The ministry of tourism is reportedly in talks with the home ministry on ways to deal with touts who harass tourists. One option under consideration is to make touching a tourist a criminal offence. It is a measure of the kind of harassment that foreign tourists can be subjected to in India that the government has to consider explicitly stating — through legislation — that unwarranted touching is unacceptable. Tourists often weigh the dread alongside the grandeur of India before deciding to visit it. Governments and travel writers offer stern warnings to women travellers, asking them to watch what they wear, avoid talking to strangers and going out at night. The effects of our tarnished reputation are beginning to tell. Travel associations in Agra report a decrease in tourist inflow, which they attribute to the influence of touts. Anyone travelling by private vehicle to Fatehpur Sikri can attest to touts pursuing vehicles on motorcycles well before they reach Emperor Akbar’s palace. New Delhi has reportedly seen a 30% decline in visits to historical monuments. India got 6.9 million tourists in 2013 while Thailand and Spain welcomed 26 million and 60 million respectively.
While legislation against touching may be a useful socialising device to ward off attention it may not be a realistic measure for tackling the menace, given that the criminal justice system is in a shambles. The Narendra Modi government recognises tourism’s potential for job creation and revenue. Visitors from 43 countries will get visas on arrival from now on. The Centre is keen on developing 50 tourist circuits, increasing trained manpower, and developing websites and apps. There are several other things governments can do to improve the tourist experience. The focus on touts at monuments is overdue. State governments must realise that looking the other way to satisfy a few constituencies hurts India’s image badly. A rigorous approach to law enforcement and commitment to market rules will go a long way. Long-distance taxi services in many destinations are cartelised, robbing customers of leverage and choice. Disabled access remains woefully inadequate, crowd management is improving in parts but is also a work in progress. There is a monumental effort needed, so to speak, to make our heritage more accessible either through plaques or electronic devices.
The Indian tourism experience is marked by a lack of civility for many. A public campaign by the Prime Minister could help in this regard. The real fix is in skilling and job creation, which will wean people away from desperate, unsavoury tactics as they make a living on the margins of the tourism sector