India is spectacular. This fact has been impressed upon the world for a decade now by the slick ‘Incredible India’ advertising campaign.
It’s all there on video, on billboards, on the sides of buses. The latest commercial features a smiling young woman practising yoga in the desert; boating on the Dal Lake; riding a vintage motorcycle in Ladakh; drinking fresh coconut water in Kerala; using one of our world-class airports; making earnest conversation at the Golden Temple; zorbing, paragliding, snowboarding, rock climbing and mountain biking; getting an oily massage at a luxury spa; drinking lassi in the blue city of Jodhpur; jostling onto a crowded bus in Kullu; swimming with an elephant; gawping at rhinos and tigers; playing chess in Varanasi; disappearing in clouds of coloured powder on Holi. All the while, during this hectic itinerary, she works on that most distinctive of Indian gestures: an ambiguous head-waggle.
Watching this, who wouldn’t want to travel to India, to partake of its wonders? The answer is not nearly as many as want to go elsewhere.
Tourism could have been a panacea for India’s economic woes: a source of both revenue and employment. But, according to the World Bank’s figures from 2011, Malaysia attracts nearly 25 million tourists, Mexico 23 million, Ukraine 21 million, Thailand 19 million, Singapore 10 million, Egypt 9.5 million. In sharp contrast, India attracts under 6.5 million visitors. Fewer than Indonesia. Fewer than Bulgaria. Only half as many as Poland. Vietnam, about the size of Madhya Pradesh, attracts just as many foreign tourists as India. A comparison with China, apparently India’s rival and de facto benchmark, is embarrassing. At 57 million foreign tourists a year, China is behind only the United States and France as the world’s most visited country. To add salt to India’s wounds, consider this: Venice alone has 6.5 million annual visitors, as many as all of India. According to the Mastercard Global Cities Index for 2013, Bangkok has overtaken London as the most visited city on the planet, among cities where visitors spend at least one night. Bangkok gets nearly 16 million visitors. It is the first of seven Asian cities — including Singapore, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Seoul and Shanghai — that receive more visitors every year than India.
Although revenue from the tourism industry has stagnated in the past few years, Tourism Minister Chiranjeevi has had a busy schedule since he took charge of the ministry in October 2012. He tells Ashhar Khan of the initiatives taken by his ministry to hard-sell India to global tourists and revive the fortunes of the industry.