Last week, around the time of the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s grand, if rather imperial, visit to Britain, there was a flurry of activity in Whitehall and in the business-support bodies of the United Kingdom over the falling number of tourists from China.
The decline was attributed to the cumbersome visa procedures and the realisation that the visitors from China didn’t take too kindly to having to secure a separate British visa, apart from the Schengen visa that is applicable to most countries in the European Union. Consequently, there is now an attempt to somehow circumvent this obstacle by making the Schengen visa a permissible entry document for Chinese tourists wishing to visit the UK.
It is too early to say whether this attempt to be flexible as a response to market conditions — the average spending of each Chinese tourist is estimated at £1,600 — will be successful or, as many cynics believe, will sink into a bureaucratic muddle. What is important is that there is a recognition that entrenched bureaucratic rules must be made more flexible for the sake of a larger national good, in this case a slew of trade and investment deals that amount to a whopping £14 billion.
The fact that Britain, a country that taught us the infuriating meaning of bureaucracy, is willing to bend the rules to adjust to global economic realities is no bad thing. Indeed, it should inform the newly installed Narendra Modi government that there is absolutely no reason why bureaucratic stonewalling should be accepted as the last word on any subject.
Britain’s nominal recognition that its visa rules are not responsive to tourism — an industry that certainly contributes, after the financial markets, to London’s larger prosperity — is worth a look here in India. As chief minister of Gujarat and, subsequently, as the BJP’s main campaigner in the 2014 election,
Mr Modi had repeatedly stressed the importance of tourism in the larger scheme of things.
Apart from the larger economic spin-offs from a sector that is labour intensive and provides indirect benefits to the hinterland of the tourist attraction, there is the larger “soft power” potential of tourism. A good experience by tourists in any individual country invariably translates into goodwill that can’t be earned by expensive advertisements in the media. Even if tourism doesn’t “unite”, it certainly facilitates friendships and goodwill.
In the immediate past, there have been three impediments to the expansion of tourism in India. First, the unevenness of infrastructure and tourist facilities have been a deterrent to the high-spending tourist from the West and East who is only too willing to buy into a stereotypical “Third World” imagery. Of course, this is not a problem that confronts the foreign tourist alone. In this age of global tourism, it is an undeniable fact that many well-heeled Indian tourists prefer to spend their holidays, particularly vacations with the family, travelling to Thailand, Singapore, Turkey and Europe rather than exploring a corner of India. Apart from the fact that foreign travel seems more adventurous, it is incalculably more hassle free.
Secondly, the recent spate of sexual attacks on tourists, particularly single women from the West, has given India a very bad name. Nominally, the ministry of tourism statistics suggest that tourist numbers haven’t come down and has actually grown in the past 12 months. But these statistics can’t factor in the opportunity costs of people who stayed away from India because they regarded it as unsafe. This is an issue that will necessarily involve large-scale deliberations of local police forces with the entire tourism trade to address. The solutions are necessarily long-term but certain immediate, practical steps will have to be taken to ensure that all tourists, including the gap-year backpackers, are not threatened and assaulted by depraved louts.
Finally, there is the larger problem of a visa regime that is designed to accommodate the Peoples of Indian origin but keep out others who don’t fit the bill. For years on end I have heard unending complaints from foreigners, especially those who have come to love India, that securing a long-term, multiple entry into India is frighteningly difficult. Indeed, it has become more so after the Mumbai attacks of 2008. The restrictions imposed after the unearthing of David Headley even destroyed India’s role as the hub for travel into neighbouring Sri Lanka, Nepal and Burma.
The main problem, it seems to me, is what can best be called a “home ministry mindset”. According to this line of thought, India (or, for that matter, the Indian VIP) is best protected in an environment where everyone else is shut off. Therefore, just as traffic is choked because of VIP movement, India is saved from undesirable foreigners who pose a security threat by limiting inward traffic. Consequently, visitors are given short-term visas, barely exceeding six months or a year, which invariably rules out impulsive visits. Even academics and business visitors suffer from this institutionalised cussedness of our home ministry. No doubt homeland security is important but it has to be balanced with robust common sense, an attribute that seems to be sorely lacking.
No wonder tourist traffic into India is pathetic in relation to India’s potential. In 2013, to take a random example, the UK attracted some 32.8 million visitors who together spent some £21 billion on goods and services. By contrast, the tourist arrivals into India were below 10 million and their expenditure was around £9.7 billion.
In the coming days, after the Budget, when the Modi government gets around to fleshing out the details of its programme for India’s economic regeneration, it will have to devote a disproportionate amount of attention to putting India on the world’s tourist map. This will pay both tangible and intangible dividends, even in the short-term.
The writer is a senior journalist