I got a chance to visit Manali this summer with my wife after our last visit to the hill town almost two decades ago. We were thrilled to go back to a place we had great memories of. But there are a few things that stood out as we made our trip. The flying time from Delhi to Kullu airport is barely an hour, yet it costs more than a flight to Phuket. Our more adventurous friends who decided to drive from Delhi to Kullu had 18 hours spent on the road to regret their decision as they made their way through serpentine traffic jams. So, it is not surprising that many Indians who have travelled overseas tend to assess the return on their holiday investment by comparing it with an overseas jaunt.
With the United Nations World Tourism Organization predicting that 50 million Indians will travel abroad in 2020, up from 23 million in 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call this year for us to visit 15 tourist destinations within the country by 2022 could not be better timed. It also comes close on the heels of a Reserve Bank of India report, which says that Indians are spending record amounts on international travel, almost $600 million in June alone.
Of late, overseas travel from India has got multiple tailwinds behind it: easier visas, cheaper and more direct flights, economical hotels and homestays, well-curated tourist circuits, and a wide range of activities and experiences.
However, this surge in outbound travel shouldn’t be at the cost of domestic tourism, since we have so much to offer in our own country. We have come a long way in linking our cities through world-class airports, excellent highways and a wide network of trains, but last-mile connectivity remains a challenge and there is a lot left to be desired in terms of tourism-specific infrastructure. We need to think of integrated development of the tourism sector to enable competitiveness and sustain long-term growth.
The connectivity between tourist sites or development of tourism circuits needs to be taken up on priority so that one can explore places without accessibility blues. Once at the destination, tourist hubs should offer a variety of experiences and activities to keep tourists engaged. A visit to the Taj is mesmerizing, but beyond that, do we offer enough to engage and appeal to all senses once tourists reach Agra? The ruins of Hampi leave one spellbound, but could we offer tourists more to make it a wholesome experience that lasts beyond a day’s visit to the site?
We should take a leaf out of European cities that offer a variety of culinary, art and immersive activities that make travel to these hot spots an unmatched experience.
While travel and connectivity is one part of the story, the other part is accommodation. Thanks to heavy taxation, the cost of hotels in India is much higher than in many other countries. A lot of this is driven by differential taxation for luxury hotels. A beach-facing hotel in Phuket is available at almost half the cost in Goa or Kerala. Tourism is a competitive business in a global context and India’s neighbours both on its east and west have aggressively promoted tourism and made it a major source of their income. While the recent goods and services tax rate rationalization provides a big breather for the hospitality industry and should spur demand, 18% tax is still in a range higher than in South-East Asian countries, where taxes are below 10%.
The road map for domestic tourism growth involves addressing gaps that make India uncompetitive, while strengthening our distinct edge—our heritage, spirituality, diverse culture and much more.
Travelling for the sake of tourism is still a luxury for a lot of Indians, and attitudes are yet to evolve into vacations being considered an activity that ultimately enhances productivity. But, as the Prime Minister’s call to action moves Indians to explore more of India, it would serve us well to ensure that the thrust is towards responsible tourism—on the part of those who are in this business, as much as tourists.
Also, we need to step away from the usual hot spots and go to some unexplored regions. The tourist trail in India is still much too predictable and heavily trodden, and we risk ruining our popular destinations through over-tourism that threatens their fragile ecology. We have seen what the peak summer rush does to destinations like Shimla and Nainital year after year. This is why the concept of carrying capacity and last-mile infrastructure is critical as we look at ways to boost tourism growth. After all, the very places we visit to admire and enjoy should remain relevant and intact even for future generations.
Tourism can be a major engine of economic growth and has great capacity to create large-scale employment of diverse kind—from the most specialized to the relatively unskilled.
The Prime Minister’s forceful call from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi can be the rallying call for us to not just help this sunshine sector grow, but also help it grow the right way.
It’s an opportunity that is ours to seize.
Deep Kalra is founder and group CEO of MakeMyTrip