I'd like to see travel and tourism in India grow.
I'd like to see people visit us, and go back, wanting to come back. I'd like to see my people make money, through service-related industries, and not through back-breaking labour on tiny land holdings that don't need the extra hands anyway. I'd like to see more employment generated through the travel business.
And I'd like to ask the tourism minister, Ms Renuka Chowdhary, a few questions, if only she'd let me.
Last year, in 2004, the tourism ministry announced that they've met the self-set target of 3.5 million visitors into India. Self-congratulatory press conferences were, therefore, in order.
According to 2003 statistics, India saw a 27.5 percent growth in the numbers of visitors coming in from abroad. For the same period, foreign exchange earnings grew at 23 percent. Lonely Planet mentioned India as one of the Top 5 holiday destinations (from a list of 134 countries).
In short, it was a good year.
While the tourism ministry enthusiastically pats itself on the back for meeting tourist inflow targets, this growth could well be a carryover from the previous government's efforts. [Correct me if I'm wrong, Ms Renuka, ma'am, but the Incredible India campaign was not your brainchild, was it? It was the previous NDA government's initiative, wasn't it?]
Here are some of the questions I had wanted to ask madam Renuka -
Why was the 'View the Taj Mahal by moonlight' idea such a fiasco?
No foresight? Or just too much trouble making it happen?
What's happening on the rural tourism front?
Has she been to the interiors of Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and other states, which are not necessarily perceived as having great tourist potential?
Has she not seen how hospitable the people are and how clean their homes, and how incredibly pretty their villages? Does it not strike her that any tourist (domestic or foreign) would fork up substantial sums to live with the villagers as one of them, for a few days?
What's with the light and sound shows at monuments, in the evenings?
Sure, they're there. But tourists aren't allowed to enter the monument complexes in the evenings.
Why do momuments and musuems have a 'camera fee' when 'photography is prohibited'?
What's being done to cater to the domestic tourist?
There are as many as 5.5 million Indians who fly abroad. Even Indian travelers don't seem to want to invest in home pleasures. Domestic tourism, in 2002, grew at only 15.6 percent.
And why will they?
Where are the low-end hotels that are safe, clean and culturally-enriched as well? Why are there half a dozen seven-star or five-star hotels in a radius of five kilometres and almost no two or three-stars for miles around?
What about cruising?
We have such a huge coastline, but almost no luxury cruises will stop here, except for a day, when they absolutely HAVE to. India just doesn't figure as a destination. And yet, sailing is one of the cheapest and extremely viable forms of travel, for no hotels are needed. We only need to develop ports, build jetties and reassure foreign players about security. shouldn't that be on the agenda?
Where is our priority list?
Do we have one?
If her ministry's doing such a great job, how is it that India's share is still stuck at US $ 2.9 billion, which is only 0.62 percent of the global pie?
Africa has seen a decline in tourist inflows, but still had 694 million. The gulf countries had 30 million. France has 77 million. China has 36.8 million. Mexico, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Japan, Italy, Germany... you name it and 'it' is ahead of us, who are stuck a figure of 3.5 million.
Incidentally, what parametres are used to judge growth of tourism?
According to Gautam Chaddha (who heads Turin, a global cruising company), the definition of 'tourist' needs to be sharpened.
"India has adopted a model whereby every foreign arrival is deemed a tourist.There are plenty of NRIs or people of Indian origin who are coming into the country, but not spending time of forex as 'tourists. There are thousands of people who arrive on business, or to study or to research. They don't count as 'tourists'. We shouldn't get carried away by the figures."
Besides, he explained, India has had a good year or two. That may be because we've been more visible as a country - IT, BPOs, markets and so on.
If we judge this 'growth' on the basis of previous graphs, this sort of high is bound to slip into a low, in a year or so. India's growth has always been cyclical and there have been no major changes in a decade.
According to Chaddha "There is a curiosity about Brand India. But there are almost no repeat visitors. This is such a huge country - it really is incredible. You can't compare India to any one country.. maybe to Europe as a whole. We have so many Indias within India. But no one comes back a second time. We have to ask ourselves why."
Indeed, Ms Renuka, why?