Interview with Ambika Soni, Union Tourism & Culture Minister
Tourist security organisations (TSO), a concept floated by Tourism Ministry, can be an effective mechanism for intelligence gathering for combating terrorism besides protecting tourists. Union Tourism Minister Ambika Soni speaks to Sarat C Das about the possible opportunities TSO could create for ex-army personnel.
Your ministry sometime ago proposed a concept to form Tourist security organisations (TSO) that are meant to address issues related to safety and security of tourists. Earlier this year, you had issued a blueprint that would assist states in forming such TSOs. How the states are taking it forward now after the Delhi serial blasts?
We floated this as a concept in February end this year, and the idea gained more importance following the unfortunate death of British teenager Scarlett Keeling's in Goa around that time. We got in touch with the Defence Ministry because we thought to employ the retired armed personnel in the Tourist Security Organisations would be a good idea since armed personnel are commonly regarded for their discipline and integrity. They could ensure the safety and security of the tourists who are sometimes prone to untoward incidences such as molestations, etc. Such a measure could only reinforce our value of "Athiti Deva Bhavo" (Guest is God) and also would ensure safety of our tourists. The matter is addressed by the government and we are coordinating with them by providing them a blue print of the infrastructure that needs to be created for the same. This would help us to safeguard the destinations including railway stations and bus stops which are being visited by the tourists.
Many of these states, who had shown little interest in setting up tourist security organisations, now may be under pressure to act on this now. What you say?
Well, I communicated the concept of TSO to the state chief ministers and my colleagues in the tourism ministry. Some of them have reverted to me saying they already have a body called tourism police in working but they intend to strengthen it further. Any way, by and large all have welcomed this idea.
But do you see TSO is becoming more relevant following the serial bomb blast in Delhi?
The Delhi bomb blast incident was tragic and everybody has condemned this with strong words. However, our idea of TSO is little far from the task force which is responsible for thwarting terrorist attacks. Our task force aims to include armed and unarmed people who would be more of any kind of help to a tourist including security. If anybody is pestering a tourist or causing any physical harassment the task force would connect the law enforcement agencies to redress the complaint and offer the tourist the necessary protection. We are viewing TSO in terms of a central agency which would process all kind of information including potential information about terrorist activities. This may include possible reporting about suspicious movement, some items or articles which could relate to terrorism activities, and other information which could create a feedback system for the law enforcement agencies to act upon them. However, such reporting about terror activities is a responsibility of every citizen as they need to be little watchful and provide information to law enforcement agencies. And see how a child balloon seller did provide the vital information in the Barakhamba bomb incidence!
The Tourist security organisations manned by ex-servicemen to tackle security issues faced by tourists do not appear to be a robust organisation. What you propose to make it more effective?
This is what our proposal to Defence and Home Ministry and the blue print we prepared in consultation with both to create a task force manned by retired army personnel. We have sent it to state governments who are contributing to this process of creating a more concrete proposal.
But why retired defence personnel?
Well, this is just a suggestion. The state government finally has to make the choices for themselves. We thought the ex-servicemen would be good choice since they have gone through a very stringent disciplinary training. They all are trained to deal with any of crisis situation. Such a measure would create employment opportunities for the young retired armed service personnel who have both credibility and discipline.
India is a safe destination. How do you put in your campaign?
We speak about this in all the forums including PATA (Pacific Asia Travel Association). Such a message would be a part of all our communication materials.
With over 5 million tourists visiting India, what kind of image building exercises we do now for confidence building among tourists visiting India?
Well, we have terrorism incidences in Bangalore, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, and now in Delhi. I keep on updating myself on the tourist inflow to India and strangely these incidences have not affected our figures. May be people have realised that this is part of global menace of terrorism and India is valiantly fighting against this evil. The tourists realise they must carry on with their travel plans which only help India to receive more tourists.
After the blasts now the tourists of lot of the countries are scared of visiting India and their governments are posting scary travel advisories! Are you worried?
You know advisories were issued at one time when there was an agitation going on in Rajasthan which was not really terrorist activity but was a political manifestation of a certain section of the population and they had jammed the traffic, disrupted connectivity and uprooted railway lines. So countries like Australia and others have issued advisories restricting or advising their citizens not to go to those areas of Rajasthan. There was another advisory that I thought a bit strange which was issued by US not to visit Mumbai because the city has uncovered manholes. Now these things are hilarious.
But advisories are very damaging as countries post advisories about visiting Afghanistan!
I have taken this up at various levels including the UN WTO executive council, which I chair. I said that we are a responsible country; we are developing tourism as a major economical driver in India. We are fulfilling the UN Millennium Goals where tourism is identified as a poverty alleviation activity. We have offices of tourism of India abroad in 14 different important destinations of the world. We run a website which is viewed by millions across the globe because India is a sought after destination today. We keep our websites updated, our offices updated because we don't want any tourist to have an unhappy experience in India. Our travel trade industry is second to none. They want the traveler to India to have a good experience. So what is the need for an advisory at this stage? These advisories have long-term detrimental effects. We may rectify a situation like the Gujjar uprising in Rajasthan which we got over in two-three weeks because the government addressed these kinds of agitations as quickly as it could. But an advisory has a much longer term of effect. So I appeal to countries to restrain issuing advisories because it does much greater damage to the country building up tourism than you can really imagine.
How your suggestions regarding advisories have been received?
Well my appeal as the chairperson of the UN WTO Executive Council was voiced and supported by other nations who are on the same boat. But terrorism per se, today can happen anywhere in the world. It is unfortunate that it happened in New Delhi as it happened in New York seven years ago followed by blasts in London tube. So the global fight against terrorism is what we need to strengthen. We need to strengthen the resolve in every global citizen that we are not overawed by terrorists. I will not let a message go which makes the terrorists feel gleeful that they overawed us.
Do you think it is a time to promote rural tourism as a product as people outside think urban India is unsafe?
Well not from that point of view. We are really motivated to promote rural tourism as a big tourism product for it makes the growth of tourism all inclusive. With this, the tourism does not remain an urban phenomenon and it increases the number of stakeholders in the tourism industry. The rural areas of India have a congenial environment for eco-tourism These places have art, fine arts, crafts, handicrafts which are rare in any part of the world. You find Indian artisans still working in art, music, dance, handicraft, woodwork and textile. As a result, in last couple of years we have increased our rural tourism destinations from 67 to 128 which have a core sector of fine arts and crafts. And we are building this into our campaign of rural tourism. This is also our response to global warming and climate change, because we provide open space and rooms in an eco-friendly environment. We have also tied rural tourism to our shopping for it involves young people who are now not tempted to move to urban area in search of livelihood. I reckon if they carry on with their art and craft forms we can link them to bigger international market. We have already identified major shopping festivals in places such as Bhubaneswar, Hyderabad, Aurangabad and Gautam Bodh Nagar for this purpose.
For the West Asian market, ministry of tourism is even developing monsoon tourism in an effort to promote India as a 365 days tourism destination. Could you tell us how innovative is this particular tourism product?
Yes, we project India as a destination of 365 days in our Incredible India campaign. We have major travel trade fair in Dubai. We feel that West Asians find it little difficult to move around the world because of security reason. India is a destination for shopping, 7 Star luxury, and the monsoons. Imagine coming from the desert land what can be more beautiful than seeing the Indian monsoon. We have projected this very successfully in West Asia.
How do you envision Commonwealth 2010 under a secure and terror free environment?
Well, we are doing our best for the commonwealth games. I pray the world to be safe from terrorist activity. We are encouraging the tourists to come in large numbers following necessary security clearances. We are encouraging the building of camping sites, hotels that include 'bread and breakfast schemes' and even home accommodation. There are over seven billion US dollars are in the pipeline for hotel construction but that is still not enough as we need 150,000 rooms by 2010. We are having a new scheme of 'earn while you learn' to attract non-professional guides from university students by becoming guides during the Common Wealth Games. We are encouraging all our Indian Institute of Hotel Management to take up training, especially of short duration, so that we can fulfill the target of over two lakh trained personnel needed in the hospitality sector. I do feel 2010 games if we can hold successfully, as I am confident we will, why not the Olympics in India.
You were planning to light up all the architectural monuments in Delhi during Common Wealth. Is this going to happen?
We are undertaking 15 monuments in Delhi which are going to be lit by the time of Common wealth games. This includes Qutab Minar, Humanyun's Tomb, Sher-Shah Suri Tomb and some other heritage and protected monuments. Though Delhi will be a great tourism destination by 2010 games we also plan to spread to smaller cities. We are developing 22 mega destinations by 2010. I want the visitors to India to access smaller places because that is where you will find the traditional Indian art forms, yoga, naturopathy, unani, ayurvedic traditions. I want "wellness tourism" to really be the USP of India for the coming two years because world is looking for an alternative model for cures for stress, hyper-tension, and all illnesses connected with modern day living. And India has the answer.
You mentioned in an interview to Press that your vision is that within 48 hours, anyone wanting to visit India must get a visa. Perhaps Indian mission in South Africa can be a good model which outsources its visa services to prevent "annoying" delays for tourists! How we make it happen across the world, especially in those countries from where we receive large number of tourists?
We have requested the external affairs minister that the visa has to be given in 48 hours and they should allow to outsource the process, if it is possible. However, it depends on each Indian Mission visa workload as in some cases the staff may or may not be adequate. The outsourcing of the visa process is already happening in UK, France, Switzerland, South Korea, and South Africa. And I must say our visa regime has greatly improved. In last two years, for the first time we have issued long-term multiple-entry visas which was not absent before. We have introduced medical visas because medical tourism is really coming to India in a big way. The medical visa allows a person with companion and the visa can be extendable if the doctor says so. We are still pushing the government for visa on arrival. We are working and putting in place the advance passenger information. As soon our airports are upgraded the whole system would be much better. But naturally the home ministry has security concern and we are gradually relaxing all this. Certain security perceptions are still there and under these prevailing perceptions we are trying our best. Still there are countries where Indians find it very difficult to get visas. Indians are traveling in a big way as nine million Indians went abroad last year. I have to think about them also and their visas. I have taken it up with countries such as Australia, China, and many others. We are going to facilitate visas but I also want visa regimes for Indians traveling abroad to be easy.
Is it not little disheartening that tourists refuse to visit India because luxury hotels' tariffs are too high?
That is why we have introduced bread and breakfast schemes. In Kerala it is working very well. We are now introducing camping sites in certain destinations. The finance ministry at our request first in the 2007 budget has given tax holidays and tax incentives to people putting up in budget category hotels in NCR. Such an offer is being extended to all Indian cities which have world heritage sites. We understand land is at a premium and people who pay big money to procure land think it is more economical to construct a five star hotel. I feel the concept of paying guest, home stays, bread & breakfast, and camping sites are going to be more popular. Such an activity would increase the number of stakeholders in tourism industry. All housewives who run their own household have no problem in accommodating guests in one or two rooms in the house. They earn and thus develop vested interest in growth of tourism. Hence, the growth becomes more inclusive.