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But where are the tourists?

No other country has as much to offer to a tourist than India, but the fact is that every year, more travellers head towards Hong Kong and Singapore than this country. The point is simple, says M. RIAZ HASAN. India does not welcome the visitor.

NO other country has so much to offer to a tourist than India. The remnants of the Roman Empire and the early Christendom make Italy the focal point of world tourism and all roads, we are told, lead to Rome. But India, the cradle of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikkhism and "the second biggest Muslim country in the world" (on the basis of its Muslim population) has far more to offer to a tourist than Italy. Christians and Jews, who also made India their abode in the past, have also left their indelible marks in India. Each of the 28 States of India contains more historic and religious monuments for the tourist than many countries in Europe, America or Africa.

It is true that the handful of Western tourists who visit India each year are attracted by the Taj Mahal because they hardly know that India has hundreds of tourist attractions similar to the Taj. Very few people in the West are aware of the Ajanta and Ellora Caves of Maharashtra, the ancient temples of Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) in Chennai, the Jagganath and Sun Temples in Orissa, the Golden Temple in Amritsar or the centuries-old royal palaces of Jaipur, Jaisalmeer, Delhi and Mysore.

India has a coastline stretching over 6,000 kilometres, but only a small number of tourists visit Goa for swimming, surfing and sunbathing. Delhi and its immediate environs is a repository of as many — and even more ancient — historic and religious monuments as Rome, but the number of tourists visiting Delhi is only a minute fraction of the tourists who throng Rome each summer.

Why do more tourists go each year to small city-states and commercial centres like Hong Kong and Singapore than to India? Or why are Dubai and Kathmandu more popular tourist destinations than Delhi or Khajuraho? The answer is simple. India does not welcome tourists.

A tourist's tale or predicament, based on the actual experiences of some of my foreign friends, could be narrated as follows: The tourist flies by Air India only to discover how its service, both on and off the plane, and its food are poor. From the moment of arrival to the time of departure, the tourist is constantly reminded that he/she is a foreigner. It all starts with a queue marked "Foreigners" at immigration control. On coming out of the airport, he/she heads for the taxi stand. Except at major international airports where the taxi service is adequately organised, the tourist, at all other airports, is literally taken for a ride by the taxi. If the tourist is not part of a pre-arranged package-tour group and if he/she is not already booked in a hotel, choosing a hotel becomes a daunting task. Not all tourists who come to India can afford the luxury of a five-star hotel and opting for any other class of hotel often proves to be a hazardous experience since food, hygiene and the general standard of cleanliness of hotels, other than five-star, leave a lot to be desired.

As the tourist ventures out of the hotel in search of the tourist attractions, he/she is greeted by a band of beggars who suddenly remind him that he/she is in India. Unable to find a "Tourist Information Centre", the tourist heads towards the local tourism department where the officials try to help in their own peculiar way. On returning to the hotel room, the tourist discovers that his/her luggage has been ransacked and some of his/her personal effects are missing. Disappointed, the tourist heads back to the airport to catch the next available plane home.

On a recent trip to India, I decided to take my family to Aurangabad to visit such historic monuments as the Ajanta and Ellora Caves, the Tomb of Rabia Durrani (popularly known as Bibi Ka Muqbira) and the Panchakki. I was revisiting Aurangabad after more than 50 years. The booking of train tickets at Hyderabad station was smooth and efficient and the staff at the specially built Reservation Complex were extremely helpful. A separate counter for NRIs facilitated the purchase of tickets within a few minutes. The overnight train journey in a three-tier AC sleeper was noise-free and enjoyable.

On arrival at Aurangabad, I went into the retiring room for first and air-conditioned class passengers only to find that rubbish was strewn all over the place and there was no toilet or bath attached to it. I was told that I could use the air-conditioned retiring room upstairs at a cost of Rs. 250. I found that neither the room was clean nor the beds were made. The toilets, as is often the case in India, were unclean and the flush did not work. Hot water supply was not available. The only restaurant at the station was closed. What disappointed me most was the revelation that Ajanta is closed on Mondays and Ellora Tuesdays. As I arrived on Monday, I could not visit Ajanta. It is simply beyond a tourist's comprehension to understand why such ancient monuments, which do not require maintenance on a weekly basis, are closed once a week. I had to be content with visiting the nearby Ellora Caves and other monuments within the city. A tourist from a country like the United Kingdom spends about 1,000 (Rs.66,000) for a week's holiday in India (cost of a package tour may be less). Half of this amount normally goes towards return airfare and the rest on hotel, food and inland travel. The tourist has saved this money from his/her hard-earned income in order to take the annual holiday which, unlike in India, is a must in Western Europe and North America. Since a majority of foreigners feel compelled to stay in a five-star hotel in order to be fit and healthy during their stay, rising hotel costs are becoming unaffordable to many. Indian tourism departments and travel agents seem to think that every Westerner who visits India is either a prince or a tycoon. A majority of foreign tourists are either from the middle-class or working class and they keep their eyes on their wallet as much as we do.

The cost of a five-star hotel varies from $100 (Rs. 4,500) to $200 (Rs. 9,000) depending on its location (some leading five-star hotels cost even more). Considering that both labour and materials (including food) cost significantly less in India than Europe, the current costs appear too high. Also, an average European could spend up to10 nights with his/her monthly income. These incontrovertible facts merely confirm that Indian five star hotels make far more profit and are less competitive than their European or American counterparts. They seem to enjoy a monopoly status at present.

The imposition of luxury tax on five-star hotels by State Governments also does not help the tourist. This tax varies from six per cent to about 20 per cent of the hotel cost. He/she is not a millionaire and the holiday is not something to be treated as luxury by the States. In fact, the tourist brings the much-needed foreign exchange. The recent exorbitant increase in admission charges for foreigners to major tourist attractions appears to be a desperate move both by the Centre and the States. As an attempt to bolster declining tourist income it can only prove counter-productive — many tourists now feel that they are being exploited. Indian national monuments and tourist attractions are also part of the world heritage and to discriminate against foreign tourists by imposing higher admission charges on them is not fair.

INDIA's tourism problems could only be resolved through radical reforms. The Government, both at the Centre and the State, should first set their house in order by reorganising and revamping the tourism departments (and ministries). They should be run by a small, well-trained team of professionals and experts and not by an army of novices and neophytes. Some of them should be sent abroad to places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai, and not Europe or the United States where they normally go, to learn first hand why these places attract more tourists than India. The lessons learnt should then be applied to their respective departments.

There is an appalling lack of facilities at Indian airports. Have Indian tourist authorities and airport managers ever visited airports like Bangkok and Dubai to find out what facilities an international airport should offer to a tourist. Why does not India issue visas to genuine tourists on arrival in India just as Bangkok and Dubai do? Hotels are India's Achilles heel as far as tourism is concerned. Only one class of hotel — the five-star — is available to foreign tourists, but it is beyond the resources of a majority of them. Most of the other hotels do not come up to the international standards of cleanliness and hygiene. There is an urgent need in India now for reasonably priced (Rs.1,250 to Rs. 2,500 per night) "Bed-and-Breakfast" type hotels which are equipped with all basic amenities and extremely clean and tidy. These hotels — or hostels — should be located within easy reach of the tourist resorts so that the tourists could go and stay as long as they want to A "Rs.1,250 per night" hotel could also yield good profit to a hotel entrepreneur if properly run.

Improvement of existing facilities at popular tourists' resort is essential and urgent. The minimum facilities required are separate and frequently-cleaned toilets for men and women, playgrounds for children, air-conditioned cafeterias/restaurants where fresh Indian good is sold at reasonable prices (Indian food is as popular abroad as it is in India), English-speaking tourism department approved guides a tourist information centre with free printed information about the resort available in English, Hindi, Urdu, French, German, Italian and Arabic, stalls selling maps and guides and Indian bric-a-brac. The information centre should also provide information to tourists on transport, hotels and food. None of these facilities was available at the Ellora caves when I visited them in January 2002. Having scaled several rungs of the development ladder since Independence 55 years ago, India should now turn its attention to develop its colossal tourism potential.

Target Bollywood

IN what can be termed as a growing "trend", that is catching up with the travel fraternity, tourism boards are now turning to Bollywood to showcase their destinations. This in turn enhances the outbound market, which has been witnessing a downtrend for the past few months, due to varied reasons. According to a Dubai representative of the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM), Dubai, has been promoted through a number of Indian serials and movies in the past and even regular stage shows.

Elucidating on the already popular Singapore, a director of the Singapore Tourism Board, said, "We are planning to hold a familiarisation (FAM) trip for the Indian film industry."

"The film industry is crucial, in gaining consumer awareness about a particular destination and in building a positive profile for the country overseas. We also realise that promotion through word-of-mouth-plays a big role in tourism overseas and the more people see New Zealand in films, the more they will talk about it as a potential visitor destination," asserts a manager of the New Zealand Trade Development Board. The country manager-India, Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority (MTPA), very positively mentions that Mauritius has a two pronged approach as far as attracting Bollywood is concerned. While the Mauritius tourism body is frequently in touch with the film industry, so are private hoteliers, who wish to have a chunk of the Bollywood pie. Where tourism is concerned, recently cinema has again gained mass attention and films shot in Mauritius are good publicity vehicles. If the film is a hit in the Indian context, the destination surely receives a boost and could determine choice for the potential Indian traveller. Countries like Zurich and Canada, have also evinced keen interest.

Source: The Internet

Good reasons to stay

IN the Arab world today, while Western tourists still come in search of the region's past, Arab governments are feverishly promoting tourism as a means to build their own economic futures. The argument posed by its boosters— such as state elites, private entrepreneurs and international bankers — is that the Arab world's warm climates, sunny beaches, vast deserts, historical monuments, and native hospitality are some of the most valuable resources of the region and they should be exploited for the means of generating new sources of wealth. This industry has been touted as a means to help adjust their developing economies to the ever more competitive pressures of the global marketplace. Tourism with its roots in religious pilgrimages around the Eastern Mediterranean has a claim to be considered one of the oldest trades in the region.

It should be no surprise then the area with some of the most rapid success with the model of enclave tourism has been in the gulf states such as Bahrain and the Emirates which have already built up their economies and societies as high income enclaves.

This was made possible with oil wealth, though now they are seeking to diversify their economies. Dubai now has a concerted effort to promote itself as a tourist zone, but note that as a senior tourism official stated: we seek "to give people what they want, but only attract who we want". The development in the UAE of mega-million dollar theme parks and tourist villages are far out pacing similar efforts elsewhere in the Arab world.

Source: The Internet

The writer, a U.K.- based NRI, has travelled widely in India and abroad.

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