Red tape cut to pull India out of tourist backwater

A report in the Sunday Times

by Nicola Smith, Delhi, Published: 6 July 2014

The Taj Mahal is world famous, but India is struggling to attract foreign visitors
The Taj Mahal is world famous, but India is struggling to attract foreign visitors (INDIA TOURIST BOARD)

BLESSED as it is with the Taj Mahal, the beaches of Goa and the Himalayan foothills, India should be a magnet for tourists.

Instead it is an also-ran that last year greeted just 6.8m visitors, compared  with China’s 129m, making it only the 41st most popular destination in the  world.

Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, wants to change that. He has set  his sights on improving India’s appeal by slashing visa rules and revamping  infrastructure.

A new visa regime given the go-ahead last week and due to be introduced next  year, could finally end the long queues at Indian embassies.

Under the scheme, visitors from40 countries, including the UK, America and  China, will apply online and, if approved, will get their passport stamped  on arrival at one of nine designated airports in India. It will mean British  tourists no longer have to travel to London to procure a visa at the Indian  high commission.

“It’s supposed to happen in October and hopefully it’s on schedule,” a senior  official told The Sunday Times. “If we pull this off, then, unless a  disaster happens, our tourism should boom.”

Officials have ambitious plans to boost tourist numbers. They include light  shows at popular visitor attractions, a toll-free travel information line,  luxury boat tours on the Ganges and, according to press reports, a big  clean-up of graffiti in the cities.

Modi, who became prime minister in May, has made the encouragement of tourism  one of five top priorities for his new government. As part of his plan he is  pushing for an upgrade of his country’s decrepit railway system, and has the  dream of introducing high-speed bullet trains.

His initiative has been hailed by the travel industry, which has been  struggling with low occupancy and poor room rates for the past five years.  International tourist arrivals to India last year grew at their slowest pace  since the 2008 global economic downturn.

India’s image as a safe destination for female travellers took a heavy blow  after the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a  bus in Delhi in December 2012. The crime was followed by damaging reports of  several foreign female tourists being attacked and raped.

Rajeev Kohli, the vice- president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators,  said the industry was excited by Modi’s plans. “We’ve gone through 10 years  of apathy and just being totally ignored. We’re finally seeing some  initiative,” he said.

Yet other problems remain. The tourist industry has tried — so far in vain — to persuade the government to cut the £92.20 it costs British visitors to  obtain a tourist visa.

Sources in the tourism ministry have indicated the price will not be cut  because India insists on matching the high visa price its nationals have to  pay when travelling to the UK.

The travel industry is not convinced. “If the UK wants to charge £1,000 for a  visa then they’ll still get away with it because people need to go there and  want to go there. We’re not in the same boat,” said Kohli.

Shruti Syngal, a brand consultant, has urged India to expand its appeal beyond  the familiar destinations. “We always talk about the palaces in Rajasthan  and in Kerala in the south, but perhaps people don’t know that we have one  of the best skiing resorts in Kashmir. We need to highlight new attractions.”

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