Will Visa Power Boost India’s Tourism?
The Indian government recently decided to extend visa-on-arrival to 180 countries—hoping to provide a much-needed boost to tourist inflows. Previously, visa-on-arrival was available to the citizens of only 11 countries that account for just 7.5 per cent of tourist arrivals into India.
The extended visa-on-arrival facility is likely to be implemented in the coming October tourist season, after the necessary infrastructure is put in place. The Home Ministry had delayed the decision due to security reservations, and tourists from countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka will remain excluded from the provision.
Despite its continental proportions and the rich diversity of its tourist attractions, India has long remained a tiny dot on the world tourism map—receiving just 0.6 per cent of the world’s total international tourist traffic.
India accounts for only 1.6 per cent of world tourism revenues. In 2012, India received 6.6 million foreign tourists, whereas China received 57.7 million. Even many smaller countries in the region did much better—such as Turkey (35.7 million), Malaysia (25), Thailand (22.4), Saudi Arabia (13.7), South Korea (11.1), Singapore (10.4), UAE (9.0), Indonesia (8.0), Taiwan (7.3) and Vietnam (6.8).
Foreign tourist arrivals into India lingered in the range of 2.1 to 2.7 million for nearly a decade from 1995 to 2003. But following the ‘Incredible India’ marketing campaign, its share of world tourism rapidly improved to 5.1 million in 2007. This campaign projected an integrated image that increased India’s visibility in important source countries. But the growth in tourist inflows has slowed since 2007.
Will the new visa policy ensure that India achieves its target of nearly doubling foreign tourist arrivals to 12.6 million by 2016?
The liberalised visa policy can definitely help. But achieving the target would still be a tall order, unless there is a paradigm shift on other fronts. Industry insiders often point out that India needs more direct flight connections with major hubs in Europe and North America, and more hotel rooms—but these are not the primary constraints. Flights and rooms will follow as demand builds up.
There are essentially two things that India needs to concentrate on, if it is to develop into one of the world’s noteworthy tourist destinations—a position that it rightly deserves.
The first of these is that India’s tourist destination brand must be more focused. India seems to offer everything from deserts to evergreen forests, beaches to snow-clad mountains, ancient historical sites and pilgrim centres to modern-day urban hotspots. The flip side is that the diversity of claims makes the image of India very unclear to the prospective tourist.
This is in stark contrast to the distinct images that stand out in one’s mind when thinking of Spain, China, Turkey, Egypt, Thailand, Macau or even Saudi Arabia as tourist destinations. Perhaps one solution is to concentrate on what India is better known for—undoubtedly its history and culture—and proactively market the most attractive destinations to begin with.
An alternative would be to vigorously promote specific parts of India as distinct destinations in their own right. Kerala for example has a verdant landscape, azure backwaters and rejuvenating Ayurvedic treatments, while Rajasthan has royal splendour against the backdrop of a tropical desert.
The second important action point for India would be to dramatically improve infrastructure, cleanliness and upkeep. Tourists do not see just the temples, forts and palaces. They are also exposed to various other things, which make a deep impression on their minds and contribute to the overall experience.
While it would be a challenge to achieve the required transformation across the entire country, urgent steps must be taken to upgrade the sensory appeal of the environment in the most important tourist centres and the routes connecting them. Tourism cannot be developed in isolation of broader changes. The Tourism Ministry’s ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ (Guest is God) campaign addresses some of the issues by promoting civic sense among the general public and good hospitality practices on the part of tourism service providers. But much more needs to be done, and on a war footing. Otherwise, the liberalised visa regime may bring in additional tourists who are more disappointed than pleased with what they see of India. (East Asia Forum)
By R Harish