India should be at the front-line of an ongoing global battle to attract tourist

India’s tourist arrivals increased to 7.2 million in the first 10 months of this year.  (AP)
India’s tourist arrivals increased to 7.2 million in the first 10 months of this year. (AP)

Summary

  • An international war has broken out to attract post-pandemic travellers that we ought to join in earnest. Our current tourist arrivals are well below the potential of a country that offers Himalayan retreats, medieval palaces and backwater cruises.

Away from the headlines, a war has broken out among developing countries. Nations are seeking to take each other’s citizens temporarily hostage as the important year-end holiday season unfolds. Visa-free travel for Indians (and other nationalities such as Kazakhs and Chinese) to countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka has expanded since October. Last week, President William Ruto of Kenya took his vision of visa-free entry for citizens from fellow African nations to another level. From 2024, Kenya, popular for its wildlife, will allow visa-free access to the world.

In part, the reason for this throwing open of doors to international travellers is that for all the hype about ‘revenge travel,’ international tourism has not rebounded to levels before the pandemic. Thailand, Asia’s most popular destination, received 39 million tourists in 2019. This year, it is on course to receive about 28 million. Pre-pandemic, Bali would get as many as 6.3 million foreign tourists annually. A rapid rebound between November 2022 and October this year notwithstanding, Bali’s international visitor tally was 5 million. Vietnam got 18 million tourists in 2019. Despite expanding the number of countries whose citizens can enter without visas, from January to October, international arrivals in Vietnam only reached 10 million.

Nevertheless, these moves to liberalize travel are long overdue. In effect, governments across the developing world are realizing that these are low-cost investments to capitalize on arguably the world’s most labour-intensive industry, offering jobs to people of varying skills. Yet, paradoxically in too many countries, including India, tourism has been a stepchild. A World Economic Forum (WEF) report in 2022 underlined that low and middle income countries benefit disproportionately from tourism inflows. Marquee properties that are in demand from both wealthy domestic tourists and foreign travellers enjoy the best of both worlds: They pay their staff developing world salaries while pricing their services at stratospheric rich-world levels. The Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur this weekend is charging upwards of 123,500 for a lake-view room to 360,000 for its lower-priced suites. Dither while deliberating whether 560,000 for a 53-59-square-metre Royal suite is worth it, and the website warns in red letters that these are the last few available in this category. Nice work if you can get it, as they say.

The irony is that it is the rich world that tops the WEF travel and tourism development index (TTDI). The West has superior infrastructure for travel, better connectivity and realized early on that visas were not necessary for fellow developed world nations because pre-travel online registration of travel document details makes it redundant. The WEF report notes, “Aside from the United States (2nd), the top 10 scoring countries are high-income economies in the Europe and Eurasia or Asia-Pacific regions. Japan tops the ranking, with fellow regional economies Australia and Singapore coming in 7th and 9th, respectively. The remaining top 10 TTDI performers are Spain (3rd), France (4th), Germany (5th), Switzerland (6th) and the United Kingdom (8th)." I have lost count of how many friends have told me to travel to Japan and how easy obtaining a visa is, but, more than 20 years ago, I recall the Japanese visa process required submitting a declaration that my employer had sufficient funds to meet my travel costs if it became necessary to deport me.

Despite political attacks on immigrants in the US and UK, when it comes to tourists, almost every country wants more. The developed world even has some destinations that are seizing up because of too many travellers. Cities like Barcelona and Seville in Spain, which received 84 million tourists last year, have imposed rules to curb the excesses of stag and hen parties. Fines on drinking and urinating on the streets will be levied on drunken tourists in Spain.

Thailand, especially under its new tourism-friendly premier Srettha Thavisin, a businessman, is moving in the opposite direction. After the country’s interior minister visited a nightlife area in Bangkok last Saturday, the government said it would allow more areas to have bars open until 4 am, a relaxation allowed in Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai earlier. (By contrast, in Bengaluru, officials fine bars for using routine additives such as alcoholic bitters or cocktail-making techniques such as milk washing.) Thai Tourism had multiple roadshows in Indian cities this year to boost arrivals.

India’s tourist arrivals increased to 7.2 million in the first 10 months of this year, still well below the potential of a country that offers Himalayan retreats, medieval palaces and backwater cruises, let alone Thailand’s projected 28 million for 2023 and Spain’s 37.5 million foreign visitors in the first half of the year alone (who spent €46 billion on their trips). Our ‘tourists’ are likely mostly the Indian diaspora returning home to visit family. Our arrival numbers remain tiny, but no equivalent of a production-linked scheme appears to be on the cards. A somewhat superficial debate plays out instead about whether India should target manufacturing jobs for memory chips or design chips. Tourism may make up 10% of global GDP and provide millions of service jobs, from handicrafts to housekeeping, but it is overlooked. India, with many millions who need low-skilled jobs, ought to be at the front-line of the ongoing global battle to attract tourists.

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