Last year, the Arab Republic of Egypt welcomed 9.1 million international tourists, two million less than it had received the previous year. In the same period, India received 6.8 million tourists, up four percent from the previous year’s 6.5 million visitors. While both countries are developing states with similar problems of infrastructure and law & order, Egypt had just been through a revolution and the political situation was volatile in the country. And yet it hosted over two million more tourists than India. To put matters in perspective, the country that received the most tourists was France with some 85 million tourists – almost 30 percent more than its entire population.
It is not difficult to understand why a country like India with an ancient civilisation and enormous diversity fares so poorly in the world tourism market. The hotels are atrocious, the roads are virtually non-existent, the trains make one prefer the roads, airports are few, services (such as tour guides, audio or human) are sparse, crime is a concern, and the advertising is just not up to the mark. Narendra Modi had promised in his election campaign to boost tourism – it would boost employment, stem the flow of people from rural to urban settings, and bring in revenue. However, tourism is a higher-order industry that cannot budge without improving infrastructure, law & order, and education first.
This does not mean that tourism cannot improve in India before all its other needs are met. There are stop-gap solutions that may achieve some of the objectives of the tourism industry in the short to medium-term while challenges that operate on a greater canvas such as infrastructure are addressed. One possibility, for example, is to lease out India’s monuments to the private sector to maintain and operate.
Conditions could be placed upon the minimum capital a private entity must have to even bid for contracts to maintain India’s monuments; standards of basic maintenance – security, cleanliness – and protection will have to be clearly defined; advertising must be restricted to off-site placement only. In return, the private concerns could be extended benefits in various ways such as preferential treatment in local infrastructure development tenders, tax benefits, and other concessions. Greater benefits can be conferred for taking up responsibility for lesser known sites – this will hopefully increase venues on the Indian tourist circuit.
One benefit of this proposal is that it will remove the burden of maintenance from the Archaeological Survey of India and allow them to focus on further excavations and improving their restoration techniques. The ASI may wish to conduct annual inspections to ensure that private contractors remain true to their word in the maintenance of their sites.
Another advantage is that it will infuse much-needed capital into a moribund sector. Private corporations will be allowed to advertise their sites domestically and internationally; they will also be able to hire trained, certified, and multilingual guides to man the attractions for the benefit of tourists who know little about Indian history. Additionally, they will be able to remedy the lack of clean toilets and decent dining options many Indian tourist spots suffer from. They will also be able to employ sufficient security guards to prevent the wanton vandalism that is ubiquitous in India.
To do so, the entry fee to monuments may be raised but it will be in the interest of the private sector management to balance high prices with demand to maximise their earnings. The immediate gain from this would be the reduction of vagrants at tourist sites resulting in smaller crowds that are easier to manage and less chances of damage to monuments. However, in the broader interest of education, one clause that could be added to the maintenance contract is that entry should remain free to any government school trips.
The private sector can also modernise Indian tourism. For example, rather than shut down some monuments due to damage caused by the number of tourists, ticket sales could be put online and limited to a certain number per day. This will keep venues open for the benefit of tourists as well as ensure that ancient structures are not damaged by too much human activity in the vicinity. While the government can certainly emphasise majors in tourism in vocational training institutes, private companies will also be interested in training employees for the umpteen requirements in tourism.
The greater stake in tourism for the private sector beyond tour packages and hotels will tap into synergies created across large and diverse holdings of some corporations. There will be greater interest in improving bus services, private taxis, and a spread of supporting industries. Many of these enterprises will hire locally and provide employment to those who do not have it in them to become professionals. Hopefully, privatisation will also create pockets of ‘Swachh Bharat‘ and make tourism in India a palatable affair.
It is not that the government cannot do all this on its own but that it has not done so until now. With so many calls on the public purse, it may not be ill-advised to share some of the burdens of government. Furthermore, all national assets will remain firmly in the possession of the government as they should; it is only their management that will be farmed out to those who might be able to put the national assets to better use.
The potential of tourism in a land as ancient as India need not be reiterated. In ten years, if India were to receive just half the international tourists France does today, the sector could bring in an additional $40 billion annually – and that does not even account for domestic tourists. The cascading effect of leasing India’s heritage to private firms for the purpose of tourism is enormous. Let us hope that the government realises it.