourists get stuck in massive traffic snarls in the city,” he says. “Neither are there connecting flights between Agra and Jaipur, or between other popular circuit destinations like Jaipur and Jodhpur.”
Even within Agra, little by way of infrastructure has been created for tourists. The city offers almost nothing aside from the Taj. Tourists rarely ever stay overnight. As a result, only a few hoteliers have ventured into Agra, creating, according to Madhok, the anomalous situation of a city with one of the world’s greatest monuments containing fewer than 1,000 hotel rooms for tourists, while Delhi, with over 11,000 rooms, has a glut. Sahay accepts this criticism too. “There is no nightlife for tourists in India,” he says. “After a day of sightseeing, tourists like to relax with dinner and cultural programmes. But there are so few choices. At best, there may be a light and sound show. So, why would any tourist stay overnight?”
The lack of tourist infrastructure hasn’t stopped the tourism ministry making ambitious plans. Replying to a question in Parliament, Chiranjeevi proudly announced the identifying of 54 “mega destinations and circuits”, of which 40 have already been officially sanctioned. These include religious circuits: tours of, say, churches in Goa, or Sufi shrines throughout north India. Already planned are more heritage circuits in Rajasthan and Gujarat, and the development of towns such as Leh and Nashik into so-called mega destinations. Chiranjeevi might want to consult the Odisha state government on the progress of its multi-crore project to develop the beautiful Shamuka beach.
Set between the temple town of Puri and Chilika Lake, the site for the project is idyllic, with a two-kilometre-long beach front on one side and an equally long front of the Mangla river on the other. In its comprehensive presentation, the Odisha Tourism Development Corporation floated the fantasy of a luxury “business-cum-leisure” destination spread over 3,000 acres, at the cost of thousands of crores. According to some reports, the Shamuka beach redevelopment was planned two decades ago. It took till July, 2011 for the Infrastructure Development Corporation of Odisha, dragging its feet on land acquisition, to hand over only part of the land to the state’s tourism department. When bids were finally invited for hotels, most chains stayed away, anticipating further delays and political wrangling. Despite the occasional grand statement of progress, the project looks little nearer to completion even today.
It’s hard to blame hotel chains and private businesses for resisting government entreaties in most states for Private-Public Partnerships (PPP). “The ‘public’ part just does not function,” says Aman Nath, architectural restorer and co-owner of heritage hotel chain Neemrana Hotels. He speaks from the hard-won knowledge of a Kafkaesque experience with Tijara, a fort in Rajasthan. The PPP to restore and run the fort as a hotel was signed a decade ago. But the tourism department forgot that the fort was accessed through forest land. It took seven years for the forest department to grant access so that restoration work could begin. It took another year to get an electricity connection. Meanwhile, the roads adjoining the fort are still not finished. Even at the Neemrana Fort Palace, Nath and Francis Wacziarg’s flagship property, which they have owned since 1986, the land has not been clearly demarcated.
Designer and art impresario Rajeev Sethi blames the government’s “cumbersome procedures, the incredibly foolish regimes of licences from visas to infrastructure that involves ever larger numbers of people.” He suggests that the government keeps tourism an elite activity. Sethi describes a meeting with people “from a tribal area, who came to ask me how they could encourage tourism in their violence-prone area. They thought tourism might make them less isolated.” But, he says, despairing, even if they found a way to “set up a co-op, get enough land, bring their traditional knowledge systems to bear, who would help promote such activities?” “These are people who are deprived and poor,” Sethi says. “We haven’t given any thought to the base of the pyramid. It’s just so much easier to talk about the luxury segment.”
In fairness to the government, it has given some thought to the base of the pyramid, to enabling people to use traditional knowledge, skill and craft. It’s just that, like so many other government schemes, the result has been disappointment and failure. In 2011-12, 927.7 crore was sanctioned for projects to encourage tourism in rural areas, to showcase “life, art, culture and heritage in villages”. A survey by AC Nielsen ORG-MARG found that out of a total of 107 projects, only 41 could be classified as successful. The rest were either floundering or outright failures. Instead of seeking to create numerous, randomly selected rural tourist destinations, the authors of the survey suggested, it might make more sense for the tourism ministry to focus on fewer areas known for their craftmanship and “develop the destination as a whole”.
It’s part of a pattern of eccentric planning decisions. When it comes to tourism, governments (whether state or Central) either do nothing, or far too much. In Tehelka’s interview with Santosh Desai, he remarked on the stark difference between government inaction, “or even indifference”, and the hustle of small-time private enterprise, the huge numbers out there looking to make a quick buck off a tourist. The clearest evidence of both government short-sightedness and conman chutzpah is the rampant, unregulated mushrooming of ever uglier hotels in national parks and hill stations, both essential to India’s attractiveness to tourists.
Unsightly concrete hotels and resorts that don’t even put up a pretence of blending with their surroundings create pollution and water shortages, and alienate local populations. Such establishments deter sophisticated tourists increasingly interested in sustainable tourism infrastructure. Those who do come find that the quiet holidays they have been sold are more likely to be crowded and forgettable experiences.