Like a brand, a country must have a reputation, and in this India throws up a pale visage that is reflected in tourist arrivals too.

If words can work wonders, the Tourism Department's `Incredible India' campaign should get tourists pouring into the country. But words need to be backed with infrastructure and a mindset. In the absence of either, words will remain just that. There is little doubt that the tourism sector needs a big push if the flow of tourists into the country is to become comparable to even of such smaller nations as Singapore or Thailand. The arrival figures are especially disappointing because in terms of attractions, India is truly incredible. From snow and sand, arts and architecture, to flora and fauna or the variety of religions and philosophy, it could be the destination as much for the tourist as for the

nirvana

seeker.

Yet, in calendar 2006 India drew just about 4.5 million visitors compared to China's 20 million, Malaysia's 16 million or Thailand's 12 million. Its earnings from toursim, at $6.5 billion, was but a sixth of China's. A minuscule 2.4 per cent of the working population is in tourism though for every Rs 10 lakh invested, the industry creates 47.5 jobs compared to 44.7 in agriculture and 12.6 in manufacturing. It may be the third largest foreign exchange earner, but contributes 5.3 per cent to India's GDP against the global average of 11 per cent. The factors to blame for this abysmal status of tourism are quite well known. Be it availability of quality, affordable hotel rooms, decent airports, taxis, the quality of maintenance and service at the incredible monuments and other places of interest, or a vibrant nightlife, India is way behind other competing destinations. Ironically enough, India is very costly for Indians themselves. Even if low-cost airlines have made flying across the sub-continent possible for larger numbers, staying and local travel costs are far too high. In the absence of low-cost B&B (bed and breakfast) type stay facility, and beyond small, seedy hotels, the average tourist has to pay a stiff price for accommodation. Travel costs rise some more with many of the sights accessible only by private transport. Indeed, oftentimes a foreign destination comes cheaper.

Like a brand, a country must have a reputation, that would determine its global success. In this respect India's is a pale visage, and that is reflected in tourist arrivals too. Business travellers may visit the country for what it offers by way of returns on investments, thanks to a low-cost, well-trained workforce offering cost efficiencies in manufacture and a burgeoning middle class that is ready to lap up all that can be produced. But the tourist is not so compelled. India's current brand image is predicated on a few sectors and a small set of successful entrepreneurs. It surely deserves better, considering its image of a vast, mysterious, culturally rich country. To leverage the incredible opportunity, a visionary national strategy is sorely needed, but one that is rooted in action and not wishful word play.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 19, 2007)
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