If plans of the Ministry of Tourism remain on track ,then tourists from Bangladesh, Pakistan, UAE and other Muslim countries are in for a pleasant and happy experience soon. Under the Incredible India initiative, India comes calling: it would woo tourists to experience the mysticism of the Sufi circuit. A home to innumerable Dargahs, India has immense possibilities to promote religious tourism. Consequently, attempts are on to knit together and bring into focus famous dargahs like Nizamuddin Dargah in New Delhi, Ajmer Sharief in Rajasthan, Haji Ali in Mumbai, Maharashtra and several others in the Hindi heartland particularly in Bihar and UP.
With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emphasis on Sufism and stressing that sufi culture and music should be promoted in each state, the official machinery has been set in gear to incorporate Sufism wherever it is possible. Modi has publicly stated that “Sufi culture is priceless and if we forget this culture, we will forget our future too. We will push our future into darkness,” he said recently. Effusive at his praise at the World Sufi Forum recently, Modi credited Sufism with being Islam’s greatest gift.
Whether the Tourism Ministry took a cue from the PM is debatable but it sure intends to weave Sufism and tourism and gives inbound tourists a true India experience. There is a focus shift from Incredible India to Incredible You the tagline being that when you visit India it is YOU that becomes incredible. In other words, India helps you to discover you rather than it being a discovery of India that is incredible and wonderful. In other words, come to India, travel through India and find yourself.
The Incredible India programme was launched by the Tourism Ministry in 2002 when an effort was made to professionalize the promotion of tourism. Campaigns were prepared to project India as a tourist destination aimed at increasing tourist inflows into the country.
It aimed to do this by showcasing different aspects of Indian culture and history like yoga, spirituality, etc.
2017 saw a major upswing when India had a growth rate of 15.6 percent foreign tourists. It now aims to launch a multi pronged approach to retain this over the next three years. Foreign exchange earnings through tourism for 2017 were Rs 1,80,379 crores with a growth of 17 percent over the same period of previous year.
Unveiling some of its programmes, the Ministry of Tourism, an important arm of the Indian government identified 15 thematic circuits for development including the north east India circuit that seems to be a key area for tourism in future.
Comprising eight states namely, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim the location of the region is strategically important given that it has international borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar. With the BJP making inroads in the region to which it was alien till some years ago, the focus on these states is politically and electorally important. In the recent election BJP wrested control of three states and formed the government there. The region is also gaining popularity for its river cruises as also home stays where foreign tourists get a taste of local hospitality and life style. That apart there are efforts to promote Adventure Tourism. Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh for instance have raging rivers and are ideal for water rafting and other water sports and a haven for tourists in search of excitement.
The Kamakhya Temple in Assam has been identified under the PRASHAD scheme under which 25 cities of religious significance have been identified for development.
That may be very well but statistics reveal that only about 0.5 percent of all foreign tourists to India visited the North East in 2015.
That North East India is a tourist paradise is a given. But Rail and road transport within North East India is dismal and makes mobility difficult; accommodation facilities are poor; there is little information about the local food and facilities: the sum total being that while a haven for tourists exists, very little is known about how to tap its potential.
Huge funds are being pumped in to show case India be it through medical, adventure, cruise tourism or yoga, spirituality or pilgrimages and sufi circuits; schemes are being publicized and efforts on to give India tourism a face lift but the key question that stares on in the face is: will India ever become tourism friendly? Will it be a happy experience for the budget tourist? Will clean environs welcome inbound tourists? Will it be safe? And finally will India calling be an experience that will scar memory or make it an experience worth repeating over and over again.
It is all very well for the government to unveil schemes and pump in money but does it achieve the full worth of its potential. On paper the schemes appear wonderful but on the ground they hit a roadblock. Agra, the city of the iconic Taj Mahal for instance, till some years was a nightmare. The approach roads were in a deplorable state and the city filthy; locals hounded tourists and touts made it impossible to walk a few steps in peace. The Yamuna-way Express that was built by the state government under Mayawati is a death trap causing fatal accidents on a daily basis. Equally the experience to the Dargah Sharief in Ajmer is not an experience many would want repeated.
When Bill Clinton visited India in May 2000 as US president, he said that the world was divided between those who have seen the Taj and those who have not. Infosys chairman N R Narayana Murthy said that the Taj Mahal monument alone had the potential to generate USD 1 billion in tourism revenue each year.
In 2014, enhancing road and rail infrastructure at tourist destinations was on the agenda as were other initiatives.
Tourist traffic has shot up as have revenues which is all good on paper but the painful fact remains that India still has a long way to go in making tourism its main asset and converting slogans be it Incredible India or any else into a practical reality. India no doubt waits to be discovered and we have come a long way from O God not India to Of course India but we have miles to go before tourists say: India again and again.
The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist. She can be reached at: (firstname.lastname@example.org)