What lies between India and the target of achieving 20 million tourists by 2020

The Taj Mahal is a classic example of what is wrong with India as a tourist destination – world class monuments which have been poorly maintained.

The year 2017 was a watershed one for Indian tourism when it touched the 10 million foreign tourist arrival mark for the first time, marking a growth of 15.6 per cent from 2016. Dollar earnings also went up last year, when it touched USD 27.7 billion in 2017, contributing 6.88 per cent to the GDP. The Ministry of Tourism has not set a target of reaching the magical figure of 20 million tourists by 2020.

The country has been a major draw for tourists across the world. Apart from being a spiritual destination, India has been making rapid strides in other areas as well – from adventure tourism, pilgrimage tourism, eco-tourism, to medical and wellness tourism, film tourism and even sports tourism. However, it only has 1.18 per cent of the share of international tourist arrivals.

The fact that Paris, alone, witnessed 23.6 million tourist arrivals in 2017, shows that India has a long way to go to catch up with the world’s major tourist destinations before it realises the 20 million mark. We take a look at the challenges that India faces to reach the mark, and what the Ministry of Tourism has been doing to overcome them:

Infrastructural woes: According to the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness report compiled by the World Economic Forum, at the 110th position, India lags way behind the rest of the world when it comes to providing tourist service infrastructure. The country performs slightly better at the 32nd position when it comes to air transport infrastructure and 29th in port and ground infrastructure.

While new, modern and swanky airport terminals have come up across the country, most of the airports are not equipped to handle the growth in traffic. Hyderabad airport, for example, was meant to handle 12 million passengers, however, footfalls crossed 18 million in 2017. Similarly, despite the fact that Mumbai is India’s busiest airport, it does not feature among the top 20 fastest growing airports in the world.

When it comes to road infrastructure, while more roads and highways are being constructed, safety remains a major concern. As per a recent study conducted by the World Bank, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and other agencies, about 30 per cent of the Mumbai-Delhi stretch and 50 per cent of the Mumbai-Chennai stretch of the Golden Quadrilateral are unsafe for vehicles. This is the case with almost all highways and roads.

Touts: While swanky airports such as New Delhi’s T3 may have helped change a traveller’s first impression about the country, the sight that often greets them as they exit the airport is of touts hounding them for taxi rides or hotel accommodation at discounted rates. Most of these touts have tie-ups with various shops that sell merchandise and knick-knacks, where the tourists are often fleeced.

Despite the presence of police and security personnel, touts often loiter outside historical sites, shops and hotels as well as other tourist destinations, where they prey on unsuspecting tourists. The problem had reached such an extent in Delhi where foreigners are often hassled by touts who pose as drivers or travel agents that, in 2010, the Delhi Government decided to pass the Delhi Prevention of Touting and Malpractices against Tourists Act which provides for a maximum jail term of one year and a fine ranging from Rs 2,500 – Rs 10,000 on those who are caught touting. This, however, has not proved to be a deterrent and the practice continues unabated at the capitals’ airport, railways station, bus stops and tourist spots.

Safety: Jordan Taylor, a US blogger, recently vlogged about how she was groped, accosted and touched by men while on a visit to India.  She also recounted a horrifying incident where she had to lock herself in her hotel room in Delhi after her boyfriend left, as the hotel staff were trying to force open her door and would call her room number at different times asking her to open it.

Like Taylor, a number of reports of tourists being harassed, raped or murdered have been surfacing over the recent past. The country’s image, especially when it comes to women’s safety, has taken a beating with the increased reports of rape and violence against women. Similarly, security threats such as terrorist attacks, mob lynchings and attacks on minorities have also raised concerns about safety in the minds of tourists.

Pollution: India has the dubious distinction of having 14 of its cities in the world’s ’15 most polluted cities’ list.  Delhi, which has the maximum share of foreign tourists and NRI arrivals, at 62 per cent, in India, is among the worst affected by pollution. During last year’s deadly smog over Delhi, CNN had reported about how breathing the air was equivalent to smoking 44 cigarettes a day. Another report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) released in November last year, revealed that there would be a direct impact on bookings on the Golden Triangle, comprising Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, which were among the most affected by the smog. Most tourists opted for other, cleaner South Asian countries as alternatives to travelling to Delhi.

Sanitation and Hygiene: Another issue that is high on the list of foreign tourist pet peeves is the lack of hygiene in many parts of the country. This ranges from unhygienic food joints and hotels to littering, spitting and open defecation which is rampant on the city streets. The lack of hygienic public toilet facilities makes travelling around the country difficult, adding on to the sanitation woes. This then creates a perception that India is an unclean nation, hence deterring a number of tourists from visiting the country.

Progress is happening

Despite the mammoth challenges that the country faces, the Government is putting renewed thrust on tourism. Its recently released Incredible India 2.0 campaign, which aims to promote different tourist destinations and tourism products focusing on specific target markets,  has met with positive response. To facilitate easier entry into the country, India also introduced the e-visa facility in 2014, which enables people from around 113 countries to apply for the visa online, without having to visit the Indian Embassy/Consulate in their respective countries. Close to 1.69 million foreign visitors have travelled to the country in 2017, using this facility.

The Ministry has been marketing India abroad and the MoT, along with the Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism and Hospitality (FAITH)  recently organised the first India Tourism Mart aimed at meeting quality buyers from different destinations and getting them to promote India in their countries.

The MoT has also launched the Swadesh Darshan scheme, which aims at developing thematic circuits in the country in a planned manner. Launched in the financial year 2014 -15 and as on date the Ministry has sanctioned 70 projects for Rs.5708.88 Crore to 29 States and UTs under the Scheme.

While these initiatives are welcome, in order for the country to achieve its target of 20 million tourists by 2020, the MoT and all stakeholders, including the general public, need to work together so that we can present a safe, clean and beautiful country to the world.