London: India is rapidly becoming a jewel in the crown of world tourism, with an impressive hike in foreign tourist arrivals. The good news, delivered by Secretary of Tourism Rashmi Verma IAS at India’s press conference in the annual World Travel Market exhibition here, drew smiles all around, the biggest emanating from the top table including Aashima Mehrotra, Director of Tourism, Charanjeet Singh, Deputy High Commissioner, Vellamandi Natarajan Minister of Tourism, Tamil Nadu and tourism ministers from Bihar and Punjab, Pramod Kumar Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu, respectively.
Giant posters depicting India’s tourist attractions were on display showing everything from the country’s colourful festivals to mountains, lakes, temples and wildlife with tourists canoeing and scuba-diving.
Last year, Verma said a record 10.4 million foreigners visited India, up 14 per cent from 2016, and India “aims to maintain this growth rate over the next three years with proactive marketing strategies in partnership with tourism stakeholders.” She said the e-visa facility, a “game changer,” is now available to 166 countries and valid for entry through 25 designated airports and five seaports, contributing to the boost in FTAs.
India’s Ministry of Tourism has formulated an integrated marketing plan including global media campaigns as well as promotional activities undertaken by overseas offices. The Incredible India 2.0 campaign, launched by the ministry in September 2017, lays more focus on social and digital media.
The country’s “rich and diverse natural, cultural and religious heritage provides a unique opportunity for tourism,” Verma said, mentioning adventure, yoga and Ayurveda as activities gaining in popularity as well as homestays where tourists can experience the life and culture of Indian families.
Promoting India as a “year-round destination” to attract more tourists with specific interests, encouraging repeat visits she said, “India is already a sought-after destination for healthcare travellers and more is being done highlight the available opportunities.”
To ensure the safety and security of international and domestic tourists travelling in India a special toll-free tourist helpline in 12 languages has been launched, available at all times of the day or night on 1800111363 or a short code 1363 for dialling in India.
The North Eastern States are being developed for tourism potential with help from the Ministry of Tourism which has been organising the International Tourism Mart annually in one of the States, this year in Agartala, Tripura from November 22-24. FAM tours are also being arranged for international delegates. Additionally the ministry has launched a new Incredible India website which portrays India as a “holistic destination, focusing on spirituality, heritage, adventure, culture, yoga, wellness and more”. An associated mobile app has also been introduced to help travellers on the move.
The ministry has also started a certification course on tourism, an online management system across India to enable young people, even in remote locations, to skill and prepare themselves to deal with visiting tourists, leading to more jobs.
A shared heritage and culture with ASEAN countries has prompted the Goverment of India to declare the year 2019 as ASEAN-India year, with a series of promotional activities including food festival and quiz competitions spread over the entire year.
Guest speaker Dennis Taylor, former world snooker champion, opened the conference with the words “I love India” and spoke of the time when he and a group of other British celebrity pensioners spent four “fantastic and memorable” weeks in Kerala as a possible place to retire, for a television programme. He rejoiced in playing a game of snooker on a table in an Ooty club where the game was invented – a “very emotional experience,” he said.
Exhibition director Simon Press, in his WTM welcome message, said the show bristled with “ideas big and small.” He added: “You’ll see the known world reimagined, with boundaries unlocked. You’ll also find practical tips and simple innovations your customers will love. Last year WTM London sparked a million meetings, resulting in around £3 billion in contracts. Our marketing reaches further and deeper, through social networks, partnerships and media. If you have a game-changing travel product or service, this is where you tell the world …in print or via digital media…”
Talks included topics such as taking reponsibility for security, health and safety; instagram and travel;; how to get billions of video views; and destination crisis management – plan, prepare and protect. Booklets on the India pavilion included one on “Wanderlust – 25 Incredible India adventures” encompassing trekking in the western ghats, diving in the Andamans, rafting in Rishikesh, camel-trekking in Rajasthan, cycling in Kerala’s Cardamom Hills, skiing in Kashmir, and hot-air ballooning in Hampi.
Destination Reporter India spoke to some of the subcontinent’s exhibitors, including George Scaria, director incoming tours for Kerala Voyages. Founded 20 years ago, the tour company organises “tailor-made holidays” to suit customers, looking after all their needs and answering queries from the moment they set foot in Kerala to when they leave. A typical picture in his brochure showed a group from Norway tucking into a finger-licking Keralan meal in a village served on traditional banana leaves. “We aim to give tourists a genuine local experience in every way,” he said. The bespoke 2-week tours span palaces, monuments and preserved institutions, boat rides through the state’s famous backwaters, tea gardens, flora and fauna, wildlife sanctuaries and spice plantations. Testimonials from delighted customers included one from a UK couple who said, “Such a happy experience, we could not have expected more,” and, like many others, said they would be back. Kerala Voyages also prides itself in their “responsible tourism” work, helping local village women to participate by cooking and serving meals. Scaria is based in Frankfurt, Germany, where he lectures in international tourism, in English, and visits Kerala and his 55-strong operations team there around six times a year.
A lively English couple, both in their seventies but looking much younger, along with an Indian couple, are running 4 to 10-day boutique expedition riverboat cruises on the Brahmaputra and Ganges, taking in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam and Bhutan. Andrew and Grania Brock and Ashish and Jahnabi Phookan, have been running their Indo-British joint venture company since 2003, bringing together “expertise in tourism, experience of global markets and in-depth knowledge of North East India.” They have recently added a fourth boat to their operations which treats 24-40 customers at a time to wildlife and temple sights, among a host of other cultural attractions. They also own two jungle lodges and employ 20 staff. Grania said, “We can proudly claim that we are responsible for introducing river cruising to India.” Andrew had been involved in tourism previously, including riverboating in Burma, and decided to try the scheme in India. Called the Assam Bengal Navigation Company, its boats are well equipped for comfort and convenience, including tea and coffee-making facilities in all cabins, refrigerators, cold towel service after excursions, Indian and western meals and spa treatments. On board entertainment includes local dance-and-song performers. Customers come mostly from the UK but also Australia, Germany, France and the USA in increasing numbers.
Arya Niwas Hospitality, said its marketing director Pooja Bansal, is a family-run hotel chain comprising five properties in Jaipur. A retired engineer, fond of travelling, realised his dream 35 years ago by opening his own “affordable and middle-class” hotel in the city. He acquired a former haveli site and he and his engineer sons, who left their jobs, built the hotel and afterwards the women took charge of the kitchen.
“We offer hotel accommodation to suit all needs, whether heritage, boutique, guesthouses or hostels,” she said. “Our multi-cuisine recipes are popular because we invite customers to join us in the kitchen and show us how to cook their favourite dishes. They love to get involved and keep returning year after year because they feel part of the business.” Tourists from the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Norway and Sweden are among the most regular guests. They enjoy Jaipur life and the walking tours available.