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FIRST STRIKE

Lapping up the tourists

ANIL DHARKER

AP

Aim higher, think bigger ... the central theme of Switzerland's tourism ministry.

MR. Tritten, a Swiss farmer, was on his way to work, when he came across a strange sight. There, right in the middle of the greenest part of green Switzerland was a group of Indians, some of them in outlandish costumes and heavily made up, while the others were in street clothes. On closer inspection, he found it was a Bollywood film crew. On even more close inspection, he found that they were a bit lost.

That was because, and this was a few years ago, the Swiss government made things as easy as possible for production companies to shoot in that country, there was no central agency to hold the crew's hand when something out of the ordinary was needed. Like, say, Indian food in the middle of the countryside. Mr Tritten bought a bus, took out the seats, converted it into a kitchen, and hey presto, the smell of curry wafted around in the Swiss country air. So started the Tritten agency (it's still around), to be followed later by Film Location Switzerland, a joint venture company between the Swiss government and private enterprise which helps foreign units find their way.

Bollywood may have been the starting point (specifically Raj Kapoor's Sangam, but the Swiss aren't putting every egg in the Indian basket: this year they launched a major promotion in East Europe, and Russian and Hungarian and Czech films came calling.

Don't rest on your laurels. That seems to be the central theme of Switzerland's tourism ministry and somewhere in there is a message for our own tourism promotion. There is yet another, and even more important message, in the way the Swiss promote tourism, but more of that later.

The cynic might say that Switzerland has it all — mountains, lakes, spectacular countryside and good weather. Anyone can sell tourism given assets like that. But the Bollywood promotion and the emphasis given to Indian tourism shows how an active ministry neglects nothing, even the seemingly unimportant.

Indian tourism to Switzerland is promoted indirectly and without cost by Indian movies. So the Swiss made a special effort to woo Indian producer. And when Yash Chopra became some kind of champion user of Swiss locations, the government even gave him a medal. All this effort may make you assume that Indian tourists are really important to Switzerland economy.

Tourism certainly is. Expenditure by foreign visitors in Switzerland equalled 12.2 billion Swiss Francs which is three per cent of the Gross Domestic Product, placing it in sixth position among the branches of the economy.

And if this expenditure is in the context of foreign exchange earned, nine per cent of Switzerland's export revenue comes from tourism. In fact, this invisible export, is the third highest foreign exchange earner, even higher than Switzerland's fabled watch industry! And the tourism sector creates a lot of jobs. It is estimated that one person in 12 is involved in the industry, directly or indirectly. In mountain areas, where employment may otherwise have been difficult, the proportion of people who earn a living through tourism is even higher.

But are Indian tourists important? German tourists led the march of the foreign tourist brigade into the country, with 12 million overnight stays last year. The United Kingdom was second with 2.4 million. Where was India? Way down the list, with only 0.2 million, or two lakh overnight stays. But the Swiss saw that this market had a large possibility for growth, and thus decided to give it an extra push. And sensing that Indian food was important to Indian visitors, the setting up of Indian restaurants was encouraged: there's a large one called "Spice India" at Interlaken, a tiny place with a local population of only 5,000, but which draws a huge tourist population.

Not just that: at Jungfraujoch, which at 2,454 metres (11,333 feet) is the highest point in Europe you can reach without climbing, and where tourists come to in the droves, is located, of all things, an Indian restaurant along with others serving local fare! The other, even more important message to India's tourism industry, comes from startling statistics: however important are its free-spending foreign visitors, 43 per cent of tourism revenue comes from the domestic tourist! In our efforts to promote foreign visitors, we lose sight of our own Bharat Darshan crowd: they might not bring in foreign exchange, but they do spend money, contributing thus to the exchequer and increasing employment throughout the country. Yet what is being done for them? Whatever it is, comes purely from the private sector, with not much government effort to boost local infrastructure for local visitors.

Shouldn't it be the other way round in our case? When you think about it, India is hardly the place for a foreign tourist: we have diversity and culture to offer, plus sights and sounds unique to us (which is what makes Rajasthan popular). But off-setting these places, are negatives which are really by-products of poverty.

The harassment of foreign visitors by beggars at every step, the overwhelming pressure of the poor everywhere and their appalling living conditions, plus the fleecing of tourists by conmen of all kinds from the time of arrival to the time of departure, make the Indian experience, a truly unpleasant one. Why wouldn't a foreigner, then, not skip India and go instead to Switzerland (and eat in an Indian restaurant there!) Let us accept that we are not such a hot destination, after all, in spite of hundreds of ministerial pronouncements. If we accept that and take special steps to woo the local tourist, everyone will be far, far happier.

Anil Dharker is a journalist, media critic and writer.

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