Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Marketing India to Foreign Tourists

This column on Rediff caught my eye.

T. Thomas is brainstorming some ways to improve India's cachet as a tourist destination. Despite experiencing some big changes over the past 15-20 years, India remains a place that few people visit -- only about 3 million visitors a year, to Thailand's 20 million. And many who do go there aren't especially impressed -- dirt, heat, and crowds are still things that are experienced by many western tourists as a turn-off. Everyone likes looking at the Taj Mahal, but no one like going to the Taj Mahal! There's no easy way to solve it -- the heat and the crowds certainly aren't going anywhere (though heat can be an attraction, especially to people from cold places) -- but T. Thomas has some good ideas.

Fortunately, in my opinion, we as a nation have become confident enough in our own standing and achievements that we can rise above anti-colonial feelings and talk about the colonial period without inhibitions or resentment. Although the Mughals colonised India and even converted our people to their religion four centuries ago, today we take pride in showing tourists monuments like the Taj Mahal as the pride of India. With the passage of time, the same is happening to the monuments and cities built by our European colonisers -- the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the British. For a European tourist it is often more interesting to see remnants of the adventurers from their own countries. Even for the Americans, it is easier to relate to such sites as most of them are descendants of Europeans.

Fortunately, we have several such monuments and sites bearing witness to the history of our European colonisers. We should use them to market our country. Take Pondicherry. It has several French remnants, including the use of the French language. In France schoolchildren are still taught about the French empire in India, which consisted of Pondicherry, Mahe, Karaikkal, and Chandannagar.

I think he's right on the money here. Everyone goes to Churchgate, but no one really talks about why it was built, or what happened there. And: last summer we went to the beach in Bandra (near the Taj Land's End Hotel), where one finds strange ruins with Portuguese inscriptions on them -- remnants of a fort. But the plaques at the site don't explain very much. What do the Portuguese inscriptions mean? What was life like for the Portuguese who lived in this fort? What is the historical value of these particular ruins? Are there other such forts along the coastline? I was a little disappointed to find that no one there seemed to know very much. (This website has some information about the Portuguese "North Provinces," but nothing specifically about that particular fort.

An example of a book that does something along these lines is Krishna Dutta's Calcutta, which is a kind of Travel Guide for History Wonks. I picked it up last year in Amherst, Massachusetts (of all places)... More books like these could do wonders for India's reputation as a "colonial tourism" destination.

Certainly, when it comes to Bombay, Delhi, and Calcutta there is lots to work with in terms of celebrating (rather than shunning) British architectural achievements, as well as key moments in British colonial history. I believe it is possible to do this critically and educationally -- without succumbing to what Rushdie called "Raj Nostalgia."

The trick might be to find "colonial" tourist attractions that are a little off the beaten path... A few months ago I remember reading somewhere that George Orwell's birthplace is in the town of Motihari, in Bihar, and is essentially unmarked (read this interesting account of one visitor's experience there). Why? Finally, I have to disagree with T. Thomas on one point, and that is the desirability of younger, less wealthy tourists -- the backpackers. His plan is to lure in European and Japanese retirees, who have money to spend and time to kill:

These are usually people who have retired and can afford to explore the world outside their own immediate reach. The younger backpackers or student-type tourists are not sufficiently well funded. Therefore, they are not our primary target group although they should also be encouraged and welcomed to this country as they can be our brand ambassadors to the older generations of their countrymen and one day when they can afford it, they may come back with their own families.

I'm glad he softens his line towards the end, but I think he's probably underestimating how much money the average backpacker really has to spend. Certainly, some tourists (mainly Europeans) come to India because it's cheap -- you can stay at a hostel-y type of place for Rs. 100 ($2 USD) a night, even in tourist towns. Others are looking for these types of bargains, but in fact they are still carrying Daddy's Credit Card with them, and often end up spending a fair bit while traveling after all. Backpackers might stay in cheap hostels or "non guidebook" hotels, and eat relatively cheaply. But they are nevertheless highly likely to shell out Rs. 5000 or more on a plane ticket to get to someplace fast (Indians, in contrast, tend to take the train), and then buy a rather pricy Kashmiri shawl or art-work to take back with them to Sweden. So to T. Thomas I say: don't underestimate the backpackers! They might not look like much, but they're trying not to look like much. They are still loaded, and should be included in the proposed Scheme to Sell India.

Tourism is a business based partly on the availability of leisure (sun, beaches, mountains to climb, food to taste, stuff to buy, etc.). But these days it is also potentially enabled by opportunities to learn -- about history, culture, religion, or the environment. Some of these might seem distasteful to some, but it's quite possible to self-consciously "exploit" one's geo-historical heritage tastefully. And by this point in history, the histories of British, French, and Portuguese colonialism in India ought to be far more interesting as a selling point to potential British, French, and Portuguese tourists than as a source of angst for Indians themselves.

One way to balance historical tourism of the sort I've been describing might be to attach it to important sites in the freedom struggle. Places where Gandhi did something interesting... that sort of thing. (The latter might appeal to NRI tourists in particular.)


Kerim Friedman said...

I think the number one way India can increase the number of foreign tourists is to ensure that basic sanitary practices are ensured throughout the country. It is possible to travel extensively in Thailand, Indonesia, and many other countries being very adventurous about tasting the street food. In my experience, this is not the case in India, where you have to be very careful about what you eat and where you eat it. As Shashwati said if they can build nuclear bombs, why can't they install proper sewage systems?

On a related note, it is, I believe, one of the legacies of Japanese colonialism that the food in the dingiest street market in Taiwan is likely to be safe. The Japanese practiced what they called "sanitary colonialism." At times it was excessive - such as rat catching campaigns which forced many to buy rats from their neighbors so that they would have something to present to the police. Nonetheless, tasting local cuisines is now one of the major activities of most tourists in Taiwan, domestic or foreign.

What I've read about sanitary practices in Britain at the turn of the century leads me to believe that sanitation wasn't quite so important for the British as it was for the Japanese. So perhaps all the rotting garbage can be exhibited to tourists as another imperial legacy?

3:21 PM  
arnab said...

a related article on slate from last year. and some discussion of it.


feel no compunction about letting me know if you want me to stop placing links to another subcontinent discussions here.


3:39 PM  
Ms. World said...

A topic close to my heart! :)

I agree with T. Thomas idea of trying to link India`s colonial history with Europeans in an effort to get more tourism.

However, I`m strongly in agreement with Friedman`s ideas. When I tell people about my passion and plans to go to India- some of them look at me like I said I wanted to go to hell for a vacation. They mention the horror scenes they`ve heard about or read regarding the pollution, poverty, dirty water, unsafe food, and backward attitudes toward women. Some people just don`t want to take malaria pills to go on a vacation. Therefore these sanitary issues & the poverty is a big turn-off to some would-be tourist.

I think parts of South India attract the leisure travelers due to the beaches. But I believe many people who are taking the time to travel around India are looking for something, be it an adventure, spiritual experience, finding their roots, life or history lessons.

I feel like India isn`t a tourist destination for the lazy or uninitiated traveler. I think travelers to India seem to be in the adventure/backpacker camp or the luxe camp where they have money to stay in heavenly hotels, spas, and get chauffered around.

I also agree with Amardeep`s assessment that backpackers traveling in India have cash. Basically, I`ve realized that anyone who can get on an airplane and fly to another part of the world with the idea of traveling around for adventure or some other experience has some money. Poor people don`t travel to different countries for adventure or leisure experiences. I always tout my working class roots but it finally hit me in Thailand a few months ago that I`m not working class anymore because I can buy out half a store (and I`m not a person who bargains hard because I can`t be bothered) and have money left over.

Regarding T. Thomas idea to attract Japanese retirees to the country -Does India have any casinos?

9:21 PM  

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