India could learn from Thailand how to boost tourism | Mint

India could learn from Thailand how to boost tourism

Indian tourism
Indian tourism

Summary

  • We must make travel easier and should allow visa-free entry to G20 as well as Southeast Asian countries

No country in Asia, if not the world, is as uniformly loved by tourists as Thailand. Visiting Bangkok this week, I was reminded again and again of its enduring appeal. Five hundred metres from my hotel, I chanced upon the novel idea of street food made easy, hygienic and accessible for foreigners and locals alike in the basement of the city’s swankiest shopping mall. At Eathai, stall after stall had offerings that one would encounter at a street market, from barbecued duck to stir fried noodles. Visitors were given cards with a QR code to scan as they ordered and then paid a cashier as they exited the area. There was even a booth for tourists to obtain VAT refunds on their purchases. The contrast between the moderately priced hearty fare at Eathai in the basement of the Central embassy mall and the wildly expensive fashion of Paul Smith and Versace, Christian Louboutin and Prada in the floors above was an inspired juxtaposition. In my case, I recovered from the sticker shock of examining Paul Smith black loafers that were about $600, despite a 30% discount because downstairs I ate like a king and sampled a good margarita for less than I would have in Mumbai or Bengaluru. When I happened to meet Pradid Intiya, Eathai’s manager, as he did his rounds of the place, where waiters bring food that you have chosen to your table after it has been prepared, he could not have been more modest about its unique appeal. After bemoaning that Bangkok was much less busy than before the pandemic, he said Eathai should boost its vegan and vegetarian options so Indians had more choice.

Between 2015 and 2019, tourist arrivals to Thailand jumped from 30 million to 40 million, a staggering feat. Even though covid has hit the tourism industry hard, this year the country is on course to take in about 25 million. There is much India could learn from Thailand about attracting tourists and policies to boost the business of hoteliers and restaurant owners. By way of comparison, India attracted 11 million tourists in 2019. If there was a way to deduct those visitors of Indian origin returning to India to visit family who have foreign passports, the number would be a lot smaller. Thailand, in contrast, has a much smaller diaspora, so its tourism numbers are not inflated this way.

India needs to revamp its approach to tourism with some genuinely radical thinking. Instead of merely expanding the number of countries from which nationals are eligible to apply for an e-visa, why not introduce visa-free travel for the G20 and our wealthier Southeast Asian neighbours? The list of countries Thailand allows in without visas would fill up the space for this article. And this would be a genuinely meaningful way to commemorate 2023 being our turn to host the G20. Southeast Asia’s success now extends beyond Thailand to Vietnam and even tiny Cambodia (which received 6.6 million tourists in 2019). The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates the industry amounted to 7.6% of global gross domestic product (GDP) last year, despite having dropped almost a quarter in value after the pandemic struck.

The Indian tourism ministry launching ‘Dekho Apna Desh’ will perhaps stimulate domestic travel but the glaring gap in India is of foreign tourists. The lowering of goods and services tax to 18% for hotels that charge 7501 or more a night is not going to catch the imagination of foreign travellers in the way that the first Incredible India! advertising campaigns by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, starting in 2002, did. I happened to be FT’s travel editor till 2010 and thus had a ringside view on the impact. Week after week, full page ads for Incredible India appeared in the FT’s weekend section and in glossy travel magazines. Seemingly overnight, India went from being a backpackers’ destination to being a country loved by the luxury traveller. Palace hotels in Rajasthan started seeking eye-wateringly high prices, Kerala followed soon after with its Ayurvedic retreats. Amitabh Kant, then tourism secretary, spectacularly replicated the brand building he had done for Kerala at a national scale.

This year has been declared “Incredible India! Visit India Year" by the government. Two decades on, however, the slogan seems tired and repetitive. And not enough has been done to build on the success of the first campaign. Doing away with the need for visas instead of withdrawing e-visa availability for countries whenever we have a diplomatic row with them is a more sensible way to build a large tourism industry.

Thailand may receive tens of millions of tourists, but with travel from China slow to resume because of its extreme covid controls in 2022, the Thai government late last year did roadshows across India to drum-up business. Realising its Thailand Pass—which required the cumbersome step of obtaining Thai health insurance for $10,000 for the duration of your stay in the country—was a huge dampener, the country did away with it from 1 July. (Travelling to Bangkok in June last year, I was almost offloaded by overbearing Air India ground staff in Bengaluru who did not understand that the pass could only be obtained online if you had bought the health insurance.) Doing away with the pass brought about a surge in arrivals in the second half of the year. Thailand registers a trade surplus and a strengthening baht when tourism is in full swing. What this quick course correction demonstrates is that the Thais instinctively understand how important tourism is, and respond to industry concerns in a way New Delhi doesn’t.

The author is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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