Regional Tourism: Passport to Peace!

We have so much in common between us as South Asian neighbours. We must not let politics come in the way to building bridges between our people. Business wise, it is the lowest hanging fruit for all concerned, it is time to get started.

So much is in the air on South Asia. Neighbours are precious family. We are talking about Bangladesh with their PM on a state visit; the South Asian heads of state attending the swearing-in ceremony of the current Lok Sabha; China in a recent book that has come out on understanding their people, the real people in China, a neighbour and friend of long standing.

In our previous issue, we carried a story on how we need to shore up as good neighbours, among our South Asian fraternity. We ran a podcast and curated a discussion between professionals on the subject of bridging our nations together.

All said and done, politics apart, there is no substitute to people to people connect. It is public opinion that will shape policies. It is public perception that is going to matter eventually in our subcontinent, in the South Asian context, at least where we are democracies that go for elections. Elections come out with results, we have seen, not just in India but elsewhere, too, as in Pakistan and in the Maldives, that are often surprising; but so be it. The question here is that we are essentially the same people, with a real shared heritage. We eat and drink, dress and celebrate like each other.

People to people contact or connect is critical; it is best manifested and sustained through ease in travel and tourism. Open the gates for people to travel, discover each other’s lands, find friends for life, and we can ensure there are no wars! Of course, this is easier said than done; it does call for equal desire among the political leaders among all the involved countries; one can be reasonably certain that given a free play for people to meet each other, things can and will move towards peace and prosperity.

There is considerable traffic already, what we call intra-regional. But this needs to be doubled up, there is plenty of scope to do so. There are some easy to pick reasons for travel – medical is foremost, as is pilgrimage. Then there are events, celebrations, conferences or just holiday.

Travel and Tourism can and is the big connect. In all this churning in current times, like we witnessed in the Maldives crisis, it was unfortunate that politics got dragged into tourism. It should be the sacred thread that keeps our people and nations together. We have done this successfully with Turkiye; tourism will win, let there be no doubt.

Perhaps, we start with a common fund, where countries of the region contribute, with some help from international agencies like the European Union and the UNWTO. This would be for just promotions, creating an awareness among the people of the concerned nations. These agencies would be more than eager to chip in; they have funds available for such promotions and are always keen to assist on such projects.

This is extended domestic for all of us, not for India alone. Please. It is extended domestic for Maldives. It is extended domestic for Sri Lanka. It’s extended domestic for Bangladesh, Nepal. And why not just as much for Pakistan? Pakistan must mellow down on this subject and so must India to say yes. In this dream project, we are together to open up our countries to intra-regional tourism. Given the security concerns, each nation can decide on what basis we can loosen up, but loosen up we must. If we can grow our tourism between ourselves, we will incrementally grow our inbound by at least 15 to 25% country to country. It is not about being big or small. It is about building trust, building volumes, building businesses, building upon a camaraderie that already exists between South Asian neighbours. In fact, the opposite can also happen. As we build our travel and tourism connect, some of the political hostilities and apprehensions can mellow down.

A few easy to consider solutions can help in this direction. First is the currency complexity. That we all have to pay in dollars. Why? There must be easier ways to settle our payments. Let the captains in the central banks find a solution. For starters, the Indian UPI payment platform could help? Can credit cards pay each other in each other’s currencies without going through a dollar conversion?

Second is the concern with connectivity. India’s tier two and three cities need a direct connection with others, to pave the way for more convenience as well as economy. There has been a suggestion, most vocally by leading aviation analyst, Sanat Kaul, a senior bureaucrat with long experience in this sector, that India’s UDAN scheme must be extended to regional tourism, not just within South Asia, but also to countries like Vietnam and Myanmar. This could in itself become a game changer. All that UDAN does is to stabilize airline operations, allowing time for business to pick up on uncharted routes. UDAN provides subsidy, provides possibility of connection, not based on quick productivity or immediate returns to airlines. So, there’s an inbuilt government subsidy, so to say, to encourage travel and tourism.

Third, hospitality must step up its footprint noticeably within the region. ITC Hotels opened a seven- star property in downtown Colombo only a few months ago. Taj Hotels has a significant presence in Nepal, Sri Lanka and in the Maldives, as well as Bhutan. Other chains are investing as well. In fact, Nepalese billionaire Binod Chaudhary is a partner with the Taj Group and has invested across the region. So, investments have happened in both directions. We need to encourage more such investments, into each other’s tourism industry. While one would like to see more Indian chains investing in other countries, their chains can equally, too, invest in India.  Here, it is not just about five-star, but good value hotels, say in the Buddhist sector, or in key Indian cities like Goa and Jaipur.

Tour packages will follow. If the travel trade sees momentum, they will close the gap. Further, facilitation at the airports, to create fellow pride among South Asian fraternity.  How about a Fast Track for South Asian neighbours?

While governments may consider these options, how about the travel trade picking up the gauntlet for starters? Leading associations from India could connect with their counterparts and convene a conference on getting business moving! It is the lowest hanging fruit and it’s time to get started.

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