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Travel and Tourism in Twenty-First-Century India

November 2004
Travel and Tourism in Twenty-First-Century India

New Tourism For New Times


For all its famous archeological and historic sites, glorious cultural heritage, and the pristine beauty of its natural treasures such as the Himalayas, India has yet to find a place amongst global hotspots in the tourism world. To illustrate, a comparison with neighboring China can be sobering. Despite an outbreak of SARS, which hurt the Chinese tourism industry last year, almost 11.5 million foreigners went there in 2003; and a year earlier, that number was 13.5 million. India, on the other hand, only had 2.75 million foreign visitors in 2003. Even tiny Hong Kong routinely draws more international visitors than India.

The good news, though, is that India has begun making tremendous progress over the last couple of years. Reportedly, there was a 15.3 percent increase in foreign tourists from 2002 to 2003, and the first half of this year saw a rise of 25 percent. At the same time, a closer look at these undeniably encouraging numbers reveals a more complex picture. According to P.R.S. Oberoi, chairman of the Oberoi group of hotels, the 2.75-million figure includes all foreign travelers to India, not just visitors who are purely tourists. So, given the dynamic global environment these days, it's apparently important for the entire nation to have the right ?brand' in order to attract people from other places.


"It's not only companies that need to be concerned with this; countries too have to project themselves, to represent something," stated Sunil Khilnani in a talk (?Branding India') given at a FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) seminar. "In the current debates about the future of the international order, the values and principles that nations embody and seek to project have once again acquired great importance. Today, we live in a world where what has been called the ?battle of ideas', and of images, is a crucial terrain of action."

One could therefore argue that, in recent years, factors such as economic liberalization, the spectacular but largely unforeseen IT revolution, and India's resilient democracy ? as exemplified by the peaceful transfer of power in an upset election ? have played a vital role in shaping this new brand represented by India. As Outlook magazine notes, "The dramatic transformation of the India brand, from being a misty salvation merchant to a terribly relevant player in the material world, didn't happen by design. It was an accident. But now the government and the industry are trying to ?position' India."

One prominent example of this positioning is the ?Incredible India' campaign, which was launched to aggressively promote tourism. Piyush Pandey, now the chief executive at Ogilvy & Mather (India), designed the ?Incredible India' brand in order to create a strong bond with customers. As he pointed out, "A brand is the guarantee of an expected performance and is the basis for customer relationship." In that sense, the sustained ?Incredible India' campaign ? which was done through multiple media outlets in several countries over eighteen months ? has been an unqualified success. It ended up winning the PATA (Pacific Asia Travel Association) Gold Award this year.

Ani Agnihotri, a co-chairman of the Festival of India council in Atlanta, explained how he'd been inspired by this campaign. "About eighteen months back, I came to know about the government's ?Incredible India' project," he said. "I met some tourism officials and wrote to Vinod Khanna, who was then the Tourism Minister. We decided to use ?Incredible India' as the title for our festival in Atlanta this year because, like the government, we also wanted to promote India as a tourist destination."

India means different things to different people, of course, but a few dominant images seem to stand out in the global consciousness. According to Outlook magazine, again, the top ten global brands from India (in no particular order) are as follows: Yoga, Gandhi, Bollywood, IIT, Infotech, Darjeeling, Curry, Taj Mahal, Kama Sutra and Gita. These brands may vary widely in terms of significance, depending on who's looking at them, but one can hardly deny that they're all instantly recognizable. When it comes to tourism and travel, for instance, the Taj Mahal is virtually synonymous with India. This beloved mausoleum ? perhaps India's greatest asset for tourism ? is one of the most visited monuments in the world, attracting thousands of people every day from all over. Nonetheless, as Jean-Claude Baumgarten, president of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), once remarked, even the most beautiful woman in the world has to be packaged.

So it's not surprising to learn that the Taj's 350th anniversary is being celebrated in a grand way, although there continues to be some controversy over the correct date. On September 27th, World Tourism Day, the extended festivities got off to a rousing start when hundreds of schoolchildren released multicolored, heart-shaped balloons and white pigeons early in the morning. The Indian Post Office has come out with a new stamp to commemorate this milestone. There was also a Taj Mahotsav (festival) at Agra Fort, where Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, playing the santoor, was accompanied by Hariharan and Ghulam Ali.


As experts are quick to point out, a slick marketing campaign, no matter how persuasive and successful, can only do so much to promote tourism in India. This surely means that tourism can thrive and grow in India only if the challenges facing travelers and the industry are properly addressed. To be fair, however, much good work is already being done in this regard. Two of the biggest stumbling blocks confronting the nation are its poor infrastructure and environmental degradation. Other widespread problems include mismanagement and corruption. Bad roads and chaotic traffic, pollution, overcrowded trains, delays, and unscrupulous touts are sadly not uncommon in many parts of India.

A major obstacle is the lack of world-class airports. "Our country with its subcontinental dimensions has only five international airports," noted Express Travel & Tourism magazine. "That these airports lag behind international standards is an understatement." And this can be a disconcerting fact for first-time travelers who are not prepared for the experience. In August, for example, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution featured a long piece about an Alpharetta-based chief executive, Dustin Crane, who made a business trip to India and a couple of other countries to learn about outsourcing. "At times, the experience was unsettling, bringing Crane's Western ways face-to-face with worlds where prosperity often collided with poverty," the article noted. "That was the case when he landed at the airport in Mumbai."

Airport woes have long restricted India's growth as a premier tourist destination. Inadequate facilities and shortsighted government policies have kept airfares high and the number of flights low, discouraging inbound tourism. As Express Travel & Tourism magazine points out, the fare differential from London to India compared to another place of the same distance is often to the tune of $350. The reasons include high landing and navigation fees.

Now the pleasant news, and it's not just for tourists and travelers, is that many positive developments have taken place in recent years. The government in India has agreed to 49 percent privatization of Delhi and Mumbai airports, and reportedly, ten groups have already presented their bids. Also, the cap on direct foreign investment in domestic aviation is being raised to 49 percent. A privately built international airport is expected to open in Bangalore by 2007. The refurbished airport in Hyderabad proves that much can be achieved even within a short time. Some observers have wondered why it took so long to make these decisions, especially since airports perform such a key role in the nation's economy. Others argue that making changes is not so easy given India's complexity, an example being the recent threats of strikes and fasts by thousands of airport workers who fear the loss of jobs. Nevertheless, the momentum seems to be in the direction of improved efficiency and expanded capacity. And, most likely, lower airfares. One good sign is that the high taxes on hotels and fares are already coming down.

In the near future, two well-regarded domestic airlines ? Jet Airways and Air Sahara ? will probably operate flights to destinations in Southeast Asia and Europe. Another encouraging trend is the emergence of no-frills or budget airlines, which will inevitably boost air travel within India, easing some of the burden on overtaxed rail and even road transportation. The only player in the game so far is Air Deccan, although others like Kingfisher Airlines and Royal Airways are getting ready to enter the market. According to The New York Times, some fares on Air Deccan are as low as $15, making air travel suddenly affordable to many more Indians.

At the same time, Indian roads and rails have not been ignored, and despite the change in government this year, there has been no interruption in the ongoing work. Substantial progress has been made on the ambitious Golden Quadrilateral (or National Highway) project, which aims to connect the four big cities of Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai through a network of highways crisscrossing the nation. Not to be outdone, the Indian Railways has started upgrading its own quadrilateral links among the four metropolitan centers, and there are also plans to beef up the security on trains. A new initiative to attract tourists is the introduction this month of the ?Village on Wheels' train, which will cover important cultural and religious spots in India. Unlike the upscale ?Palace on Wheels' train, which caters to wealthy foreigners and Indians, this new air-conditioned train has lower fares and is geared toward ordinary travelers. Another tourist-friendly train, to be introduced next year, will link the four southern states of India.

More attention is also being paid to the preservation of important historic and archeological sites. Last year there was an outcry over a state government's scandalous attempts to go forward with the so-called Taj Heritage Corridor, which was actually a cover for a huge commercial undertaking involving an amusement park and a shopping complex. Luckily those plans were quashed, and now in the Agra area, a lot is being done to clean up the pollution caused by oil refineries and factories. Another controversy centered on a Yanni concert at the Taj in the 1990s. The floodlights apparently attracted insects, which left droppings on the fabled monument. Now no cultural programs are permitted in its vicinity, and because of security concerns, nighttime viewing of the Taj Mahal remains banned.

As far as sanitation is concerned, certain towns and cities have shown that much good can be done with adequate resources and strong, responsible leaders at the helm. Surat, the second largest city in Gujarat, is the most striking example. Just ten years ago, this diamond city of India suffered a devastating blow when there was an unexpected outbreak of plague. But then it underwent a dramatic transformation, and not long ago, it was named the second cleanest city in India (after Chandigarh) by the National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). This abrupt turnaround earned it a new sobriquet, khoobsurat (meaning beautiful), in the Indian press.


So, undoubtedly, many advances have been made on various fronts. And tourism has become an indispensable sector of the Indian economy, providing 50 million jobs either directly or indirectly. The WTTC, in its ten-year projections for employment and demand relating to tourism, lists India as one of the top ten nations. "Indian tourism is growing by leaps and bounds," remarked Agnihotri. "Earlier, India used to attract a lot of Europeans and Israelis. Now they're also getting a lot of North Americans." Worldwide, a quarter of a billion people will be working in the tourism industry by the end of this decade. But the rapid increase in tourism also raises critical questions about its possible negative effects on local communities and the environment in India.

A while ago, on a BBC program called Talking Point, there was a lively debate amongst listeners on the subject of mass tourism. Noting that tourism is the world's biggest growth industry, the BBC posed the following questions: "Does tourism create exploitation? Or does it bring prosperity to much-needed areas? Is responsible tourism possible?" People from all over the world responded with their diverse views.

"If you really want to see the effects of mass tourism, then visit Goa, " said Anthony D'Souza from India. "This idyllic town with its proud inhabitants has not only been stripped to the bone by marauding commercial tourism, but its way of life and even the basic needs of the people such as water and sanitation are under siege, owing to the enormous burdens the luxury hotels place on the ecosystem." In the hospitality industry, according to The Economic Times, two- to five-star categories hotels at present have 84,000 rooms but need 130,000 for the 3 million foreigners expected in India by the end of 2004. So it's not surprising to see why the effective management of growth remains a major challenge.

Another Indian listener of Talking Point, Navin Gupta, was more optimistic about tourism. "Whatever the negative aspects of globalization, it cannot be denied that mass tourism is one of the most useful outcomes of the phenomenon," he countered. "It is a complete industry in itself, employing (millions) of people and bringing in massive revenues to the nation." Gupta added that the mixing and exchanging of cultures brought in more acceptance of ?foreign' and provided critical insight into ?local'. Rick Pettit, a listener from the U.S., nicely summed up the various opinions when he remarked, "Tourism is a double-edged sword ? it can provide both positives and negatives to a community."



Many observers continue to argue for a more responsible approach and, increasingly, sustainable tourism is seen as the only viable option for India in the long run. "New tourism looks beyond short-term considerations," explains Baumgarten of WTTC. "It focuses on benefits not only for people who travel, but also for people in the communities they visit, and for their respective natural, social and cultural environments."

Not surprisingly, even India's tourism policy of 2002 emphasizes sustainability, culture and heritage in its vision statement. One interesting trend that favors these goals is the growth of niche markets, which usually means that eco-tourism and ethno-tourism ? to name just two options ? can also be a good way to experience the numerous treasures of India. The rising popularity of this kind of tourism is not a coincidence, since there seems to be general drift towards market segmentation.

The government in India has given more attention to this shift in its new ?Incredible India' campaign. Shankar Dhar, the joint director-general of tourism, noted that when he spoke to the Travel Trade Group this year. "We are moving away from the branding strategy to a product-specific communication plan," he said. "We are fine-tuning the campaign to more specific themes such as adventure, health, beaches, culture, etc." Almost $20 million has been earmarked for this multimedia blitz, which is being launched in many countries on at least four continents. The private sector ? a conglomerate of airlines, hotels and travel agents ? is playing a big role in the campaign.

As always, particularly for first-time tourists and other travelers with a limited agenda, several promising routes are available in India. The ten most popular ones, according to Le Passage to India Tours and Travels, are as follows: Golden Triangle (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur), Gateway to India (Mumbai) and the South, Buddhist Circuit, Northern India & Nepal, Kerala Backwaters, Forts and Palaces, Goa Beaches, The Great Himalayas, Golden Triangle II (Konark Circuit) and Golden Triangle III (the temple towns of Tamil Nadu). More and more, however, travelers also want to explore lesser-known destinations like the pristine Andaman & Nicobar Islands or experience a different kind of tourism. It's not uncommon for visitors to go on an extended spiritual retreat or immerse themselves in the cultural riches of India. Teaching at a rural school or joining an organization like Indicorp to do social work is another meaningful way to spend time in India.


Rajasthan-based Alternative Travels, which was founded by Ramesh Jangid, who'd spent many years in Europe before returning to India, is one example of an outfit that promotes sustainable tourism by providing non-traditional accommodations and tours. As Jangid informed Khabar, his ecolodge (Apani Dhani) in Shekhawati has been short-listed for a ?Responsible Traveler' award based in the U.K. "For the past fourteen years, Alternative Travels has offered the opportunity to witness and participate in Indian daily life, particularly rural life," he notes. "We involve local people at different stages of our activities so that they benefit as well by this kind of tourism."

Jangid offers customized tours that focus on themes such as yoga, naturopathy, music and dance, textiles, and cuisine. Around 5 percent of the price is invested in local projects, and 3.7 percent of the total revenue is used to help disabled children. His eco-friendly Apani Dhani consists of simple yet elegantly built thatch-roofed bungalows, using mud plaster and sun-dried clay bricks in the traditional Rajasthani style, and furnished with locally made handicrafts. The rental rates are reasonable, especially for Western tourists, but a cheaper guesthouse is available for budget-minded travelers. A special feature of Apani Dhani is the emphasis on energy and water conservation. Photovoltaic solar panels help to generate electricity, and solar energy is also used to do cooking and heat the water. Recycling and water harvesting are actively encouraged, and guests are given the opportunity to trek in the Aravalli Mountains or go on camel-cart excursions.

Visitors also get a chance to stay with families in modest yet comfortable accommodations and learn about the regional cuisine or indigenous arts and crafts. Guides from local communities are available for trips to places of interest, which include the numerous havelis (medieval mansions) in Shekhawati. The exquisite frescoes of these mansions are so well known that this area is sometimes referred to as an open-air art gallery. About ten years ago, Jangid co-founded the ?Friends of Shekhawati', a non-profit organization that's involved in the preservation of these havelis and other historic sites.

Sustainable tourism is becoming an urgent issue, especially in already overcrowded countries such as India. And to a certain extent, this relatively new type of responsible tourism that caters to niche markets eases the pressures of mass tourism and helps to conserve the diverse resources of the nation. Kerala, whose successful ?God's Own Country' campaign was a precursor to the ?Incredible India' initiative, firmly established itself as a top tourist destination some years ago, and unsurprisingly, it's now taking the lead in planned ecotourism. The first such project has been set up in Thenmala (Honey Hills) in southern Kerala. A small town located in the lower Western Ghats, it is next to the lush Shenduruney Wildlife Sanctuary, which is an integral part of the ecosystem. According to one report, Thenmala is home to over 40 kinds of mammals, around 1500 flowering plants, and almost 200 species of birds. To preserve this unique environment, and promote responsible tourism, a zoning system has been created. The outer (or familiarization) zone, consisting of the more penetrated forest area surrounding the sanctuary, is open to mass tourism.

"Eco-friendly general tourism (soft) is planned in the periphery so that the pressure of tourism will not affect the sanctuary," explains K.G. Mohanlal of the Tourism Department in Kerala. "The real ecotourism (hard) is to take place in the sanctuary, and only ecotourists are encouraged to do that. Others can enjoy small nature trails, elevated walkways through canopies, mountain biking, etc."

The attractions also include a sculpture garden and boat rides in the reservoir. Hard ecotourism, which can be done in the controlled sanctuary area, is driven by demand, and knowledgeable guides are usually provided for activities such as deep-forest trekking and bird watching. Women from a self-help group manage a small restaurant and a few stores that sell eco-friendly products. Other noteworthy features of Thenmala include a Deer Rehabilitation Center and an employment program for local people.������

Chhattisgarh in central India is another state worth mentioning when it comes to the practice of responsible tourism. It's not difficult to see why. Chhattisgarh's forests cover 44 percent of the land in the state, and this largely unexplored region, which is biologically diverse and home to many tribal people or Adivasis, is ripe for a new direction in tourism. As the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board puts it, the aim is "to promote economically, culturally and ecologically sustainable tourism" in a state which has 12 percent of India's forests, 11 wildlife sanctuaries and 3 national parks.

"The state is full of ancient monuments, rare wildlife, exquisitely carved temples, Buddhist sites, palaces, waterfalls, caves, rock paintings and hill plateaus," adds Dr. A. Jayathilak of the Tourism Board. "Chhattisgarh offers a Destination with a Difference. For those who are tired of the crowds at major destinations, Bastar, with its unique cultural and ecological identity, will come as a breath of fresh air. The state has taken a conscious decision to do away with past legacies and adopt a fresh approach to tourism."

One highlight in Bastar, where a museum named after the pioneering anthropologist Verrier Elwin will be built, is the Chitrakote Waterfalls, which is reportedly the largest one on the Indian subcontinent. This concerted drive to promote Chhattisgarh as an ethno- and ecotourist destination that's "full of surprises" has been extended to create a new tourism circuit, which will link Bastar to Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh and Korput in Orissa.


Last year India beat Canada in the final round of its bid to host the Commonwealth Games in 2010. This astonishing development is, no doubt, a huge boost for the tourism industry in India. But what's even more interesting is a recent poll done by Lonely Planet ? perhaps the ultimate guide for independent travelers everywhere. A sampling of travelers in 134 countries picked India as one of the top five international destinations. This is heartening news, indeed, since responsible and independent-minded travelers often make the most desirable tourists.

Tej Vir Singh, who co-founded the Center for Tourism Research and Development in India, is a passionate advocate of sustainable tourism. Access and beauty may seem like incompatible goals, as he puts it, given the rapidly increasing demands of tourism in India. "Yet," he notes, "thanks to nature parks and biosphere reserves ? and the philosophy behind them ? we can enjoy green tourism and nature conservation and have a chance to witness the positive side of the industry."

Problems, though, do exist even in this changed environment for tourism. One potentially catastrophic project is a proposal to build a mammoth tourism complex in the Sunderbans, an archipelago of islands in eastern India. Amitav Ghosh's new novel, The Hungry Tide, deals with the Sunderbans in rich detail, and in a recent article he wrote about Sahara India Parivar's ill-conceived plan. He grimly elaborated on the dangers, and warned that such an undertaking in the Sunderbans could lead to an ecological and human disaster. In a way, it is reminiscent of the infamous Taj Heritage Corridor, and one hopes that it will soon meet the same fate. According to the World Tourism Organization, 700 million people traveled abroad in 2003, and that number will rise to 1.6 billion by 2020. So, as the twenty-first century advances, one of the big challenges facing Indians is their ability to safeguard the immense natural, historic and cultural treasures of the nation even as they reap the benefits of this unprecedented boom in travel and tourism.

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