A new legislature period, the same dynamic Prime Minister, but how does our tourism policy match up to the expectations?
After winning elections with a pan India mandate, Narendra Damodardas Modi created history when he bagged more than 50 pc of the votes in 17 states and union territories. The policies initiated by the BJP government in the last term will have another five years to see through some of the economic and social development programmes that were midway in execution. However, let me take up the topic that is close to my heart as a tourism professional since over 25 years.
Once again we will say ‘T’ for Tourism but that is where we need to work if we are ever going to give the industry the true status that it deserves. Modi has many a times stressed on the need to understand what tourism brings to the economy and how important it is to have a robust growth in that sector. We are though making strides in various fields but lack the understanding of how tourism works or employs bureaucrats who do not completely understand how Destination India needs to be projected to be seen and considered as a destination of choice.
There have been many positive initiatives taken by the Prime Minister since he came to power. The visa on arrival scheme, the Swach Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), women safety and many other measures have borne fruit and are commendable. Also, the cleaning of heritage cities like Varanasi and the development of infrastructure facilities through the length and breadth of India can be seen now, as tourists mention how good the roads have become. This along with the clean railway stations and new airport facilities is to many of us more than a pleasant surprise.
Now lets get to the crux of the matter. As a destination we are simply considered to be costly. The new GST though having made life easier for many of the other businesses, has not been smooth for the hoteliers. Hotels with a room tariff of INR 7,500 and above are facing a severe constraint as they are placed in GST slab of 28 pc. This needs to change with no delay as it is but a reflection of a socialistic mindset in a way. A sum of INR 7,500 today for a hotel in a city is not a lot of money. But to charge 28 pc on that adds an extra 10 pc on the cost of tours. GST on hotels should be a constant 18 pc and not depend on the cost per night.
Lately, the domestic tourism has grown by leaps and bounds but there is a need to take the inbound market along and not lose sight of it. Keeping the GST at 18 pc is surely going to help.
Travel destinations around the world are not just dependent on domestic tourism but are constantly on the look out for newer markets and many European countries like Singapore, France and Czech Republic are wooing Indian travellers. It will be interesting to note the reasons that are given by Indian travellers for choosing Europe, Singapore or Dubai.
The quality of services be it hotels, food outlets or even public transport is given an important place. Not all cities in India have a master plan to stick to a quality standard. The quality of food served around major tourist attractions is neither hygienic nor is representative of the culinary tradition of that area.
The various transport corporations seem to work hand in hand allowing a guest to travel with a ticket for that city. Examples to emulate from the European continent are many. Representatives of the state like the consulates in their respective countries can take on the responsibility to sensitize and transmit information on social media which would create not just awareness, but bring the needed confidence that a traveller requires before booking.
Need for a uniform road tax
Just as the roads have become better, it’s time we had a uniform road tax. Even today a tourist vehicle has to stop at every state border and worse still has to follow a particular route so as to pay the state entry tax. Either that can be made online or better allow All India Permit vehicles to ply without stopping to pay. This will also increase the number of growing self-driven cars which now the tourists like to take and drive themselves.
For commercial establishments the large number of licenses that they have to obtain to start a business is still a staggering 22 in certain states. Reduction in those obtaining the same in a single application would be a boon to investors.
Tourism policy should be central in the development of a country. We still have states like Tamil Nadu which have not implemented elements of tourism policy like home-stays, which is so common else where, say in Kerala and Karnataka. This could possibly be done by bringing in a sense of competition among the various states by starting a ‘Ease of doing business’ scale among the various states of India.
Secondly, just as the cleaning up of rivers like the Ganges and the ghats has been taken up on a war footing, we need to quickly increase the number of plastic free zones. Countries like Germany are already starting to ban single use plates, water glasses and cutlery from being sold in the first place. I think India needs to move quickly in that direction. The dividend of the ban will surely be enormous.
Thirdly, we badly need to look into adventure tourism as a product that due to risks involved, is covered by the necessary insurances as the case is in western countries. As of now operators are at the mercy of disclaimers alone.
As far as wildlife tourism is concerned we have the parks that are being mostly governed by conservators as a fiefdom and the state on the other hand sees the same as business. There is no improvement on what is on offer to a visitor of the park. Many a times it is just a safari which sometimes like in the case of internationally renowned parks like Bandipur and Nagarhole (national parks in the south Indian state of Karnataka) are in the grip of monopolistic policies with no room for any other eco-tourism activity like designated trails in areas outside the park on offer. The result is a pressure on the park through tourists and day visitors alike. Why don’t we have a dialogue between the forest department and tourism department? Two planets on different trajectories don’t attract tourist revenue effectively.
Training the youths
Skill India needs to really look into imparting the necessary skills to youth in areas that are far away from cities. A safari lodge is dependent on migrant labour which it could do without were the youth in the area imparted with skills that are required. Naturalist training don’t take place that often nor guide training programmes are conducted. The guides that are considered to be the ambassadors of India‘s rich culture and history, need to be regulated, so they do not rush the tourists into shops for want of commission but do their job to the satisfaction of the guest. The guides need to also be informed about the latest developments as the customer experience is the key for a repeat visit to India.
‘Mass isn’t class’
Tourism needs to be of quality and not quantity. The mass tourism of Russian visitors to Goa has at certain places changed the cultural landscape with those areas being neither Goan nor Indian but bearing a more Russian look. Also, in the search for the next curve in tourist numbers, we need to keep in mind that resources like water are finite and develop a sense of responsibility in tourism that is low on carbon emission and high in value. Countries like Bhutan and Botswana are shining examples of the tourism product well positioned.
There are various issues that stake holders in various tourism areas face on a day to day basis. A regular dialogue and a working relationship with the aim of addressing their issues is a good start and a departure from the present system where the bureaucrat though possibly listens but finally is only executing a policy without having in depth understanding of tourism, only increasing their woes. It has been more than strange to find an IAS Officer handling slum clearance, suddenly responsible for tourism development in a state.
India, a country of 1.3 billion surely demands a new master plan in tourism and no piece meal solution is being offered by various states for a more comprehensive development of tourism facilities, infrastructure and guest experience. The details that come under it may still be decided by the states but all state departments need to work in unison and seamlessly with each other. This holistic view has to be given direction now if we are to see the fruits of our development and in the end make the visit or understand the true meaning of ‘Athithi Devo Bhava’ (The guest is equivalent to God).