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Guest Column<br>Retrofit: What makes Indian tourism tick?

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Guest Column<br>Retrofit:  What makes Indian tourism tick?

IdeaWorks, a Singapore-based creative agency has created a new Incredible India campaign for South East Asia in the wake of the dastardly 26/11 terror attacks. While there are many faces to the new campaign, there is one in particular which says - Tranquility - showing a serene lying Buddha. It obviously focuses on how India retains its calm and composure despite the hurly burly chaos around us. There is no doubt in my mind that the successful and mature creatives of the Incredible India campaign have given Indian tourism a new hue. In fact, there is empirical evidence to support the fact that tourist arrivals have gone up manifold since India unleashed this sophisticated campaign. Immortal lines like - Not all Indians are polite, hospitable and vegetarian - backed by a stunning in your face visual of a tiger have done the trick in the Western world. But Incredible India is only part of an amazing calibrated plan that the Government of India has unveiled over the last three years.

I decided to find out more about the entire ball of wax. What makes Indian tourism tick? Why has it evolved from being a backpacker’s paradise to a high value leisure tourism destination? Over cups of tea with Tourism Minister Ambika Soni the other day, I tried to understand the effort that has been put in over time. Last year, India received 5.08 million tourists, bringing in foreign exchange to the tune of $10.7 billion and employing 8.9 per cent of our entire work force directly and indirectly. In fact, Ambika Soni has just completed confabulations with the travel and tourism industry as part of an exercise to jumpstart Visit India Year - April 2009-March 2010. She hopes that Visit India Year will successfully merge into the staging of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

As she told me, “This will be a big bang effort to showcase the myriad facets of India, so we will be offering productised holidays for the first time - wellness, religious, medical, et al. We are fine-tuning our strategy for this event. At the industry interface, we have agreed that public utilities at various tourist spots will now be maintained by travel and tourism industry players. This will work on the public-private partnership model and all the States are already on board. It will change the face of our support infrastructure and give a fillip.”

As with Incredible India, inputs for the Visit India strategy are being provided by the high-powered Experience India Society created by the Tourism Ministry. Nine industry stalwarts – Oberoi Hotels Chairman PRS Oberoi; Priya Paul of Park Hotels; Habib Rehman of ITC; RK Krishna Kumar and DK Berry of Taj Group of Hotels; Jyotsna Suri of Lalit Group; Charanjeet Singh of Le Meridien; Ragini Chopra of Jet Airways; and Sushil Gupta of Asian Hotels – are part of the brains trust that provides crucial inputs for tourism strategies. Interestingly, Ambika Soni in many ways has revisited the old Festival of India stratagem of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Her objective was to utilise India’s brugeoning soft power. On being appointed Tourism Minister, she conferred with UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi and told her that she would like to use the erstwhile Rajiv Gandhi intent of cultural diplomacy. And it has worked wonders. She said, “I wanted to revive the spirit of the past, so we contemporised it and the idea was to sell India not merely as a collage of destinations, but the entire smorgasbord of a vast and age old civilisational experience, keeping its growing economic paradigm in mind.”

So, be it 2006 at Davos or Berlin’s Travel Mart or Incredible India @ 60 in New York, or the largest exhibition of Indian art in Brussels at the headquarters of EU or highlighting the Gupta period in France or displaying Nandlal Bose’s repertoire in San Diego, or for that matter, Kathak in China, all the various facets of India’s soft power have been available for the world to savour. In many ways, I think a mélange of tourism and culture has worked well for India over the last few years. The Government, realising the efficacy of this tactic, has allowed a state of diffusion between the two to take a new modern, vibrant India to the world hand-in-hand with its heritage, rounded culture and amazing tourism experience to a new level of competence. Men like PRS Oberoi have played a key role in the evolution of India from a low cost destination to a high value leisure destination.

Oberoi, the grand old man of Indian hospitality, has often told me that a great hotel is like an extremely good looking bejewelled woman. But she has to constantly keep herself looking at her best, so it means investing in new vistas and hitherto unknown areas in Indian hospitality. If Conde Nast now ranks top of the line Oberoi properties as among the best in the world, then Biki Oberoi needs to be complimented for the effort in building luxury hotels. If Lonely Planet now reckons that India has arrived as a tourist hot spot, then it is thanks to Incredible India and our hoteliers – Taj, Oberoi, ITC, Lalit and others.

However, the financial meltdown is impacting Indian tourism and 26/11 has debilitated it. India has to seek new sources of tourists for the traditional visitors from the US and Europe are suffering adversely from the credit crisis. The Indian travel and tourism industry needs to be innovative and, more importantly, resilient. After three gangbuster years of close to 14-15 per cent growth, it has now tempered to 8 per cent this year. What is significant is that this November, we have seen a degrowth for the first time in months, registering a -2.1 per cent decline in tourist arrivals. November 2007 saw a 20.3 per cent spike. Vitally, foreign exchange earnings in November 2008 have declined by -12.5 per cent after a -9 per cent decline in October, and this is a bigger cause of concern.

Last year, it was reported that 450 million Indians travelled within the country. We now need to pump prime this part of our economy, just as we need to focus on South East Asian and Middle Eastern nations, which are relatively untouched by the contagion. The next three months are going to be critical for Indian tourism as it grapples with a double whammy of a financial meltdown and Mumbai terror attacks. Already, the tourist industry buzz is that 20-30 per cent cancellations have come in after 26/11. And remember, this is prime winter season.

Recently, 15 top agencies like Mudra, Lowe, Contract, Dentsu Marcom, TBWA\India, etc., were among the 15 empanelled agencies for the global Incredible India campaign. Yes, the India experience is not smooth sailing for a lot of foreigners. There is many a hiccup, but India offers so much. Visit us and be enchanted.

(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist who started his career with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi - with The Indian Express, Illustrated Weekly, Sunday Observer, Dalal Street Journal, Plus Channel where he ran India's first morning business show on Doordarshan, The Times of India Group, Business India, Hindustan Times and Reliance Big Entertainment. Starting his career as a cricket writer, he graduated to becoming a man for all seasons under Pritish Nandy, who he considers as the premier influence on his career. Since he studied economics at Calcutta University, Bamzai decided in 1993 to branch out into business and financial journalism. Familiar with all three media, he is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.)


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