The Undiscovery of India: Too many tourists are missing out the experience

It would seem all wrong to turn a spotlight on international tourism, the preserve of people with comfortable lives and money to spend, when the media are replete with vivid pictures of fleeing refugees and unwelcoming protests by hostile nationalist populists. So when the United Nations World Tourism Organization released its highlights for 2018 in early September and there were some positive trend in post-conflict or still troubled places, it caught attention.

India, considered a driver in the Asian region, figured prominently in the survey though there are questions and suggestions from travel experts about why the international tourism statistics are not better in a country with some of the world’s finest hotels, an extraordinary array of cuisines and a phenomenal list of 36 UNESCO World Heritage Sites – 29 of them cultural and 7 of natural importance. More of that later.

Globally the unexpected trends in this report may be the surge in tourism in the Middle East and Africa, with impressive increases in both number of international tourists and the income they generate. These measures are relative, of course, with some small newcomers among the destinations posting gains in line with their size, and a few large countries with highly developed tourist industries showing declines that barely dent their global positions. The United States falls into that category.

The new UNWTO report included countries that are recovering from conflict or political upheaval, and these may be particularly interesting to watch. For example, by some measures the top gainer in tourism in 2017 was Palestine, which is not yet fully a country by UN standards. The survey found that more international visitors are making side trips from Israel into the West Bank to see Christian sites such as Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus according to the Bible, or ancient cities like Jericho or Nablus. (Gaza is off limits for obvious reasons.)

In the Middle East region more broadly, Egypt recovered its place as the growth leader, and Jordan was rebounding “robustly,” the new survey showed. In Sub-Saharan Africa as a region, tourist arrivals grew by 9 percent – 63 million more people -- and revenue increased by 8 percent.

“In total, international tourism arrivals [worldwide] grew to just over 1.3 billion in 2017, a 6.8% from 2016. That was the largest single-year percentage increase in this specific figure since 2009,” the report found.

Back to India and where it fits in this picture. India, with 1.3 billion people of its own, and countless tourist destinations, falls well behind most European and some East Asian and Pacific nations (including same-size China and miniscule Singapore) in tourist arrivals by almost all surveys, not only that of the UN agency.

Alex Tabarrok, who holds the Bartley J. Madden Chair in Economics in the James M Buchanan Center for Political Economy at George Mason University, spent four months in India last year based at the IDFC Institute in Mumbai, a finance and development think tank. He traveled widely around the country and wrote a number studies and opinion articles analyzing the Indian economy in its many facets, one of them tourism.

“Why Does India Have So Few Tourists?” he wrote in March 2017 in Pragati, an online magazine focused on public policy. “India’s tourism sector is small compared to its potential,” he said. At the time, he singled out for blame the hurdles foreigners could face in getting visas.

“India’s history, culture and natural wonders are capital resources that can earn India dividends far into the future,” he wrote. “Moreover, unlike an oil field, India’s tourism resources are renewable…Lifting visa requirements would increase revenues, create jobs and pull millions out of poverty.”

In an interview in mid-September this year, Tabarrok noted that there had been changes in visa regulations, allowing at least some would-be tourists to apply for visas online or pick them up on the spot.

“It’s getting better, but in India it’s always a case of two steps forward and one step back,” he said. “It’s still a pain; it takes some time to get through the whole process. If I want to go to Paris, as long as I have a passport I hop on a plane, I go to Paris. But if I want to go to India, then I do have to still worry about getting a visa and making sure the paperwork is going to go through.”

Tabarrok is very clear about where he stands on the debate about whether tourism is good or bad for a society and an economy. “I’m in favor,” he said. “It’s one of the easiest ways a developing country can bring in lots of revenue. So for India, in particular, it’s one of their biggest export sectors ….. really important for the economy. It’s also a good incentive for learning English.”

Tabarrok, a fan of India, acknowledges that negative images of the country – large-scale poverty, for one – do make foreigners wary. And the problem of pollution is real, and it is bad..

A travel company owner in New York underlined this by telling me recently that he is reluctant to “push” tourists toward an Indian vacation at least in part because of pollution. The US State Department advises travelers to consult a doctor before traveling to India, where health risks also include influenza, animal bites, malaria, dengue fever and tuberculosis. It urges caution before choosing to go to India for medical purposes, since many facilities are not up to American standards.

In January this year the State Department rated India at Risk Level 2 –‘Exercise Increased Caution” — citing crime and terrorism in Kashmir, along the India-Pakistan border and in rural areas of east-central India. The US also says: “Do not travel alone, particularly if you are a woman.”

The reality, Tabarrok says, is that “It’s much easier to travel in India than people imagine.” Cars with good drivers are affordable for middle class visitors, not just the rich, and excellent accommodation can be found across the country in places where most tourists go. “They go from one five star hotel too another five star hotel, and so at the end of the day -- if that’s what they want – they can always be pretty sure of being in a familiar sort of place.”

Hotels seem to have adjusted to travelers’ needs and fears better in some cases than the government. “In a developed country, you go outside to get fresh air,” he said. “In India you go inside to get fresh air, because all of the hotels have air cleaners.”

In his travels around India, often accompanied by his teenage son, he encountered few foreigners, but plenty of Indian tourists beyond the biggest tourist destinations such as the Taj Mahal or the desert cities of Rajasthan. In some places, their Americanness actually attracted friendly attention.

“There were still quite a few places where we were an object of interest., and people wanted to take their photographs with us,” he said. “That was true in China, like 20 years ago, but is not true today. Nobody there bats an eye.”

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Barbara Crossette was formerly the New York Times chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia, and the paper’s UN bureau chief from 1994 to 2001.

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