More focus needed on India’s tourism

Visa rule relaxation alone cannot help India to realise the full potential of its tourism sector

Despite its many cultural attractions, natural diversity and rich history, India attracts far fewer visitors to its shores than some other countries in the region. That fact helps explain why the government's decision to relax strict visa rules and extend the visa-on-arrival facility to 180 nationalities – compared to 11 previously – is so important.

By doing so, the country hopes to cash in on the huge potential of its tourism sector. But this action alone cannot guarantee that. Last year’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index – based on parameters such as safety and security, health and hygiene, and tourism infrastructure – placed the country in a lowly 65th out of 140 nations, a poor return for a country with so many treasures within its borders.

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that India is a tough country to visit because of its often reported issues with hygiene. Whether that is a fair reflection of the facts or not, countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea are known to be easier to visit and enjoy.

Being the second most populated country in the world, India also has problems with pollution, poverty and high rates of crime. All these factors contribute to making the country a tough sell for tourists. According to the Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India, tourist visits dropped by 25 per cent during the first three months of 2013, largely because of fears about the risk of sexual assault.

Thirdly, India also lags behind its competitors in terms of its ability to adequately sell itself to visitors. There is simply not enough reliable information available to the potential traveller.

Finally, the tourism infrastructure needs upgrading. Even though quality accommodation abounds in major cities and tourist destinations, it is delivered at premium prices.

While competitive pricing is essential to attract tourists, equally crucial is the need to upgrade the transportation infrastructure. Because of poor roads, tourists are compelled to travel either by rail or air. But that does not solve all the problems: apart from the airports at large cities, other airports are ill-equipped to handle even a moderate number of visitors.

Strengthening the road and railway network, ensuring the safety of travellers, competitive pricing in the hospitality sector, as well as development of tourist-specific routes to improve connectivity to different locations are key to realising the full potential of the tourism sector. India is an incredible destination, but until it makes itself more tourist-friendly, it will remain closed to all but the most intrepid travellers.