Despite being blessed with a vast network of tourist destinations, ranging from picture-perfect landscapes to heritage sites, tourism potential in India remains largely untapped. Being a highly labour-intensive sector, tourism can generate large-scale, good-quality employment.

According to the ‘Report on Working Group on Tourism’ ( 2011), the travel and tourism sector was projected to generate 780 jobs in India per ₹1 crore of investment compared to 450 jobs in the manufacturing sector for a similar investment. Fully understanding the tourism sector’s role in India’s growth story, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the 7th Governing Council meeting of NITI Aayog, encouraged States to focus on tourism and promote the 3Ts — trade, tourism and technology.

There exists much more scope to increase the footfall of international tourists in India. As also evidenced in Economic Survey 2021-22, the number of foreign tourist arrivals in India increased only from 0.2 crore to 1.1 crore between 1990 and 2019, while domestic tourist arrivals increased comparatively at a better rate from around 6 crore to approximately 232 crore during 1990-2019.

India accounted for a mere 1.2 per cent share in international tourist arrivals and ranked 23rd globally for the same in 2019. Focusing on international tourists, the draft National Tourism Policy also aims at making India one of the top 5 destinations in the world in terms of both international arrivals and international tourism receipts by 2030 and the most sought-after travel destination in the world by 2047. However, to turn this vision into reality, it is crucial to take some concrete steps on an immediate basis.

The most prudent strategy to attract foreign travellers would be to focus on niche areas. It is important to note that medical tourism accounted for 6.4 per cent of all foreign arrivals in India in 2019. The main contributor to the burgeoning medical tourism sector is the lower costs of tertiary healthcare and relatively high quality of medical treatment in India in comparison to other countries.

For instance, a heart bypass surgery in India costs as low as $7,900, which is the lowest among major destinations for medical tourism like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Turkey, and South Korea. However, to leverage this potential, it is essential to incentivise and develop clusters of hospitals to facilitate access to foreign tourists.

In order to attract more international tourists, India must increase investment and leverage public-private partnership models in healthcare at a faster pace. Leveraging new business models like telemedicine can further enhance the sector’s productivity. Additionally, the scope of medical tourism can be expanded to develop India into a hub for spiritual and wellness tourism, as the country has much to offer in Ayurveda and Yoga. There is an increasing focus on spiritual tourism. With its long history and rich philosophy, there is increasing scope for India to attract people looking to elevate their physical, mental, and emotional energies by pursuing the spiritual path.

Enhancing the experience

While the attraction of India as a tourist destination is beyond doubt, the focus must be laid on facilitating and smoothening access and experience. It is important to simplify the process of registering online with the Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO). Establishing FRRO help-desks at major Indian airports and hospitals will provide visitors with the information to complete the process online.

Also, the number of annual visits allowed under an e-medical visa should be enhanced. Currently, e-medical visa-holders are allowed three repeat visits during their one-year visa period. And this may not be sufficient for patients who require follow-up/post-operative care. Also, the number of accompanying persons with e-medical visa-holders may be increased from two to up to four under the same visa, as has been done in countries like Malaysia.

The coming years are also going to witness the increasing importance of digital tourism. Emerging technologies like the metaverse have the potential to transform the tourist experience and engagement at destinations. Because of the metaverse, travellers can experience 3D hotel tours before confirming the booking. Information such as facilities, hotel room size, décor, and amenities can be experienced before-hand before the actual visit. This is likely to save tourists’ time and avoid unnecessary hassles, thus enriching tourist experience. Furthermore, targeted promotional campaigns of tourist circuits can be undertaken in major regions of the world.

Tourism infrastructure projects — hotels, resorts, equipment, parks, etc — having a project cost of more than ₹1 crore should be notified as ‘infrastructure’ to enable entrepreneurs to take credit on a priority basis.

Besides, even undertaking small steps aimed at facilitating the ease of travelling like creating common passes to visit multiple heritage sites, providing foreign exchange counters at each tourist site, and operating tourist information centres professionally can play a big role in increasing tourist traffic in India.

The government has rightly shown the intent to boost the tourism sector, but if this intent also gets complemented by a concrete roadmap and an effective implementation strategy, the tourism sector can contribute significantly to generating employment-intensive growth in the country.

Monika is Research Officer, and Gopalakrishnan is former Lead Adviser, NITI Aayog