The 21 century calls for innovations in all sectors and this holds the key to keeping alive travellers’ interest in tourist destinations in India, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has said.

Speaking after inaugurating Indian Association of Tour Operators’ (IATO) 29 annual convention in the city on Sunday, he said stakeholders in the sector must strive to enhance the quality of visitor experience. “For this, the quality of human resources must improve, while focus on eco-tourism will ensure sustainable growth in the sector.”

Mr. Chandy said a boost to tourism was among the best methods to support the economy in times of financial crisis.

In his presidential address, Subhash Goyal, IATO president, said foreign direct investment (FDI) can at best be a short-term measure to boost the economy, while tourism can solve India’s balance of payments crisis and generate employment on a massive scale. “Foreign direct investors often withdraw a large share of their funds from India. This is not the case with stakeholders in the tourism sector whose major chunk of investment remains within the country. Inbound tourism can arrest and reverse the current trend of dipping forex reserves.” Moreover, tourism is highly labour intensive and can absorb many people who have lost their livelihoods because of mechanisation in agriculture. Worldwide, a new job is created in the sector every 2.5 seconds.

On travel operators being hit by the economic slowdown in Europe and the U.S., Mr. Goyal said they had hoped to register a 20 per cent growth last season but had to reckon with a five per cent growth.

He said Kerala could wean a good number of tourists from Sri Lanka and countries in South East Asia if the high tax structure in the hospitality sector was reduced. “The devaluation of the rupee has made India a cheaper destination. But high taxation often offsets this advantage. The government must announce a five-year service-tax exemption so that there is more investment and job creation in the sector. We need visa-on-arrival for foreign tourists and also e-visas, since most big cities have IT parks.”

Mr. Goyal expressed concern at many cruise ships skipping Kochi because of high berthing charges and inadequate facilities at the port. Many ships prefer to berth in Colombo. Most of our airports are improving, but this is not the case with seaports.

He said renowned resource persons would speak on how to respond to concerns and queries of foreign travellers on matters such as crimes against women at the three-day convention that would conclude on Tuesday. IATO would support India Tourism in establishing a 24-hour helpline for tourists in distress. Around 1,200 delegates and 200 special invitees are attending the three-day event.

More In: Kochi | Kerala | National