Indian tourism should have a global feel with an Indian touch

Indian tourism should have a global feel with an Indian touch

Lalit Panwar, Secretary Tourism, Government of India has almost 15 years of experience in the tourism sector, both at the Centre as CMD – ITDC, and also at the state level, in Rajasthan where he has held multiple assignments. In an exclusive interview with TourismFirst, Panwar talks about the broader strategy of the government to push Indian Tourism growth story…

What is the canvas for tourism that you are developing?

Indian-Tourism-should-have-a-global-feel-with-an-Indian-touch-209x300Tourism is such a subject that for any country, why only India, and our country is of course one of the best, the canvas has to be global because to have a connect with your goods and services in the tourism sector benchmarking with the global standards. So, the canvas has to be global. Gone are the days when it was considered a cosmetic sector. In 60s and 70s some of the states even di d not have tourism departments. That way at least the Government of India had a visionary leadership that we started this ministry in the late 50s. So in 1956 our then great PM had a vision to have a tourism and civil aviation ministry.

Once you have a global canvas, you have to have what you call the ‘strokes’. The strokes are the various initiatives that we take and how you fill your canvas. We have to position India now, especially now after the 150 ETA, this is game changer that we all have been waiting for. We expect this to bring that decisive change in our approach to tourism. In addition it has thrown up a huge challenge. On 27th November, the Hon Home Minister Shri Rajnath Singhji launched this ETA to a full house and today we are talking, exactly 4 months later, 9200 Visas have been issued. The best part is that the largest number of visas granted has been from the US, second is from Australia, and both these are long haul destinations. It means that India has a pull factor, people don’t mind a long flight to come to our country. Post ETA we have to set our house in order now.

The tourism policy of 2002, is an excellent document but it has become slightly dated because there have been several technological break-through post that period. Especially, the cyber revolution. So we are revisiting our national tourism policy. We have already started stake-holder consultations and in a time bound fashion we want to go to the cabinet and we want to position this sector where it belongs.

You said that this is no longer a cosmetic sector, cosmetic would make it incidental. Do you now see it coming into recognition as a main stream sector?

The annual plan budget of the tourism department of the government of Gujarat, 10 years back was 50crores and today it is 600crores. Gujarat never took tourism seriously till the late 90s. But thanks to our visionary PM, who was then the chief minister of Gujarat that he increased the allocation by 10 times. Kerala has also done a good job, their budget is about 300 crores, Madhya Pradesh is again 300 crores. At the centre, our 12th plan allocation by the Planning Commission is 15180 crores, averaging 3000 crores per annum. But our actual allocations has been almost half so far.

I have requested the finance ministry that as we are utilising every rupee, post ETA there is a 1200% jump in the number of visas issued, he may reconsider the actual allocation to the Ministry.

What are the major areas which the ministry is focussing on?

The Hon Finance Minister in his budget speech announced that we will take 5 circuits for integrated development. These 5 circuits comprise the Himalayas, Coastal, Buddhist, Krishna and we are going to add the Desert and the Tribal. Under the two verticals of our ministry, one vertical is Swadesh Darshan – under this brand we will have promotion of the domestic tourism circuits, supporting states and also creating our own infrastructure. Then, we have a scheme called Prasad – that is aimed at pilgrims.

What are you going to do for the circuits?

Infrastructure strengthening, improved connectivity and in addition to the state and Government of India resources I have also requested all the Secretaries and the Directors of the ministries of tourism all over the country to access international funds that may be available for that sector. Japan or Korea, for instance, would be happy to fund the Buddhist circuit.

What is the kind of role you see for the hotel industry in particular, in these circuits, where work has already started.

The Buddhist circuit is very promising. And we have a hotel deficit. In fact it has all the three deficits – access, accommodation and facilities. We are trying to tackle this. For instance, once Air India acquires a few ATRs, we have been assured that one ATR will be deployed exclusively on this circuit.

And the same is true of other proposed circuits. Raghurajpur has been sanctioned 10 crores under Textile tourism. Hon PM said that Ministry of Tourism, along with Ministry of Textile, should launch Textile Tourism – you develop a craft village as a destination. Orders to this effect have been issued. Similar other options can be Agri-Tourism, Culture-Tourism or Tribal Tourism.

What will be your thrust in publicity and promotion?

This is critical to our ministry. Recently, we invited the concerned stakeholders in this sector and had extensive discussions on the road ahead. After detailed discussion and brain storming we were all unanimous that Incredible India has been a global success. It is an established brand. Millions of pounds have been spent on this. So we have to build this brand further. There is no need to change the brand – it has a brand loyalty, brand recall, brand identity and brand equity. The only thing is that when you launch a global campaign it should be updated, made contemporary and kept in tune with the new idioms of marketing publicity such as cyber media. Your campaign has to be not only electronic or print, but you have to have a cyber media plan.

You mean Incredible India as a logo or a brand will continue as is?

Incredible India we want to continue with because it is an established super brand but our media campaign for cyber media has to be looked at. The campaign will launch by end of April. It is ready with new visuals and catch lines and a new thrust. A lot of brain storming has gone into this. O&M remains our advertising agency for this global campaign. Our idea is that you should be visible – all over, our tourist offices overseas have been directed to go for outdoor promotions.

What are you planning for your offices? Are you looking afresh at our tourist offices?

Frankly speaking these offices were opened in the 70s and 80s. That is pre-cyber revolution. One extreme view could be to close them down. The reason being they are very expensive. But then the reason why we won’t close them is that most of these offices are at very prime locations in the cities and we have got a good deal. So we thought, let us work towards maximum utilisation of this resource available to us. This means that you retain the nucleus but change the way business is transacted. It should not be routine bureaucratic style. It should be marketed in an executive style like an Infosys.

Coming back to our hopes of an increased surge in tourism arrivals, if there is an increased demand, it will put a huge strain on the entire tourism infrastructure. Capacity building is the need of the hour.

We have been requesting the Ministry of Finance that you please treat the tourism sector as an infrastructure sector and then the cost of projects will be comparatively lower, the payback period will be longer. Initially you are right, we don’t have that kind of infrastructure, but at the same time it is both a challenge and an opportunity. Necessity is the mother of invention. If the rush comes we will be able to build the capability.

Any specific ideas you want to share with the hotel industry?

I would like to request them that our product, especially 5 star hotels, are world class but their pricing is a big issue. When we compare the prices of our 5 star properties with the likes of Singapore and Thailand, it is cheaper to book in these countries.

Somewhere we are losing the Indian ethos. Foreigners yes are looking for comfort and international standards but they come to a land of culture, they are also looking for something authentically Indian. This is now getting lost.

You are right but we should strike a balance between global standards and our Indian ethos. Foreign travellers when they come would of course be looking for the authentic Indian experience but at the same time, they expect western standards.

One is the service part, and the other is the feel part. Service has to be international, but can the feeling at least be Indian?

Yes I would agree with you. For instance Umaid Bhawan or Rambagh or even Udai Vilas surely provide the authentic Indian experience.

There is a big suggestion coming, there are a lot of old heritage buildings that are being used for government offices. So can the ministry move somehow and that such buildings can be vacated, and then made available for public utilities, cafes or hotels?

The collectors office in Jhalawar was in a 300 years old palace. This is now being vacated and converted into a museum. Similarly things are happening in other places also. The CM of Tripura has sanctioned 10crores for restoration of the palace in Agartala and I went there and there was massive restoration work in progress.

How is the success of sound and light shows?

Successes are there, such as at Red Fort and Purana Qila. People are going. Even in Andaman and Nicobar the show is successful, in fact a big hit. It means that people stay on to watch the show, so you get one room night extra. As Secretary Tourism, I have ordered 25 more light and sound shows. I believe that every monument should come alive after sunset and also our domestic tourists will be able to get a feel of authentic history.

This announcement of 700 islands to be converted into tourism assets, how serious is this?

This brings us back to our discussion on circuits, the coastal circuit. About 10 days back I invited 11 secretaries of the coastal states and three days back our cabinet has approved the Sagar Mala Project – this is port led development. In this project, we have suggested that we should have a Char Dham cruise around the coast. It will be a 14 days cruise.

When will tourism get free from restrictions such as CRZ?

We are on course. We have a very pragmatic minister for environment and when you go to other parts of the world, you have restrictions uptil 50mts from the coastline. However, the present thinking in the government is that from the present 200mts restricted zone, they can bring it down to 100mts with some restrictions. There is yet another thinking – namely that supposing the Indian coast line is 7500kms, you give us just 1%, say 70km distributed in 11 states can be freed from CRZ restrictions. Here you develop beaches and allow 50% reduction in the CRZ. You can still say that you have not touched 99% of the coastline. Even this is a good start.

Secondly, globally, there is a concept of a coastal regulatory zone which is dynamic. If you had 200mts restrictions in Miami, half of it would have gone. If you go by Indian norms, then you would have to close down Maldives tomorrow. Gradually, even the eco warriors are seeing reason in this argument. Please safeguard the ecological environment but also strike a balance and take forward the economy. These 200 mts limitations were founded in the 80s, but over these years technology has moved on. You have to realign your statutory limitations with technological breakthrough.

On a totally different subject, in the past, in your advertising campaigns there was always some reluctance to feature the private sector. Therefore, when you talked of convention centres, it was always The Ashok, and not HICC Hyderabad because that is in the private sector. I think that has provided some kind of a limiting factor to your promotions. Can we do away with this mindset and go across the country and pick whatever is the best, regardless of it being public or private?

I think we can and we will. Because when I say Destination India MICE then there are conventional halls beyond The Ashok and perhaps better. So I will be the last person to not show a property only because it belongs to the private sector. In our campaigns, therefore, we will not only promote government properties but others too. Tomorrow if there is a good convention centre in Dwarka, I will promote it. Because I am promoting my India.

Would you like to comment on Dwarka convention centre? What is the type of timeline we are seeing?

For Dwarka, I think three years.

In your campaign, what you want to project of India, there is a whole part of India like malls, is there a plan to promote modern India?

Yes, especially even the nightlife, bars and lounges, and yes the modern shopping amenities, as well. What do you do after you have been to a monument and after sunset, you need to provide an answer.

What is the current status on the subject of Tourist Police?

13 states have already done it and in the next conference I am going to recommend that every state should have its own tourist police because safety and security especially of women is a big concern. Having a physical presence of tourist police with both men and women will send a very positive message.

What about Delhi?

Delhi doesn’t have its tourist police but we can request the government of Delhi to have it. I am going to officially request Delhi government to look into this. Every state is welcoming tourism so they have to take care of safety. Even the government of India will support them partly financially, if they want to launch a special tourist police.

By Navin Berry

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