“It is all in the Access”
Subhash Goyal is the president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators, besides being the chairman of STIC (Student Travel Information Centre) Group, and a long-time spokesman for the Indian tourism industry. What follows is his conversation with Contributing Editor Mitu Varma, taking in the critical aspects of the Indian travel industry.
What is the size of India’s tourism industry, and what doyou make of its potential?
The total inbound tourism to India is about 2.4 million. Maybe this year it will reach 2.5 or 2.6 million. The outbound tourism is about 4.6 million, about double of the inbound. Inbound tourism is very important for India — it generates foreign exchange, a lot of employment, and it is one industry with a minimum requirement in terms of investment. Whatever a good tourist destination needs, India has. There is no other country in the world which is bigger and better in terms of tourist attraction. India is the greatest show on Planet Earth. It is the birthplace of four great religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism. The Sufism aspect of Islam was introduced here, and the most fascinating Sufi shrines like Ajmer Sharif and Allauddin Chishti are found here. Few other countries can point to a spot where one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ, St. Thomas, is buried. There is no other country in the world which has so much rhythm, music, so much cultural diversity. India is actually a continent of 25 or 26 ‘countries’. You can do them in one shot if you have the time, otherwise you have to come again and again. This is why the length of stay of tourists in India is the longest anywhere.
But are these attractions generatingthe number of tourists they should be?
The tourism volume is not there for some reasons, and the primary reason is air-seat capacity. Ninetyfive percent or 98 percent of the people who come to India arrive by air. Now the total air seat capacity of India is around five and a half million — that is, five and a half going and five and a half coming, altogether 11 million seats. That is not enough to take care of tourist and non-tourist traveler to and from India. So a foreign tour operator, if he were to really market India, he needs air fleets. For 50 years, we have had a very restrictive aviation policy which has suffocated the tourism industry. The result is that tour operators and travel agents are fighting for the same piece of cake. But one good thing this government has done in the last four months is that 13 bilateral agreements have been signed, and about 1 million seats have been arranged. The new airlines that will be coming in, in order to make their routes viable, will advertise India. In air cargo we had a problem, our exports were not going out. So the government opened up the skies for cargo. Now our exports have shot up, and today we export more goods to America than we import from them. There is a boom in exports. Likewise, we have to open up our airways because you cannot have tourism without civil aviation.
At one point, Air India marketed India and brought a lot of tourists; does it still play the same role?
Every airline gets tourists, and Air India has a tourism department. But if you want Air India to continue to play an important role, you have to give its professional managers an independent hand. If the government and the Members of Parliament want to interfere in everything, then Air India will die a natural death.
What about the domestic airlines sector?
I feel that you cannot have halfway liberalisation. If you want to liberalise, you have to give a level playing field. You cannot say that for Sahara or Jet we have one standard of regulations and if Tata wants to come in, we have another standard. That is not healthy, it sends wrong signals. If the managers of Air India and Indian Airlines were to be made answerable to shareholders instead of parliamentary committees, they would be able to do a better job.
What about privatisation?
I am for privatisation, for globalisation. But on the one side we are allowing foreign collaborations in Pepsi and Coke and Domino’s Pizza, and on the other, in the case of Indian aviation where high sophistication, standardisation and global competition are needed, we are not allowing it. You know the whole aviation world is going towards strategic alliances, and if we do not become part of a global strategy, we will not be able to serve even our niche market. We want our national airlines to be global players. If both Air India and Indian Airlines were to be merged, there will be economies of scale and a lot of things can happen.
What about marketing India?
There’s a defect in our marketing strategy. We have been marketing India as India, but India as itself doesn’t mean anything, it does not provide a real mental picture. Take America, it doesn’t have a ministry of tourism, and every state does its own marketing. Each of the 25 states of India has its own beauty and charm, but only three or four states doing the proper marketing. Kerala is being marketed as God’s own country—lush green pictorial forests, the backwaters, and the elephants. Rajasthan is also marketing effectively— picturise maharajas and forts, palaces, desert and camel safaris. Kashmir was marketing itself, but it has been spoilt by militancy. Now Himachal is marketing itself, but unfortunately it does not have an airfield where big planes can land, so tourism is restricted. If tomorrow there’s such an airfield, you will see that Himachal will beat Kashmir. Goa is also selling itself well, but the rest have not done their homework. Incidentally, it makes no sense to have an international airport unless you grant traffic rights to foreign airlines. For example, Cochin has an international airport but we are not giving traffic rights, so it’s meaningless.
What are the main source countries for tourism?
Number one is the UK, followed by Germany and the USA. Fourth is Sri Lanka. We get a lot of people from Sri Lanka.
Is domestic tourism just a poor cousin?
It is not a poor cousin, it is a very important cousin. But again, for it to have a multiplier effect on the economy, you need a particular segment of tourists who are willing to spend that much money. That segment is now growing. The total number of domestic tourists in the country is around 160 million, out of that about 100 million are going for religious purposes. The rest make up about 60 million, and it is a big chunk. Domestic tourism is much larger than international tourism, but the spending power of the domestic tourists is low. Except for about a million who stay in five star hotels and spend a lot—maybe it has grown to two million now. There has been domestic tourism since time immemorial. You know Shankaracharya started the Chaar Dhaams. Right from the South there is a dhaam with TirupatiTemple, the Shobanath Temple in Gujarat then the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu. All these dhaams were made so that people of the North could go south and vice versa. The objective was that people could see the whole country
What are the expectations from mountain tourism, cultural tourism, beach tourism and so on?
I can’t say that we can only depend upon adventure tourism, or on cultural tourism, or on sports or business tourism. In every marketing activity, there has to be a product mix, and tourism is no exception. If I were a tourist, I would be interested in everything.
What has happened to the tourists who used to go to Kashmir?
The other hill stations are getting the share. For example, if earlier I had wanted to go to the mountains, I would have gone to Kashmir, now I’m going to Kulu-Manali, to Nepal, to Bhutan, or to the hill stations of Mussoorie, Shimla, Nainital. All these places are getting a boost. Plus, a lot of people are going abroad. A person who has to go on a vacation will go on a vacation, he will not wait for terrorism to end. It is for the people of Kashmir not to allow these foreign infiltrators and terrorists to spoil their livelihoods.
Do you think the Himalaya is a wasted tourist resource?
No, it is not wasted. The Himalaya will continue to be there. Something that is wasted is something that finishes. It has been a lost opportunity these past years, but the Himalaya has the potential.
Is Northeast tourism affected by the need for special permits?
Yes, but they are quite liberal now. If we have international flights coming into Guwahati, that will be a big help. A foreign tourist has a week’s holiday, and wants to go into the Northeast straight and spend the seven days there. Today this can’t be done. You have to first go to Delhi, Bombay or Calcutta, wait for a day or two to take a flight. So it takes two to three days to reach Guwahati. Then you have to take a bus from Guwahati to wherever you want to go. By the time you reach your destination, three to four days are gone. What is happening in the Northeast is the sheer failure to capitalise on what god has given you.
Do tour operators have special plans for the Northeast?
Tour operators have a lot of plans, but then the Northeast has to be made accessible. That can only be done by the government. What the government has done now is that it has declared six more international airports, out of which Guwahati is one. But again, in order to make this opening viable, the government has to give up its stranglehold on traffic rights. They will have to allow foreign airlines to come in without having to pay compensation to Air India and Indian Airlines.
So it’s political will that is lacking?
Yes, no! Political will is there. But what is lacking is political action. Implementation! We are very good at making policies on paper, but the real thing is to make them happen, in timebound fashion.
Is not India’s image still stuck on fakirs, snake-charmers and the Taj?
No, tour operators project everything. Frankly, the tourists who are coming to India today, sometimes have more knowledge of India than we have. You cannot fool them. And of course, India is just not the Taj, there is much more to India than the Taj. There are many buildings as beautiful as the Taj if not more, they just have to be seen and appreciated. The Taj has become famous because it is close to Delhi, and everyone comes to Delhi.
Why is the Indian government so poor at marketing tourism?
The Ministry of Tourism works with its hands tied. What is needed is coordination and I feel there should be a combined ministry of tourism, civil aviation and transport. There has to be an integrated approach. That is why the industry has been asking for a tourism board where all the other ministries are involved. Now, we have formed the board but it has had just one meeting. Today, the finance minister and everyone else is talking of information technology, but information technology is not going to solve the problem. It will give us billions of dollars for software development and all that, but it is only giving jobs to the people who are computer literate, whereas in other places there will be downsizing. So, for the uneducated youth in the villages there is no benefit. But tourism can help the uneducated youth too. If a tourist goes to a remote area, he buys local handicrafts, hires a coolie, and spreads the word. IT doesn’t do that.
You think the private sector has done its bit in promoting tourism?
We are all doing our bit, but when there are no airseats, it becomes meaningless. The result is that the hotels and the tour operators start fighting with each other for the same piece of cake. The size of the cake needs to be enlarged.
Are there new places which could still be marketed or see a lot of tourists?
There are so many wonders that are hidden, of which the world is not aware of, which even we Indians are not aware of. Now look at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, it is one of the wonders of the world, but it is not marketed, and it is not accessible. All the 25 states must have international airports and they must have independent flights. Look at Europe. All of Europe can fit into two Indian states of UP and Bihar. But neither UP nor Bihar has an international airport! Europe has 300 international airports. Now that is being accessible. London alone has four international airports. We are a large country, a Subcontinent, we must have at least 25 gateway cities, and every state chief minister must try to market his state as a tourism destination. The government has a stranglehold on the tourism industry, unless it loosens up and make India accessible, we cannot make tourism an instrument of economic change. There are some positive signs in the media and the public, and the demand is being created, which I think, will force the politicians to loosen their stranglehold, because ultimately tourism will create jobs. To create jobs, you have to develop a labour-intensive industry, and tourism is the largest labour-intensive industry in the world. One out of every nine new jobs being created in the world is created by a service industry. So if the politicians are honest about giving the people jobs, then they have to develop tourism. They have no other choice.