A ‘retreat’ is a strange name for a proposed assault. That’s what the World Travel & Tourism Council called its Agra initiative to tackle the diverted flight that is Indian Tourism. It turned out to be more of an assault of the government by the government; civil servants can be even more suave than hoteliers, so let’s call it a five-star fisticuff.
As a Mumbai journalist, I am grossly underexposed to the Byzantine workings of the Delhi bureaucracy. All I know about North and South Blocks is that they are both blocks. This was confirmed last weekend at the Oberoi Amarvilas. The proceedings were sometimes so surreal that I wasn’t sure if I was attending a tourism summit or watching Ji Mantri-ji. Or, a commercial on Visa Power.
Imagine a guy coming from the US to promote world tourism to India, and almost getting deported home from Delhi airport itself. Straight out of Kafka? No, straight out of a self-important immigration official. Bernard Frelat heads the Rail Europe Group Inc, which handles 3 million tourists across the world annually (that’s 0.4 million more than the number of tourists coming into India). He assumed he could get a visa on arrival, as is the case with most destinations. Instead, Shri Immigration, giving no credence to Mr Frelat’s documents, concluded he was a terrorist, and nearly marched him into custody. A flurry of calls rectified the situation. But the point is that, even by our Gulagesque rules, a man is entitled to 72 hours in which to procure the visa.
‘The Case of Bernard’s Visa’ became such a cause celebre at the Agra meeting that I half suspect it was a set-up. The private sector trade must have conspired with the Tourist Department to put the Foreign and Civil Aviation Ministries in a spot, so that they could press their agenda for easier visas. But the more ‘twice-born’ Foreign Secretary looked down his patrician nose, and brushed off the lower order of the IAS.
Kanwal Sibal brusquely dismissed their plea with the argument of ‘national honour’: if Indians are humiliated when they apply for visas because everyone suspects that they intend to stay on illegally, why shouldn’t we do the same to the nationals of those countries? Er, uhmm, would he consider something as insignificant as ground realities?
The message was final, Indian embassies do not exist to facilitate tourists. But why should anyone complain, considering that neither do our Tourism Offices abroad. Five out of 18 had been closed down , said their Secretary. She made it sound like an achievement.
The Planning Commission Member, N.K. Singh gave us another clause of the Tourism Disruptive Practices Act. The Civil Aviation ministry’s own ‘box of bilateralism’. Emirates, for instance, is not allowed to bring in the several thousand more passengers that it can because its local partner, Air India, doesn’t have the capacity to ‘reciprocate’. Compare this to the Indonesian experience. The passionate Feisal Hashim told us that when they threw open their skies, 28 international airlines flew direct to Bali; and ‘national interest’ was taken care of by Garuda handling all their internal travel.
Indonesia, Jordan, Sri Lanka, all launched aggressive drives to counter the deterrence of internal disturbances. Bigger India can more easily distance tourist hot-spots from political ones. But, to quote N.K. Singh again, we seem unable to ‘contain the contagion effect’, whether it’s Kashmir or Enron.
Still want to know why vast and wonderful India gets an abysmal 2.6 million visitors annually (including Indians with foreign passports), when a dot like Maldives lures 6.8 million? Consider the multiplicity of taxes, inflating hotel bills by 30-40 per cent. Since State levies differ so widely, a tourist might plan his itinerary on the basis of the most taxingly scenic destination. Even Indians find it more attractive to holiday in Thailand than in Tamil Nadu: shopping, sex — and a saving on TN’s 25 per cent luxury tax.
Why should we care at all about this ‘elitist’ industry? The ebullient Suhel Seth’s opening session was on creating Brand India for Tourism. But, over that weekend, it stuck me that we could use Tourism to create Brand India. Not only is tourism the most reliable Normalcy Index, everything that this industry strives for furthers the bigger agenda. Foreign investment, diplomatic clout, even our own self-image — all get the spin-off in a country where the intention is to make life easier instead of creating problems for every solution.
And yes, where major airports don’t look like they’re in a banana republic that’s just had a coup and never had plumbing. So here’s one more episode for our real-life ‘Yes Minister’. The Oberois offered to maintain the toilets at Delhi’s international airport. They’d ensure that loos had latches and working flushes and that attendants weren’t having a bath in the basins while grudgingly rationing out scraps of toilet paper to passengers. No, said the mandarins. Why? Because then all the other airports would suffer by comparison.
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Alec Smart said, ``Why did the MPCC president want to destabilise the Chief Minister? Because power is Adik-tive.’’