India’s gods of tourism shift into high gear

August 7, 2015 9:45 AM (UTC+8)

 

The San Francisco-born car service Uber is investing $1 billion over next nine months in India, amid a tourism industry, that like the country itself, is undergoing deep and multi-layered changes. With elaborate new plans, India is using tourism as a key sector to continue being the world’s fastest growing economy of the Internet Age.

The London-based travel site Skyscanner spotted a 9.2% upswing in tourist arrivals into India this year, and “a staggering growth of 1024.4% of arrivals on e-Tourist Visa between January and May 2015”, according to India Press Information Bureau statistics.

Skyscanner flight searches showed increasing tourist inflow from the US, UK, Australia, Germany, Russia, Canada, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Ireland. “With the introduction of e-Visa schemes and other pro-tourism initiatives by the government, India is fast becoming a popular destination,” Skyscanner India’s senior marketing manager Kavitha Gnanamurthy told Asia Times in an email.

Uber driver in India
Uber driver in India

In a culture of hospitality, ‘Atithidevo Bhava’ is a well-known Sanskrit saying in India meaning “consider the guest as god.” Numbers suggest that these the “gods” will be  arriving in greater numbers. On July 30, India opened the e-visa service to China (year 2015 is being observed as ‘Visit India Year’ in China), with plans to extend the facility to 150 countries by March 2016.

E-visa is one of the major initiatives to get tourism to generate more jobs and increase family incomes. Tourism has also been brought under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), a crucial road-block clearer in working with the new Draft National Tourism Policy 2015.

India’s tourism can add $100 billion to the economy, Canadian research firm Macquarie said on July 27, if the government sustains its renewed focus. A World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) study estimates tourism directly or indirectly accounts for 59 million jobs (8.7% of total employment) in the country. The percentage would jump in line with WTTC ‘sestimate of tourism earning India $230 billion by 2024.

In effect, the new tourism initiatives becomes a meeting ground with other major developmental programs like Make in India, mega infrastructure investments to upgrade roads, railways and India’s 125 airports, an initial US$ 7.8 billion fund to create ‘100 smart cities’, the Clean India campaign, promoting eco-tourism – with each drawing from and strengthening the other.

But like the Clean India campaign lacking a simple, concentrated focus on a core message such as – “stop throwing litter on the road” — India’s new tourism policy lacks revolution around the human element, the personal interactions travelers more often remember. Myanmar has no fancy airports and seven-star hotels, but visitors fondly talk about the courteous, warm-hearted people.

Hospitable Indian sayings like ‘Atithidevo Bhava’ (guest is god) and “Good behavior towards tourists” gets only a passing three-line paragraph on page 41 of the 50 page Draft National Tourism Policy 2015.  At the least, the PMO and the Tourism Ministry should kick off their initiative by ensuring that foreign toursits don’t get ripped off by cab drivers and touts, outside airports and railway stations.

A formation of gold-caparisoned elephants at the Thrissur Pooram. Poorams are Hindu Temple-centered festivals popular among both Keralites and tourists
A formation of gold-caparisoned elephants at the Thrissur Pooram. Poorams are Hindu Temple-centered festivals popular among both Keralites and tourists

Whether in the golden age of the Mauryas or the Internet Age of the 21st century, travelers to India experience many worlds within a world. It can mean a discovery of India that is also a self-discovery of one’s viewpoint of life. This can involve experiencing realistic positivity or impatient negativity, of seeing the glass half-full or half-empty. Then as now, visitors tell of being struck with bewildering, conflicting contrasts of extremes, of experiences exhilarating, exasperating, engrossing, enlightening.

Like historians Herodotus and Hiuen Tsang long before him, the US’ Mark Twain tried to understand India in “A Tramp Abroad.” published in 1877. “This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the moldering antiquities of the rest of the nations — the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”

And as in shows where the same person changes into different clothes at different stages, visitors see India changing during thousands of years flitting by like confetti of time. But the innermost heart, penetrating beyond different dogmas, rites and rituals, inevitably returns to the same, timeless, practical, universal path, to live with permanent truths of nature amid the impermanence of existence. This is why Mark Twain and Max Mueller’s impression of the country are featured in the opening pages of India’s ‘Draft National Tourism Policy 2015’.

India’s new tourism surge also relies heavily on using online travel websites and IT to increase India’s share in world tourist arrivals, from current 0.68% to 1% by 2020 and 2% by 2025. Travel sites such as Make My Trip, Yatra.com, Cleartrip, Expedia and Skyscanner have not only sent conventional travel agencies into the extinction list, they have also given rise to new tourism tools like the Tripigator #KitnaPadega (what’s the cost?) instant holiday cost estimator.

It’s also nice to see home stays and eco-tourism as part of India’s tourism upgrade, a key to increasing family incomes across India, as it already does in the Himalayas. Eco-tourism becomes critical in a region where nature is striking back at environmental damage. “Villagers in the upper reaches of the Himalayas are still recovering from year 2013 flash floods,” said Sunil Kainthola, co-ordinator of “Mountain Shepherds,” an eco-tourism promoter in the Himalayas.

In neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, Stephan Marchal from Belgium co-founded Himalayan Ecotourism as community changer. “Unfortunately, eco-tourism has become more of a marketing catch word,” Marchal told Asia Times over the phone from Leh, Ladakh, minutes before leading a trekking expedition. “For me, eco-tourism means “empowerment,” giving local communities not just wages from tourism, but skills and resources to improve their lives and safeguard their natural environment.” His eco-tourism model is changing lives in villages such as Pekhari, in Kullu district of the stunningly beautiful Himachal Pradesh.

Like eco-tourism, home stays can evolve to deeper dimensions. Hopefully, an enterprising Asia Times reader makes good use of a long pending tourism project idea: “Homely Planet,” an online global network of quality and safety certified home stays that offers not merely bed and breakfast.

“Homely Planet” is to give a traveler experiential insight into the culture, customs and lifestyle codes of a country, by sharing daily life with the host family. So the home stay is more like a visiting family friend than merely a paying guest. The single or tourist couple shares family events, festivals, shops at the neighborhood store, drops the child off at school, dines at the family table, sometimes goes along with the temporary hosts’ evening socials. Whether for two nights or two weeks, both traveler and host benefit from a deeper cultural experience than just exchanging currency.

If used to optimum effect, “Homely Planet” is guaranteed success because home is everywhere on the planet.

I can only recall my own experience. On a cold winter night over two decades ago, I first stepped into a city then called Calcutta with barely any money, not knowing anyone and no address to go to. And then the following remarkable months, I experienced the truth of the saying: “there are no strangers in the world, only friends we have not yet met.”

Unforgettable friends (or are they protecting angels in human form) met during unexpected journeys in life. Special beings to meet again in other lifetimes until their liberating end, and one’s own solitary travel continues by choice across endless time.

For the offbeat traveler:
1) ‘51 Beautiful Offbeat Places in India That Are Still Unexplored’
2) ‘Get off the tourist trail’ – India Untraveled
3) Itinerary of a 15-day trek to the highest Himalayan peak in India – Nanda Devi (East) base camp and Milam glacier

Mumbai-based Raja Murthy writes for The Statesman since 1990 and Asia Times since 2003, amid recent sojourns in the Himalayas. Before a decade of writing for the Times of India, and Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com etc, his plan was to travel the world and write – until he discovered the inner adventure of Vipassana.

(Copyright 2015 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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