Incredible India must move into the next orbit

  • Suman Billa
  • Updated: Aug 26, 2014 22:33 IST

The tourism sector has for far too long been an elephant in the room: Everyone recognised its potential but not enough was done to harness it. Out of 1.035 million international tourist arrivals in 2012, India received 6.58 million. In terms of international tourism receipts of $1,075 billion, India received $17.74 billion (1.65%), shockingly low for a country of this size, diversity and heritage.

For every unit of investment globally, travel and tourism directly employs six times more than automotive manufacturing; five times more than the chemical industry, four times more than the mining industry, and a third more than the financial services industry. In India, a spend of $1 million in this sector supports 407 jobs as compared to communication services (381 jobs), financial services (329) and manufacturing (315). In 2013, travel and tourism investment in India was `1,938.7 billion (6.2% of total investment), which generated 22,320,000 jobs (4.9% of total employment). The gross contribution, including jobs indirectly supported by the industry, was 7.7% of total employment (35,438,500 jobs).

Thus, the tourism sector in India is the most appropriate instrument for addressing the concerns of poverty, employment and regional imbalances.

If one were to distinguish between business and pilgrim tourism from leisure tourism, then tourism is largely confined to Kerala, Goa and Rajasthan. The efforts of several states to streamline their tourism sector are yet to attain critical mass. A concerted policy impetus alone can launch the tourism sector into the next orbit. In particular, we have to visualise the next level of the successful Incredible India campaign for communicating it on a broader scale globally, which is also an excellent vehicle for projecting soft power.

The first step should be to set an agenda and create a framework for the sector, which sustains nature, nurtures communities and provides unique experiences to the traveller. Kerala’s Responsible Tourism (RT) initiative has been lauded worldwide and the Kumarakom RT project has won the Ulysses Award, the highest honour given to government bodies for shaping global tourism policies through innovative initiatives.

Second, the tourism ministry’s approach to spread its resources across the country on small projects makes sense from an equity point of view, but the outcomes tend to get dissipated. Instead, investments should be made in a mix of big bang, impactful projects along with those that equitably distribute resources. We could start by picking five top destinations and transform them into world-class destinations in the next two-three years.

Third, India should seek a leadership role in international tourism bodies to create partnerships through key projects. The Spice Route project of Kerala Tourism and Unesco, which seeks to bring together 31 countries through their common shared heritage to create a fascinating voyage for the new age traveller on the lines of the Silk Route, could be one. Similarly, international partnerships can be built on our religious heritage like Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic circuits.

Fourth, there should be full synchronisation between the government and the tourism industry.

Fifth, a strong framework for cooperation between the states should be created to increase a visitor’s duration of stay. The game is not about getting a larger share of the pie but working together to increase its size.

Finally, both the Centre and the states should come together to rationalise the plethora of taxes to enable the sector to compete on the global stage.

Roadblocks like the coastal regulatory zone rules, which allow the development of commercial and residential complexes but not tourism properties, should be amended. After all, you cannot expect a tourist at a beach resort if she has to use a pair of binoculars to see the ocean.

Suman Billa is a civil servant
The views expressed by the author are personal

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