Making India incredible

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has exhorted his compatriots to visit at least 15 Indian destinations by 2022. Prima facie, this is a good suggestion, not least because it could stimulate one sector of the economy when most others are waning. But Mr Modi may be putting the tourist cart before the infrastructure and security horses. From heritage to nature, cuisine to culture, India offers an infinite variety that no other country can offer — facets that the Incredible India campaign captures so well. Accessing the bulk of these tourism assets in a safe, hygienic and reasonably comfortable environment, however, remains the challenge. Bar the traditional tourist states of Rajasthan and Kerala, and some pockets elsewhere, tourism in India can be a frustrating and unsatisfactory experience. Nothing reflects this better than a trip to the country’s most visited monument, the Taj Mahal. It is located in one of India’s most grungy cities. Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister has had much to say about this wonder of the modern world but has not felt it necessary to emulate the PM's drastic clean-up of the ghats in his constituency of Varanasi.

A visit to the monument involves negotiating long queues and surly, unhelpful staff. There are no controls on the number of people allowed in, so that burgeoning unruly crowds in the manicured lawns vitiate the quality of the visit. The entire experience is a marked contrast to a visit to the Great Wall of China, which received 10 million visitors last year against the Taj Mahal’s 8 million. Though road and train links to the Taj have improved as has hotel accommodation in Agra, this cannot be said of most other places in India. The Northeast, for instance, with its unparalleled biodiversity and tribal culture, remains mostly inaccessible by any transport link. According to the tourism ministry data, India has just 1,800-odd hotels/guest establishments offering 90,000 rooms; the bulk of them are in the five-star category, outside the reach of most domestic travellers. Air travel is expensive and travelling by train and bus involves an exercise in suppressing all sensory perceptions.   

Security, political and personal, is the other dimension of the problem. Political turmoil keeps tourists away from such destinations as Jammu & Kashmir and the Northeast. It is possible for women and foreigners to travel in Europe, the US, and Southeast Asia, using public transport without fear of being molested or robbed. Few locations in India can make similar claims. Indeed, the former haven of Goa has seen a marked deterioration of law and order. The result of this inadequate policing is to raise tourism costs: Those who can afford it will pay premiums for exclusive and secure transport and hotels. When compared to the hassle-free bandobast available in competing destinations in Asia — Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore — India loses out. It speaks volumes for the lost opportunities of domestic tourism, which the data from the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) shows. It puts India second only to China as the world’s fastest-growing outbound tourism market. Some 50 million Indians are expected to travel abroad in 2020.

The UNWTO rightly attributes this outbound surge to the greater affluence of the middle class. The fact that the upwardly mobile do not feel it incumbent upon themselves to explore their own country is partly a reflection of these constraints. True, domestic tourism has been growing at a pace far faster than inbound tourism, but much of it is of the low-spending variety (pilgrimages and so on) that does not yield the kind of surpluses needed to bring India’s tourism destinations up to international standards. But without those upgrades, India will forever remain a country with an embarrassment of under-exploited tourist riches.