Easing visa regime not enough to boost tourism

Easing visa regime not enough to boost tourism

India has finally decided to embrace a liberal visa regime to boost the country’s long neglected tourism industry.
No doubt, the government’s decision to approve visa-on-arrival (VOA) and electronic travel authorization (ETA) facilities for nationals of all countries barring eight “prior reference” ones will provide visitors the much-needed flexibility to make travel plans for visiting India, even on short notice.
This government move marks a significant departure from the previous visa regime that was based on strict reciprocity. Hitherto, visitors from only 11 nations were offered VOA. The new policy envisages availability of ETA for a month from the date of arrival in India along with a single entry VOA for the equivalent period. According to the new scheme, a tourist intending to visit India can now apply online and embark on the voyage without any anxiety because the visa will be provided on arrival at the airport itself. This indeed is a revolutionary step given the fact that the Indian government’s security paranoia took a heavy toll on tourism ever since the David Headley fiasco came to the fore. Headley, an American spy turned terror-operator had misused his tourist visa to obtain critical data on important installations in Mumbai and help plot the ghastly 2008 Mumbai terror attack.
With tourism generating maximum number of jobs for every Indian rupee invested, the government seems to have finally decided to exploit its full potential in promoting inclusive growth. Experts are of the opinion that this one move can help bolster foreign exchange earnings and generate large-scale employment because countries benefiting most from this new policy, namely the United States, Britain, Germany and France, contributes the maximum chunk of inbound tourist traffic into Indian shore. Since India’s diverse landscape, myriad cultural traditions and innumerable places of historical significance offers something unique to every visiting tourist, it is natural that the unshackling of the country’s stringent visa rule will help unleash the hidden potential of the tourism industry.
Unfortunately, India has so far attracted fewer offshore visitors than many Asian countries smaller in size and resources. Today, domestic tourists — accounting for almost 82 percent of India’s overall tourism revenue — are driving the sector as safety related concerns has somewhat tarnished the image of India globally. Though the country recorded a 13 percent rise in international tourist arrivals during the first nine months of 2013, it still lagged behind the Asian peers by a significant margin. And the new visa regime is touted as a game-changer capable of stimulating national growth because the contribution of India’s tourism industry to the country’s gross domestic product is 3.7 percent and it accounts for 4.4 percent of total employment. A 25 million strong Indian Diaspora, which undoubtedly forms the largest pool of potential inbound tourists, is expected to be the mainstay of foreign exchange influx so essential for containing India’s current account deficit. However, to exploit this opportunity the Indian government must come up with a comprehensive master plan on tourism. It is time that the nation realizes the benefits of investing heavily on tourism infrastructure. If we are to take into account the large output and employment multiplier effect that tourism offers, the sector undoubtedly has the capacity to turn into the prime driver of national growth and the backbone of India’s economy. The Indian government, therefore, must give highest priority to developing tourism infrastructure with the help of domestic and foreign investment.
Unfortunately, a vast majority of people in today’s India including those sitting in power look upon travel and tourism as nothing but a luxury sector. But then, through innovative governance the government can and should strengthen the local economic impacts of tourism. The subaltern class for example can participate in the tourism industry in many ways. All that the administration needs to do is declaring a proper roadmap for harnessing the tourism sector in poverty alleviation. Delivering more benefits for the local economy and the lower strata residing therein must be the fulcrum of a comprehensive tourism development policy. Though, any impact of tourism on the poor essentially depends on the attitude of players engaged in the sector and that of individual tourists, the government too can strongly influence the ambience through appropriate actions in the form of adequate policy regulations and greater public investment. After all, the road to success lies in how efficiently the giant tourism economy is structured, how effective are the supply chains and of course the depth of linkages that spread into every nook and corner of local economy. It is only then that the local populace can be integrated into India’s national tourism infrastructure. The officials in the tourism ministry must pull up their socks to not only improve tourism infrastructure but also redefine the very concept of tourism in India.
Proper profiling, rebranding and diversification of national tourism products will go a long way in enhancing India’s tourism environment. The government must also prioritize investment in transport and tourism infrastructure, tourist safety network as well as restoration and interpretation of historical sites.
Last but not the least, keeping Sri Lanka and Pakistan out of the new visa regime ambit on security pretext will surely cause much heartburn in these neighboring countries. All the more unfortunate this move is because tourism has the potential to bridge the hearts and minds as well as reducing widespread and endemic poverty in a region that boasts of shared culture and resources since time immemorial.

n Seema Sengupta is a Kolkata-based
journalist and columnist.
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