Make India great

Set against the many varied challenges to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious programmes for creating millions of factory jobs, his emphasis last week on tourism as a job creator must be commended. Unlike manufacturing, where growing automation is presenting unique challenges for labour worldwide, travel, tourism and hospitality remain, by their nature, sustainably employment-intensive. So focused attention on training and skill development in these sectors has the potential to deliver significant gains. 

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the sector generates seven times more jobs than the automotive industry.  But even the most admirable of training and skilling initiatives will deliver sustainable gains, in terms of employment and prosperity, only if Indian tourism and hospitality can grow significantly faster than they do today. 

Like past governments, this regime, too, must be well aware of the fact that tourism remains a singularly under-exploited sector of the Indian economy. It is a well-worn point that India, despite its embarrassment of tourism riches and English-speaking population, receives a paltry eight-odd million, foreign exchange paying overseas tourists annually (a significant portion of them non-resident Indians). This statistic looks worse when set against the 57 million tourists who visit China annually. Even the seemingly healthy 11-12 per cent annual growth in the domestic sector (at 1.4 billion visits to all states and Union Territories) pales when compared with growth rates that oscillated between 13 and 18 per cent in the early nineties.

With a share in gross domestic products (GDP) of 6-7 per cent, tourism currently accounts for nine per cent of employment (direct and indirect) in India. If the country were to match the global average GDP share of nearly 10 per cent, the implication for jobs expands exponentially. It is possible to add that training in this sector is a low-hanging fruit since it does not require the high levels of technical education that factory jobs are increasingly demanding. But, given India’s stunning diversity of monuments, natural wonders and innate hospitality, why does travel and tourism remain a marginal sector in the country’s economy?

Representatives of the sector constantly demand tax breaks as a pre-requisite for growth. But for the Centre and state governments, the conditions for growth do not lie in subsidies and concessions or in movie-star endorsements but in addressing, urgently, the very weaknesses that hold India back in almost every sphere of life: Shoddy infrastructure, appalling civic services and poor public security. That partly explains why sustained marketing efforts, such as the eye-catching Incredible India! campaign of the mid-2000s yielded less optimal results. 

Obviously, these problems vary across the states, with Rajasthan, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Goa and Kerala boasting comparatively tourist-friendly environments. 

Still, the successful states alone cannot erase the collective problem that causes tourists – whether Indian or foreign – to pay premiums to ring-fence themselves against India’s dirt, poverty, poor roads, predatory men and atrocious public transport systems (the Delhi metro being an honourable exception). 

From a pure cost-benefit standpoint, then, India is an expensive tourist destination when compared with countries in Europe and south-East Asia. From France and the United States to the tiger economies of south-east, the backpacker or the well-heeled visitor, can use with ease and relative safety the same facilities as citizens of those countries. 

In short, there cannot be two Indias: One for tourists and one for Indians, no matter how well trained the hospitality staff. Any emphasis on the tourism sector, therefore, needs to focus on making India a great place for ordinary citizens to live.

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