The poor facilities, indifferent officials and lackadaisical approach are a great shame because India, with its incredibly rich and diverse historic, cultural, and natural heritage, has the potential to become a veritable tourism superpower.
Here are five measures - the first step of many – that can smarten up the tourism industry.
The last day of 2016 was meant to be an ordinary day at work: meet my guest (who happened to be an American lady) at her hotel in South Mumbai, drive north to the SGNP National Park at Borivali, and give her a tour of the magnificent, over two millennia old Kanheri Caves complex.
That's what I do as a tourist guide: I give foreign visitors guided tours of Mumbai and western India and help them understand our great civilisation's historic, cultural, and natural heritage. I have conducted thousands of such tours during the course of a career that spans over 10 years.
The caves are located in the heart of the thick, leopard-infested forest that lies between north-western Mumbai and Thane. A single narrow, meandering road connects them to the main gate of the national park. While driving along this road, we suddenly heard a terrifying sound in the distance: people screaming, and panic-stricken calls for help.
A short distance ahead, one of the well-worn buses that ferry tourists between the caves and the main gate had veered off a bend in the road and tumbled several feet down the cliff. A sturdy tree had arrested its fall, preventing it from falling all the way to the bottom of the dell, thereby saving several lives.
The bus was on its side, wedged between the hillside and the tree, wheels in the air, with the passengers still trapped inside, many bleeding, desperately screaming for help. A couple of local villagers, denizens of one of the several hamlets located within the forest, were trying to reach the bus and rescue the passengers. An elderly lady told us the accident had occurred at least a quarter hour before we reached the scene.
My American guest gaped in horror. I frantically tried calling the police, but to no avail: there was no cell phone signal. We were less than three kilometers from the city, but we may as well have been in the middle of the Amazon.
Fortunately, this being a Saturday, the park had many visitors, mostly people on motorbikes. Within minutes, several men were clambering down the hillside and helping the wounded back to the road. Several bike riders raced back to the main gate, to inform the authorities about the accident and fetch bottles of water. Others observed the proceedings and took photos.
After about 20 minutes, satisfied that a rescue operation was underway, we drove on to the caves. I expect the authorities did arrive eventually, late, as in the movies, to mop up after the heroes saved the day.
To anyone who saw the scene, the accident's cause was obvious. Firstly, the road, which is almost too narrow for two large vehicles to pass each other, is in a bad condition. Not only is it on high ground with a steep slope on one side, it is also uneven. The cemented middle of the road is about a half foot higher than the crumbling sides of the road. Secondly, the bus had old, worn-out tyres that looked like they had been in use for a decade.
Eventually, it was reported in the news that the bus's brakes had failed while trying to pass another vehicle at the bend in the road.
What if the park was deserted, as is often the case on weekdays? How long would it have taken for the accident to be discovered by the authorities, considering the fact that the local villagers don't have telephones (they don't even have electricity, within the city limits of 21st century Mumbai!)? The national park does have a token, understaffed ranger service which struggles to cover the park's vast expanse, in stark contrast to foreign nature reserves where rangers are professional, well-trained, well-equipped, and constantly on patrol.
And what if the bus was carrying foreign tourists, as is often the case? What if someone had died? What if one of the forest's many leopards got there? What if this happened inside the park's tiger enclosure, where the road is even worse? I shudder to think of such scenarios. An accident involving foreign tourists would have grabbed international attention, lowering India's global standing, and dealing a serious blow to our tourism industry.
The Borivali national park is not the only tourist spot in Mumbai where the public's safety and well-being are disregarded. Consider the rickety ferries that convey tourists between the Gateway of India and Elephanta island. Often over-capacity and top-heavy, without sufficient life jackets on board, these ferries are an accident waiting to happen, especially during the monsoon when the seas are rough.
Consider foreign tourists who travel by cruise ships to ports like Mumbai. Up to two ships may berth at Mumbai on a given day during the peak tourist season, laden with hundreds, even thousands of tourists.
The majority of cruise ship tourists are elderly retirees. Many are in frail health, some have serious medical conditions. They must first go through customs and security inside the docks' main terminal, a process that takes about 30 to 45 minutes per group of tourists. The tourists must then board their bus, which makes its way to the docks' main gate, where, much to their surprise, another security check awaits them. Here, they are made to get off the bus, offload their baggage, and queue for at least an hour up with baggage and passport in hand, under Mumbai's sweltering sun and killer humidity, for another lengthy, painstaking, and entirely redundant security search.
Cruise ship tourists typically have a very limited time in which to see Mumbai. Every minute counts. Far from being welcomed warmly and made to feel special, they are made to waste an inordinately long time navigating India's government machinery and bureaucracy, just to step ashore. They complain of being made to feel like criminals. For most of them, this is their first impression of India. Imagine what they tell their relatives and friends about our country! Can't we do better?
Tourist facilities in many other parts of India are far worse than those in Mumbai. The poor facilities, indifferent officials and lackadaisical approach are a great shame because India, with its incredibly rich and diverse historic, cultural, and natural heritage, has the potential to become a veritable tourism superpower. India has hundreds of incredible historic and cultural sites that merit World Heritage status. We stand on the verge of an opportunity to completely transform India's economy and massively boost our GDP.
"Atithi Devo Bhava" is an excellent motto for India's tourism industry, aptly drawn from our own rich, incomparable civilisational heritage, rather than borrowed from elsewhere. We must act on it. Just as our foreign policy is now geared to "Act East" rather than merely "Look East" as in the past, we must take action on "Atithi Devo Bhava", instead of paying it lip service and reducing it to a platitude, a trite slogan.
I propose that the slogan "Atithi Devo Bhava" be translated into the following set of standards that every tourist destination must adhere to:
1) Simplified and streamlined procedures
Bureaucratic procedures for foreign tourists must be made as simple, speedy and efficient as possible. Unnecessary paperwork and red tape must be eliminated. Redundant procedures must be cut out. This is non-negotiable and must be implemented at the earliest.
2) Public Safety
Every tourist destination must have an active and visible security presence. Police must be seen to patrol the streets. Adequate medical facilities to treat routine emergencies such as heat exhaustion, asthma attacks, heart attacks, falls and fractures etc, that the elderly are susceptible to, must be readily and visibly available.
3) Separate entrances at monuments for foreign tourists
Foreign tourists are made to pay much more than Indians to enter monuments, typically 10 times what Indians pay. This is an unpopular practice that most foreign tourists do not appreciate. In return, I recommend separate entrances to monuments for them, not to justify the unequal treatment, but as a gesture of respect for the severe time constraints they often face.
4) World-class toilets
The most embarrassing situation a tourist guide routinely faces is the hideously dirty toilets that India abounds with. This is something that gives our country an unimaginably bad reputation and prompts disgusted tourists to utter sarcastic "Incredible India" jibes.
I recommend that an adequate number of world-class, well-staffed and well-maintained air-conditioned toilets be constructed at every tourist destination. Let them charge Rs 100 per entry. This will ensure that foreign tourists get the facilities they are accustomed to. Indian citizens who pay Rs 100 for the privilege of using these toilets will naturally be predisposed to keeping them clean. Anyone found making the toilet dirty should be fined Rs 1,000. Even if only 100 persons use a certain facility per day, it will generate Rs 3 lakh per month, which will go towards maintaining it.
5) Well-trained, knowledgeable tourist guides
Some unscrupulous travel agencies and hotels hire untrained locals as guides (known in industry parlance as touts) for foreign tourists in order to save a few hundred rupees in guide fees. Such touts, who are often less educated, are not competent to act as the nation's ambassadors. They often misrepresent the country's history and culture, either out of ignorance, or personal bias. This is severely detrimental to our country's image. There should be a law that requires travel agencies and hotels to hire only government approved tourist guides.
For this to be possible, there should be an adequate number of government approved tourist guides in all tourist locations. Furthermore, there should be uniformity in the standards of the government approved tourist guides.
India must adhere to these five basic "Atithi Devo Bhava" standards if it wants to realise its immense tourism potential. These standards, if implemented in letter and spirit in our existing tourist destinations, have the potential to not only significantly boost tourism in India, but also to significantly improve our country's international standing and soft power. If implemented today in a concerted nationwide effort, these standards can bear significant, measurable results (in terms of footfalls and revenues) within five years. This is the first step of many. There are many more steps that I would like to recommend, but that is a matter for another article.
Finally, a note on national security. It is imperative that tourism must not impinge on our national security. For example, why do tourist ships use the same docks in Mumbai as our Navy? Cruise ships dock barely a 100 meters from where nearly half our submarine fleet is moored. It is very easy for tourists to photograph our submarines, battleships, and other sensitive naval assets. This is unacceptable, especially considering the numerous accidents our navy has been experiencing of late.
One routinely notices tourists from a certain neighbouring country (I am not referring to Pakistan) evincing an unusual interest in photographing the BARC's nuclear reactors which are visible during the ferry ride to Elephanta island. There are rules against photographing the installation, but there is no one to enforce them. I intervene as often as I can, but a tourist guide simply does not have the authority that a uniformed policeman has.
Special care must be taken to decouple tourism from sensitive installations pertaining to national security. Not only will this make the country safer, it will also make the tourists' stay in India easier and hassle-free.
Before I conclude, I would like to clarify that this article is not intended as a criticism of the current Maharashtra government, which has inherited problems rather than created them. This is intended as a report, an eye-opener if you will, from someone who has an ear to the ground and would like nothing more than see our great country achieve its true potential.