When it comes to tourism and policymaking, successive Five Year Plans appear lost and directionless. Unfortunately, even the proposed recommendations by the expert group leading up to the preparation of the 12th Five Year Plan do not do much to erase the impression. For the last decade, the government has been trying to position tourism — the second largest service industry — as a national priority. The emphasis is on creating world-class infrastructure, effective marketing and enhancing competitiveness of destinations. To its credit, the government has consistently increased the funding over the years to achieve these objectives. Going by the current recommendations, this is set to rise steeply with about Rs.22,000 crore to be spent over the next five years. However, the question is has the money been well spent and the objectives achieved. The answers are not encouraging. The previous plans tried to do many things at the same time, such as promote leisure travel, actively pursue rural tourism and boost mega destinations. It is understandable that a sector as large as tourism needs multiple strategies, but they also need to converge. The past plans failed to deliver. Disappointingly, there appears to be no change in course even in the proposed recommendations.
If earlier plans unintelligently promoted fancy projects such as golf courses, the proposed one fatuously recommends theme parks as a key idea to increase the duration of stay of tourists at important destinations. About 20 parks — similar to the one in Sentosa, Singapore — are on the anvil. Apart from the question of whether the state should squander its precious resources on theme parks, such choices expose the lack of clarity on what the government wants to focus on. Domestic tourism, which contributes about three-fourths of the tourism economy, has not got the attention it deserves. Promoting budget accommodation is crucial to support this sector. The earlier policies, which depended on the State governments to create land banks for building them, failed to deliver. The argument that financial incentives and better coordination by the Planning Commission will ensure the wholehearted commitment of States to the project is unconvincing. The government should get its priorities right and stay focused on its avowed objective of making tourism people oriented. There is much to learn from successful Asian experiences such as Luang Prabang in Laos, where community-based tourism has been working well for years. Unless the destinations are comprehensively developed as good places to live in and their assets and people cared for, tourism cannot flourish and sustain.