Dr. Jeet Dogra, Utkarsh Sharan
India celebrates National Tourism Day (NTD) on January 25 every year to highlight the importance of Tourism to the country’s economy, welfare and prosperity. This year NTD’s theme is “Rural and Community Centered Tourism”, but the question arises: why does a country with millions of Foreign Tourist Arrivals (FTAs) every year need a day to celebrate its tourism industry separately from World Tourism Day, when the importance of tourism is acknowledged worldwide?
The figurative devil lies in the details, as the saying goes. While India received approximately 7.7 million foreign visitors in 2020, the number sharply dropped by 85% to 1.05 million FTAs in 2021 – a rather alarming drop, the restrictions in place owing to the COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding. Conversely, domestic tourist visitations in 2021 numbered 677.63 million, an 11.05% increase over the 610.22 million domestic visitors in 2020. The trend of domestic visitations far outweighing FTAs has been a constant observation since 1991, and as tourism continues to recover, this figure is expected to rise further. However, the Taj Mahal continued to be the most visited attraction by domestic visitor volume, with Delhi’s Red Fort and Qutub Minar taking the second and the third places respectively. On the other hand, the Group of Monuments in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, received the largest volume of foreign visitors in 2021. Although Tamil Nadu did receive the maximum volume of domestic visitors that year at 17.02% of their total number, it is followed closely by Uttar Pradesh at 16.19%.
The data reveals a frankly puzzling trend in Indian tourism. It is a fallacy that a country’s lesser-known or less-advertised tourist sites are more popular with foreign visitors than its own citizens. There is an alarming lack of respect among Indian citizens, but even the most rudimentary appreciation of cultural heritage, that even the famous symbol of love, the Taj Mahal, is simply not enough for a crowd that needs to confess its romantic tendencies along with the walls of every other monument that was lucky enough to escape the ravages of time. Furthermore, the pandemic has served as a reminder to the industry that it must be resilient enough to withstand unforeseen global developments, the obvious answer to which is bolstering said multitude, which has been proven to be a reliable source of economic stimulation in the darkest of recent times. As mass layoffs in global as well as domestic companies like Miscrosoft, Google, Amazon, Meta and even Wipro and Swiggy continue to herald a forthcoming recession, it is time that India looks to its cultural diversity in order to ward off what could be another devastating blow to the tourism sector.
The need for reinvention and reinforcement of tourism as we know it was a need felt worldwide, so much so that the theme for World Tourism Day 2022 was “Rethinking Tourism: From Crisis to Transformation”. On the other hand, there is also a need to regulate the Indian tourism industry to cater the unfavorable threats that may arise in the near future. Although a central Ministry of Tourism does exist, tourism legislation remains a de facto state subject despite its marked absence from all three lists, and the methodologies of tourism boards across the states are as diverse as the cultures that can be found across the length and breadth of this country. There is an immediate need to prepare a set of standards that could be the starting point for all tourism-related services and policies, so that apart from optimizing the tourist experience, attrition at the destination can also be reduced. And while the situation may seem bleak now, there is still hope.
The Swadesh Darshan Scheme was launched in 2014-15 in order to position the tourism sector as a “major engine for job creation” by prioritizing the development, promotion, and benchmarking of theme-based circuits, such as the Himalayan circuit, the Desert Circuit, the Coastal Circuit, etc. With multiple steering and monitoring committees and nodal agencies supervising and implementing intervention plans at the national, state, and local levels, the scheme was designed to “synergize” with other ongoing programs such as the Skill India Mission and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. With its functional period ending in 2020, the pandemic then coming out in full force to dash all hopes of a restructured tourism sector, it was revamped as the “Swadesh Darshan Scheme 2.0” last year, with the focus shifting from tourism circuits to the development of individual destinations, and a stronger emphasis on being “vocal for local”.
So far, however, the scheme continues to improve tourism infrastructure, services, and marketing in relatively major tourist destinations such as Gwalior and Prayagraj, albeit selecting them in consultation with the state tourism departments. The states, after all, have their individual priorities beyond the tourism sector, which may affect the attention and funding the sector might receive.
What agencies fail to realize even now is that the scheme is surprisingly well-suited to support and develop burgeoning rural tourism destinations that serve as an escape from the all-too-familiar urban hustle-and-bustle. The revamped scheme lays a very particular emphasis on sustainable and responsible tourism in addition to more familiar objectives such as infrastructural development and institutional reforms. Furthermore, in the scheme document, the need for the involvement of the local community throughout the process, the preservation of their culture and resources, and the benefits of job-creation and economic empowerment benefiting them first and foremost is emphasized.
At another point, the scheme document elaborates on the Ministry of Tourism’s intention to standardize, assess, and certify the accommodations at destinations, making a note of “homestays/B&B (Bed & Breakfasts)”, particularly popular for sustainable tourists and a mainstay at newer destinations. With overburdened destinations such as Shimla and Rishikesh already grappling with deficiency of essential resources and an alarming increase in anti-social activities, the scheme can at least ensure that newer destinations may bloom into viable attractions with their resources adequately distributed and their culture not only intact, but thriving. This will also ensure a higher standard of culture and community-based tourism at the destination, unlike the utterly horrifying “human safaris” in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that made news just a few years ago. Actively promoting cultural attractions across the country will go a long way in erasing the stains of past mistakes, and attract the attention of domestic tourists to marvels that were hitherto taken for granted.
Mahatma Gandhi claimed that the “real” India lived in its villages, and that its vastness, both in the size of its landmass and its population, as well as its climatic condition “destined it for a rural civilization”. It also comes as little surprise that less-travelled youth will naturally be more predisposed to prejudice, never having observed a myriad of people coexisting in this country – so diverse in every way, shape and form, and yet so alike. Thus, to truly know this country, it is imperative that the average domestic tourist be more engaging with its rural roots and the communities keeping it alive rather than satisfying themselves with the rather common sight of marble domes and towers with literally thousands of people milling around, its magnificence notwithstanding. This need for acknowledging the purpose of domestic tourism today, and how it should ideally be, is why we must have a National Tourism Day, and an annual theme to go along with it by icing with the popular initiatives like Dekho Apna Desh.
(The authors are Assistant Professor, Indian Institute of Tourism & Travel Management (IITTM), NOIDA and MBA Student, IITTM Noida)