We have never sincerely worked to design an effective eco-system for our tourism

I clearly remember receiving this ultimate compliment from a noted travel writer when Air Deccan under my command was at its peak – “You have done more for Indian tourism than you would realise.” At that point in time, we were running 400 daily flights covering a staggering 80 destinations all over the country. Today, when I recall the way we had expanded and included new destinations, I guess we did play a small part in the Indian tourism story.

Captain Gopinath
Captain Gopinath

Of the 80 destinations we were flying, about 25-30 were those which had been put on the national aviation map for the first time. It went to the credit of Air Deccan to introduce flights in places like Gwalior, Dharamshala, Pathankot, Jamshedpur, Bellary, etc. In hindsight, I can safely say that we had this realisation that some of these places are potential hot tourism destinations capable of drawing better footfalls provided air connectivity is in place. Many of these locations did not have airports. And so we had to make use of airfields and airstrips existing since world war II days. To cite an example, we wanted to provide connectivity between Bengaluru and Hampi, a major tourist destination in India. And to make it possible, we had to join hands with an industrial house which had a functional airstrip in the nearby town of Bellary. It had turned out to be quite a successful service in those days making it easier for heritage enthusiasts both from the country and abroad to reach Hampi.

Moving on to the larger issue of Indian tourism’s evolution in the recent decades, I am filled with a deep sense of disappointment. In pure economic terms, it could well have been our greatest strength. But there is nothing in its growth pattern as seen in the last few years which could suggest that Indian tourism is ready for the big leap. You have Singapore, a single city which draws 14 million. Niagra Falls in the US, a single asset again draws 14 million. But we are stuck in 6-7 million trajectory. This despite the fact that unlike other destinations in the world, Indian tourism indeed has a holistic profile, offering attractions to every segment of tourists. Believe me, it is a rare distinction. But what is the point if you are not harnessing it.

I fail to understand why we have ignored the potential benefits which a rising tourism sector can accrue to the national economy. It is no secret to anybody that tourism is the biggest employment generator in the unorganised segment. You create a new asset and it will end up creating innumerable jobs at the ground zero level – from local taxi drivers to roadside eating joints to small stall owners. Isn’t it the kind of inclusive growth, we have been talking about? Unfortunately, tourism is yet to be seriously looked upon from this prism.

I don’t think I am taking an extreme position by saying that we have never sincerely worked to design an effective and vibrant eco-system for the tourism sector. Visa hassles has been an old story, it is only now that the government has cared to expand the basket. On the infrastructure side, the integration of road, railways and air transport is critical for tourism promotion. But there are serious gaps on this front. The travelling experience is not pleasant- cleanliness still remains a major issue and there aren’t enough consistent quality brands in the budget hotel segment which should have been dotting our tourist destinations in the far-flung areas by now. Air travel is not very cheap and there are major linking points where straight lines still need to be drawn. I find it difficult to understand why nobody has bothered to directly link Bengaluru with Agra or for that matter Delhi to Hampi?

These are the critical areas where we need to work diligently to get better results from the tourism businesses. If we look at the typical profile of the international tourists coming to India  – they are mostly back-packers or high value segment. There is a huge middle class of the European countries and the US which continue to skip the country. They move with the families and have begun providing a substantial inbound volume to countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia or even our neighbouring country Sri Lanka apart from the usual European destinations thronged mostly by the middle class from the US. We need to win over this segment at all cost.

Indian tourism may not have taken a big leap in sync with its potential but I have this intrinsic faith that it an epic-scale scene waiting to unfold. I have no doubt in my mind that today if I have to set up an airline company all over again, in terms of choosing destinations my attention would be equally divided between the business and tourism centric centres. As I mentioned above, many straight lines need to be drawn in the aviation space to ensure that the potential tourism hotspots attain the real vibrancy.

As told to Ritwik Sinha

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