New Delhi: The tourism ministry wants to give India an image makeover as a destination for foreign visitors who associate the country with its ancient history and diverse culture.
To that can be added abysmal public hygiene, power blackouts, bad roads, petty officialdom, insane traffic, poorly planned cities, and an overall sense of danger to the self.
Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. The tourism ministry’s idea is to let visitors know that India not just about the Taj Mahal or the Pushkar fair, and that this is also a country that’s aspiring to be a hot spot that offers attractions ranging from scuba diving and powder-snow skiing to night safaris and Formula 1.
The aim of the campaign, which the tourism ministry expects to launch in six months, is to project India as a leisure destination in keeping with its economic rise in recent years and earn more foreign exchange by attracting luxury tourists, said two government officials aware of the plan who requested anonymity.
In calendar year 2012, India received 6.64 million overseas visitors, a 5.4% increase over 2011. They spent a combined $17.47 billion (around Rs.93,600 crore today), up from $16.56 billion in 2011, according to data available with the tourism ministry.
But the number of tourists visiting India is small compared to those travelling to South-East destinations such as Malaysia and Thailand. In 2011, India received 6.3 million foreign tourists while Malaysia recorded 24.7 million arrivals and Thailand 19.2 million.
The Indian government aims to double tourism revenue by 2017.
“We have to showcase the brighter side of India to the world. The crowded bylanes and snake charmers image has to change,” said one of the two officials cited above. “Backpackers are fine, but we as a growing economy have to promote India as an aspirational destination.”
Tourism industry experts say the initiative should focus on well-heeled travellers from higher-end markets if the aim is to boost revenue from tourism.
“Half of the foreign tourists the government is talking (of) are perhaps from countries like Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries,” said Dipak Deva, chief executive officer (India and South Asia), Kuoni Destination Management, a Switzerland-based travel firm. “India needs to get high-end travellers from countries like the US, the UK, Russia and Latin America.”
This won’t be easy. In much of the world, India is still perceived as a poor, developing nation, said Puneet Khurana, general manager at Greaves Travel (India) Pvt. Ltd, a travel firm that operates in the luxury tourism space. To change this perception, India needs to put better infrastructure in place and back it up with advertising, he said.
The tourism ministry needs to change its public relations strategy outside the country, said Deva. Apart from audiovisual advertising, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter also need to be made use of.
“When you talk about New India, one cannot avoid social media. Besides, there needs to be enough information about the destinations,” said Deva, adding that easing the process of obtaining visas to enter India—an often time-consuming and cumbersome process—would help boost tourism.
In the last few years, luxury travel to India has been growing, and it’s evident from the fact that the number of luxury hotels is increasing, he said.
According to a report by rating firm Crisil Ltd, India has 46,200 hotel rooms classified as premier and luxury, and 14,500 more are expected to be added by 2013-14.
“India has begun to be perceived as desirable economy. It is just a question of marketing it correctly,” Deva said.
Deva said India’s economic growth in recent years has increased awareness of the country among foreigners who want to know more about India first-hand—how the world’s largest democracy functions, its system of education, how people live, and the social and cultural changes that accompany economic growth.
“They want to see a new India,” said Deva. Tailor-made packages—targeted at tourists who can spend as much as $500 per night—for inbound travellers have witnessed 15% growth each year in the last two-three years, according to Deva.
The government is aware of the infrastructure deficiencies as well as visa hassles faced by tourists, and is working on resolving them both at the central and state levels, said the second official cited above.
“Selling the new India will be key, and state-specific promotions should be undertaken by states,” said the official.
A niche market exists in India for luxury travellers, said Rajji Rai, a special adviser to the Travel Agent Associations of India lobby group. Such travellers are ready to spend as much as $10,000-15,000 per trip.
But luxury travel cannot be a pan-India phenomenon, not yet anyway, given the regional disparities in basic infrastructure such as roads, transport and places to stay in, Rai said.