What do toilets have to do with tourism? For the more than 7 million travellers who come to India each year, this is an important question.
After taking charge in May this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a nationwide “Clean India” campaign, personally wielding a broom to promote better sanitation.
Swinging the broom in the streets is doing more than improving hygiene in public spaces, it also spruces up the image of India. Visitors who are enchanted by the culture and cuisine of the country are simultaneously dismayed by its shabby streets and monuments.
In cleaning up India, Modi is trying to make sure the country is ready to welcome many more tourists. Despite its vast beaches, Himalayan peaks, dense forests and palatial hotels, India attracts only a tiny fraction of the world’s tourists – just over 0.5%. The new government wants a stratospheric surge in this number.
India is now preparing an electronic system that will make it easier for tourists to apply for visas online. Currently, tourists have to wait for days, often weeks. Tourism-friendly countries such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka have already benefited from a relaxation of visa rules, so India can see the advantage.
In a phased launch of the new regime, citizens in a dozen countries (soon to expand to 180) can apply online and collect their visas when they arrive in India, at 26 of country’s international airports.
India began the visa-on-arrival scheme in January 2010 for Finland, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Singapore. In recent months this was extended to South Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Laos and Myanmar. Confidence has been boosted along with tourist arrival figures, which have doubled in only one year.
Once more countries are included in the online visa scheme and more visitors are able to travel to India, the country can expect a huge boost in tourism. It can expect its foreign exchange earnings to rise sharply from the annual figure of $18 billion.
Here the role of state government is critical. Tourism is a state subject in federal India and, as a result, the national government can’t do much beyond frame policies. All implementation must be done by state tourism bodies, and here the track record is uneven. Some states have done well, others less so. Regional Indian governments will have to work together to create a seamless and uniform ecosystem that allows tourists to experience India with ease.
Travelling around India is problematic, despite several attempts to improve transfers between airlines, railways and buses. The problem is that each of these transport systems works independently. An integrated approach, as perfected by more tourism-focused countries, is essential.
Additionally, the cost of travel and accommodation in India is often higher than flying to a neighbouring country. India needs more hotel rooms and lower taxes on flying. A limited supply of hotels and excessive taxation in aviation means that an increasing number of Indians prefer to go abroad for their holidays. About 17 million Indians travel out of the country each year, more than double the number of inbound tourists.
India is terribly underserved by the hotel industry. The whole country has just over 100,000 hotel rooms while the greater New York area has almost 80,000, according to industry estimates. India will need to double this capacity if it is to meet the demands of new tourists, and this is where the state governments should be proactive.
Prime Minister Modi has caught the attention of the world with his mission to clean up India. Now, he’ll have to ensure that the broom also sweeps away archaic laws and poor policies, to set tourism free in India.
Author: Pranjal Sharma is consulting editor of Businessworld, India. Follow him on Twitter at @pranjalsharma
Image: Tourists visit the Taj Mahal in the tourist city of Agra, September 16, 2004. REUTERS/Kamal Kishore