A teardrop on the cheek of time — this was how Tagore described the almost indescribable beauty of the Taj Mahal. The man who might be president, Donald Trump, has named one of his ghastly constructional excrescences the Trump Taj Mahal. But while trying to approach the exquisite monument a few years ago, I was followed by a friendly gaggle of pigs while I tried with little success to avoid the clutches of touts and whining salesmen. So, it was with some delight that I read the statement made by the foot-in-the-mouth tourism and culture minister Mahesh Sharma that incidents like the JNU one affect this industry. A realistic look at one of the many problems which bedevil our tourism sector, I hope, though knowing Mr Sharma I would not hold my breath on this.
Incredible India was to bring tourists flocking to Bharat mata, to use that ‘preferred’ term. But then the figures tell a different and darker story altogether. Let me give you a quick rundown. In 2014, India’s tourist arrivals were 22.57 million, as compared to 1.8 million for a small country like Zimbabwe. All right, maybe you cannot run around shooting magnificent big game as a creepy American dentist did in that country but the figures are worrying, given that Zimbabwe is rapidly going down the tube and only in the news for its leader gobbling pieces of a 92-kg cake on his 92nd birthday. But take China, whom we love to compare ourselves with, it got 133 million tourists in 2015 despite not being as transparent and welcoming as we think we are. Or Morocco with its 10.28 million (in 2014) in a not too welcoming part of the world these days.
Mr Sharma is on the right track, incidents like JNU are among the problems we face. In enlightened self-interest at least, the loonies who pushed the whole issue to such monumental proportions should have been stopped in their tracks. But, JNU is just one. There are unfortunate incidents of crime against women, especially rapes and robberies. Foreign women are stalked and harassed relentlessly, all the wonderful ads about the honest shopkeeper notwithstanding.
The golden routes of Delhi-Rajasthan are flourishing thanks to great connectivity and a splendid marketing of the mystical desert and the grandeur of royalty. Kerala was on the right track with its high end tourism but a foolish drive against liquor and chronic corruption have seen a decrease in footfalls.
Our colonial legacy should have been turned to our advantage if we had the first clue on how to preserve our beautiful buildings from the British raj. Instead, we have managed to uglify as many of them as possible except those which have fallen into private hands. There is much nostalgia, especially among the British, for the romance of the raj, its cuisine, its great railway journeys, its literature. But, no offence to Suresh Prabhu, any ordinary Indian tourist would quail at the prospect of rail travel when it should be a cheap and safe option to see the real India much like Eurail. The only trains on which tourists can get the India experience is on the upmarket, swish ones like the ones which do the rounds of Rajasthan.
Many states have tried to market themselves like Odisha and Gujarat but all the baritone of Amitabh Bachchan asking people to breathe in Gujarat will not bring tourists in unless they are assured of safety, cleanliness, connectivity, infrastructure and so on. Not to mention being able to breathe some semblance of clean air. Here it is all very hit and miss. Imagine if a poor tourist had been stranded in Haryana during the recent Jat violence. I can hardly imagine that she would want to come calling again.
Swachh Bharat is a good idea but it should at least be strictly implemented in our tourist spots. Competing with livestock and farm animals is hardly a salutary invitation to take in the glories of India. Places like Goa have been allowed to slide to a great extent, overrun as the beautiful beaches are becoming with Russian and other mafias. Not to mention the gawping, ugly Indian tourists themselves whose conduct is enough to put anyone off. So, if the voluble tourism minister is serious about his portfolio, he will go beyond his welcome words and do something which will really put the incredible back into India