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A prism called tourism

Though events like the January 26 earthquake in Kutch , the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and this year's communal carnage in Gujarat have dealt a severe blow to tourism, the world's biggest industry is bouncing back. At a time like this, India, with its brilliant cultural diversity, has much to offer the global traveller. The challenge is to develop a tourism model that will bring home the promised rewards, say HUGH and COLLEEN GANTZER.

MR. ATAL BEHARI VAJPAYEE believes that tourism is a panacea for many ills. Addressing the 51st Annual Conference of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) in Delhi's Ashok Hotel, he said.

"Whereas terrorism feeds on intolerance and arrogance, tourism breeds tolerance and empathy. Terrorism seeks to erect walls of hatred between faiths and communities; tourism breaks such barriers. Terrorism detests pluralism, whereas tourism pays tribute to it."

Coming, as it did, after our Prime Minister's statement in Goa, it was greeted with a mixture of surprise, hope and understandable cynicism.

No one among the 1,015 registered delegates from 41 countries doubted that terrorism had dealt a severe blow to tourism, the world's leading industry. Tourism, according to Dr. Karan Singh, involved "... in the year 2000, as many as 700 million people crossing international boundaries and a turnover of $ 500 billion. It is a much larger industry today than either the oil or the arms industry". This, in spite of the fact that South Asia has experienced an overall loss of 6.4 per cent in international tourist arrivals in the last four months of 2001, and India's shortfall in the first three months of 2002 was an estimated 15 per cent

In fact, though the formal theme of the PATA Conference was "Tourism: Looking Ahead and Beyond", most subjects were viewed through the prism of current apprehensions. Said a junior official of PATA: "After seeing CNN, my friends told me to carry my own bed sheets to the Ashok. But they were wrong. This is a world class hotel."

The magnificent spectacle of folk dancers from India filling the stage at the inauguration, prompted a delegate to comment: "Why does such a superbly multi-cultural country have to toy with the viciousness of Modi's fascism?" And when the Delhi Police excelled themselves in handling the movements of delegates from one venue to another, a foreign media-person observed: "Obviously your police were deliberately misused by your politicians in Gujarat."

Professional Futurist, Richard Neville, saw the evil effects of September 11 in such developments worldwide. Until that traumatic event, he felt, it was considered inevitable that nation-states would decline, as the world's cyber networks expanded. In its aftermath, however, the nation-state has bounced back more paranoid, intrusive and furtive than it was during the Cold War. Dr. Surin Pitsuren, former Foreign Minister of Thailand, made an analysis of this troubled scenario. He said: "Most of the conflicts are religious, ethnic, social and political in nature. They are all signs of people either seeking redress for past grievances or taking advantage of their new found democratic freedoms to for push for higher autonomy and political status."

Consequently, "Fear has entered the travel scene," said Neville. "Many westerners preferred to stay at home and watch the Discovery Channel, than to venture into turbulent uncertain landscapes." But, he added, "There is still a huge market out there wanting to touch, feel and experience the world as it really is."

This craving was tapped subtly and effectively by our Ministry of Tourism at the inaugural dinner held in Delhi's Nehru Park. Delegates had to walk past groups of strategically located dancers on grassy knolls, under small groups of floodlit trees, and on illuminated lawns, to a huge outdoor food-fest catered by the hoteliers of Delhi. Stalls and kiosks offered a wide range of cuisines from all over India. Here visitors had a multi-sensory experience of the diversity of our land and people. They saw, heard, smelt, tasted and felt a vibrant living India above and beyond the programmed agonies of Kashmir, Ayodhya and Gujarat.

Riding in the snow in Kashmir.

Such diversity is our strength and our USP. No other nation in the world can match it. Naturally, nations that offer an insipid mono-ethnic, mono-cultural ethos cast envious eyes on our brilliant cultural mosaic. Consequently, any movement that seeks to deprive us of this unique, polychromatic, identity is anti-national. It robs us of our fair share of an industry which, by 2012, is predicted to generate $ 8,613.8 billion, contributing 3.8 per cent of global GDP and creating 90,819, 100 jobs.

For India, and other developing countries, tourism is much more than a generator of income, a contributor to GDP and a creator of jobs. It is also an equaliser of global disparities. Tourism Minister Jagmohan made this point very effectively when asked, by a journalist, why foreigners have to pay more to enter our monuments than Indians do. The Minister replied that this was a fairly painless way to level the disparities between the haves and have-nots. He said: "Twenty per cent of the world's people have got 86 per cent of the World's GNP. As against this, the bottom 20 per cent of the people is compelled to live on an income of only $1 a day. The ratio between the fifth of the world's people living in the richest countries and the fifth of the world's people living in the poorest, which was 30 to 1 in 1960, had increased to 74 to 1 in 1997. The challenge as I see it is to ... increase the flow of tourists from affluent to non-affluent countries, cause reduction in the disparities of income and resource distribution, and through closer and more frequent contacts, create deeper understanding and sympathy for those who continue to be victims of economic deprivation and environmental disruption."

Jagmohan's vision, however, will remain a dream if we don't fine-tune our tourism product to match future demands. Clare Chong, Executive Director Hong Kong Tourism Board, predicted that:

  • Travellers will become more adventurous.

  • Eco-tourism, the fastest growing segment, will continue burgeoning beyond its current 20 per cent annually.

  • The aging population will fuel the growth of cultural tourism. Richard Neville said that "Middle Age has been recently redefined as between 55 and 75".

  • Business travel will grow, in spite of video conferencing and the Internet, by at least 10 per cent per annum over the next five to 10 years.

  • About 40 per cent of the meetings and convention visitors will continue to return to these destinations with their families, colleagues or friends.

    P. K. Basu, of Credit Suisse 1st Boston, also had some interesting predictions. According to him: "By 2020, India will have 270 million people, more than today's U.S. population, between the ages of 15 and 35. Savings rates and productive potential will be at their highest. The challenge for India is to develop a more labour intensive growth model to take full advantage of the productive potential of these vast masses."

    We do not, however, agree with the PATA President and CEO's advice that India should concentrate on global backpackers who "make their own destinations". Such dropouts of the developed world contribute little except a negative image to tourism. If this PATA's considered opinion, then we are better off without it.

    Also annoying was Minister Jagmohan's repeated echoing of the official line that the trauma in Gujarat was an aberration. We realise that ministers have to parrot the Government's stand, but if anyone really believes that that carnage was a mere "aberration" he needs to overhaul his value system.

    If, however, we can convince the world that we accept that the pseudo-religious massacres in Gujarat were a blot on our secular nation, and that we do not intend to sweep it under the carpet, then we might be able to reap the promised rewards of tourism.

    According to the World Ravel and Tourism Council, travel and tourism will experience a "massive rebound" in 2002. Clearly, we don't need another "aberration."

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