Mumbai: India is truly incredible. With rich tapestry of varied tourism products and experiences across the nation’s innate strengths of culture, heritage, nature, beaches, rivers, mountains, wildlife, wellness, cuisines and other unique assets, spreading across landscapes, community and climate zones, India is blessed with an array of offerings, each capable of luring travellers.

The problem of plenty, however, causes dilemma for the travellers, as to what to experience within the available time. Today, travellers are also looking for destinations which provide world-class infrastructure and tourist-friendly environment. It is therefore necessary that a bouquet of popular tourism offerings under ‘Incredible India’ brand line must be developed in a holistic manner.

It is with this objective in mind that the Union Finance Minister, while presenting the Annual Union Budget for 2018-19, announced the Government’s plan to convert 10 popular tourist destinations into ‘Iconic and Model Sites’ by adopting a holistic approach of development with the support of private sector.

Holistic development of ‘Iconic Tourist Sites’ entails creation of world-class infrastructure, skill development, application of technology, attracting private investments and branding

Subsequently, Ministry of Tourism, in consultation with stakeholders, identified 12 popular sites for development under ‘Iconic Tourist Sites’ project namely, Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri in Uttar Pradesh; Ajanta and Ellora in Maharashtra; Humayun Tomb, Qutub Minar and Red Fort in Delhi; Colva Beach in Goa; Amer Fort in Rajasthan; Somnath and Dholavira in Gujarat; Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh; Hampi in Karnataka; Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu; Kaziranga in Assam; Kumarakom in Kerala and Mahabodhi in Bihar.

The holistic development of ‘Iconic Tourist Sites’ entails creation of world-class infrastructure, skill development, application of technology, attracting private investments and branding. The Tourism Ministry plans to carry out interventions at the identified sites in collaboration with the State Government concerned and Archaeological Survey of India.

The development plans will also incorporate elements of universal accessibility, cleanliness, use of green technology and enhanced security for tourists. The initiative taken by the Union Government and Tourism Ministry is laudable. Special focus on development of high-quality infrastructure at these iconic sites is timely and important.

Infrastructure is central to not only what travellers see but how they feel while travelling. Regardless of how attractive and mesmerising our cultural and heritage destinations are, if the destination is not seen, felt, experienced and perceived as easily accessible, warm, welcoming, safe, secure, easy to explore and tourist-friendly, it can never be developed and positioned as a ‘Must Experience’ and ‘Must Revisit’ destination as envisaged in the Draft New National Tourism Policy of India.

Therefore, the project must address the issues of:

  • Core infrastructure, namely, good connectivity, hassle-free travel and multi-modal seamless transportation to the site
  • Tourism infrastructure, including accommodation and other tourist facilities like parking, toilets, shelters, souvenir shops, restaurants, Wi-Fi, interpretation centre, ATMs and certified guides
  • Social infrastructure with focus on cleanliness, safety, accessibility, ease of communication, sustainability and responsibility

Tourism industry is a tremendous employment generator. Yet the industry faces difficulties in attracting top talent and skilled persons to manage these destinations. Focus of skill development should be on finding the ‘right person for the right job’.

Skill development will further help create jobs in all segments, particularly in the unorganised sector. There is also a need to re-skill and retrain the service providers to enable them to provide superior services at these sites.

A rigorous and robust regime of certification and accreditation of products and services across all segments, namely hotel and accommodation providers, tour operators, guides, entertainment, restaurants and shopping outlets, will be essential to upgrade the quality of service at par with international standards.

The application of technology for development of iconic sites should be directed more towards facilitation of tourists visiting the sites. Technologies like interactive maps, virtual reality, audio-visual interpretation, e-payments, illumination of monuments and Son-et-lumiere shall make the destination tourist-friendly and attractive.

Providing Wi-Fi at these sites will act as an enabler for connectivity, safety, information and to run destination-specific apps that can become an interactive way to replace dated technologies. Space technology could be used for updating and disseminating of information, fast response mechanism and for addressing distress calls.

24X7 helplines can also address the security and safety issues at destinations. E-ticketing and use of modern security devices at the entrances of the sites could help in avoiding queuing and crowding at ticket counters and gates. Deployment of electric buses and battery-operated vehicles within the premise and near the vicinity will help curb air pollution.

The draft of the new National Tourism Policy 2015 speaks about ‘evolving a framework for tourism development, which is Government-led and private sector driven’. Tourism in India cannot develop without the support of the private sector. The success of ‘Iconic Tourist Sites’ project shall therefore also depend on the quantum of support that the sector offers.

The success of ‘Adopt a Heritage Monument’ scheme has certainly raised the expectation that tourism industry will once again come forward in a big way and support the project. There is no reason why they will not, as the tourism industry will be the second biggest beneficiary after ‘travellers’, if the project is a success.

While the Ministry of Tourism should lead from the front in making investments on core tourism and social infrastructure, skill development, technology and branding, the private sector should come forward to make investments to enhance the infrastructure like accommodation, aviation, transport, entertainment, restaurants and shopping to international standards.

Ministry of Tourism has already started the process of selecting project consultants to formulate a Master Plan and to share them with the stakeholders. The Master Plan must include long-term perspective plan factoring future requirements. It is also important that the required funds for this project are earmarked out of the allotted budget under Swadesh Darshan Scheme to ensure smooth flow of funds.

Setting timelines for each project and placing robust mechanism for monitoring of implementation of the project will ensure their timely completion. Possibility of constituting an independent agency or authority for each site and empowering them with adequate administrative and financial powers for development, regulation and maintenance could also be explored.

As reported in a section of media, some questions were raised about the rationale behind selecting the 12 sites and leaving out others. Ministry of Tourism’s clarification that the identification of these sites has been on the basis of footfalls, regional distribution, potential for development and ease of implementation has a lot of merit.

The identified ‘Iconic Tourist Sites’ represent most of the USPs of India Tourism, namely ancient history, cultural heritage, wildlife, ecotourism, backwaters, leisure and Buddhist tourism. The list of the ‘Iconic Tourist Sites’ can always be expanded in future depending upon the availability of financial resources.

A good beginning has been made and all stakeholders are expected to support the Government in India’s journey to provide world-class experience to the travellers at its ‘incredible’ destinations.

The author is former Secretary, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India.
He can be reached at [email protected]

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