Understanding PM Modi and India’s Tryst with Tourism

Infrastructure First. Ensure ease in Travel. Tourism will Follow! A Holistic Approach and Understanding have Brought New Growth Opportunities for Indian Tourism, opening new destinations with new found access.

As this government ends its second five-year stint in power, much can be said of its push for tourism. Not perhaps as how the industry would like to see it; it embraces the larger picture of which the contours are beginning to emerge. From the very start, PM Modi identified tourism as one of the 5-Ts of his government, well before 2014. Indeed, whether one agrees or not, to each his own. Modi has been consistent with his belief that infrastructure first, ensure ease in travel, and tourism will follow.

So, this story in now unfolding. In the last several years, the push has been towards creating infrastructure that provides comfort and speed, both, with safety and surety in travel. There is some that people may not agree with. Like the Bullet Train project, for instance. However, commuters will be able to make day trips between two big commercial capitals, Ahmedabad and Mumbai. The Statue of Unity is another; apart from its political messaging on the status of Sardar Patel, the fact is that we have a new tourism product, around which the state government has nurtured another five to six tourist attractions, making it a new tourist hub. A big statement in more recent times, is lifting of prohibition in Gift City, an unprecedented step for a state like Gujarat, where liquor bans have been a constant source of irritation and political discourse.

It is a truism that there can be no tourism without travel infrastructure. Apart from a few international airports like at Delhi and Mumbai, there was little to commend incoming visitors with global standard facilities. But this has changed dramatically. Lucknow has a new terminal. Ayodhya has an airport, and some dozen new terminals have changed the course of Indian aviation. More airports have been opened across the hinterland; witness the growth of airlines like Indigo, connecting cities like indeed it was essential air transport that it is, and not some fancy civil aviation in the clouds!

His other big concern was Swachh Bharat. It is equally true that only clean and healthy environments can attract footfalls. That our track record in this endeavour has been far from impressive. Usable and clean toilets have always been a huge issue at our monuments. Has the Swachh Bharat campaign succeeded? It did, it is still around. It should have achieved more success; what it did not, must remain dependent upon local administrations and the people at large; can a small contribution from our industry help bridge the last mile? The industry, too matched the enthusiasm in the first push, and then it seems to have petered off. Can hospitality become a prime mover, within our immediate neighbourhood, give a fresh impetus, and put local bodies on alert in a positive and helpful way. Going Swachh is the most important surety that our tourism stays!

Strengthening India’s culture and history, traditions and unique offerings to the world, has been his big contribution to our tourism, in deed to the tourism product that had for long been left to fend for itself. It was almost in decay. If we are to grow our appeal as an inbound destination, it is most important to identify and develop the Brand India. He has given a pronounced direction to growing the Indian legacy, our heritage and tradition – remember Tradition was one of the original 5Ts when they were announced, in 2014.

The story took a negative connotation when during covid lockdown there was no relief for the tourism sector. Especially when some news channels kept repeatedly saying that we should expect some breakthrough announcements, for which the industry kept waiting with bated breath. Who was briefing whom, I cannot say, but the fact is there was never any move for extending relief towards specific sectors but to the entire industry, as a whole. Fortunately, for the industry that time has gone by, for all its misery, moving on to an era of unheard prosperity. It is our own domestic that has come to help, that same domestic who was not counted among its primary market, till a little while back.

Is there a sense that only relief and incentives amount to seriousness on the part of the government? That asking for ‘more’ and getting it, meant a well-intentioned government towards tourism? That we need to be recognized as serious economic activity, our other concern, and rightly so, also depends upon how seriously we position ourselves? That, as far as I can tell, is yet to happen. My personal understanding is that industry needs a totally refreshed statement on its impact on economy, jobs and inclusive outreach, to break new ground.

Politics apart, and that is not the concern of this publication, this government has an impressive score card on all things travel and tourism. In providing a strong edifice upon which we build our tourism, both domestic and inbound.

You might ask, what about inbound? What about promotions overseas? What about the replacements for all the international tourist offices that were closed down more than a year ago, without an alternative mechanism in place? Was that the right thing or not? On the one hand, we need not have closed the offices without an alternative in place. The other fact is also true: that our offices had become almost redundant, we did not have the requisite expertise to manage them, that they had become a waste of resource. Will PR agencies be an effective alternate? Going by our past record, I doubt it; we do not have the understanding/maturity to get effective and professional guidance without making uncalled for interventions.

A possible answer lies in creating a national level marketing organization, headed by a renowned and proven advertising professional. I will throw up a name like Piyush Pandey, for example. Or, Prasoon Joshi, as another.

Meanwhile, some effort needs to be put into place to assist specific inbound promotions, best being through IATO, the national body for inbound tour operators, which can assist their members with organizing promotions and road shows, with direct government interventions, in fact as an agency appointed by the government. We should not lose the season of 24/25; in fact, the summer of 2024 was ideal to start such activity, but then with elections on hand, with a model code of conduct in place, this may not be possible.

A major bane of Indian tourism has been the stagnation in Indian tourism products. These were either not being added, or refreshed, we had achieved a position of zero movement. All had come to a standstill. Modi has brought rejuvenation to our products across the country. His latest pronouncement of some 1500 crores, to provide last mile connectivity or ease in travel will go a long way in ensuring a better experience for tourists. Varanasi and Statue of Unity are two sterling examples. In fact, the re-birth of Ayodhya will create a new centre of tourism attraction; it has brought focus on religious tourism which had gone ignored or overlooked by the industry for decades, as not to their ‘taste’; it spells a new awakening for us to look at.

But back to Modi’s ten years in government and its trysts with tourism? Many definite pluses, without any specific minuses, as far as I can tell. There does not appear to be any going back on this impetus. It is only going forward in one way: up North, upwards, with a promising future.

(These above remarks are without any political bias, as facts that we can all understand and see. Modi’s politics and the national discourse on elections is not within the purview of this magazine).

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