No Country For Visitors? How India Can Come Good On Its Tourism Potential

No Country For Visitors? How India Can Come Good On Its Tourism PotentialVirupaksha Temple from the north-east. (Mukul Banerjee/Wikimedia Commons)
Snapshot
  • India has so much to offer tourists, both domestic and foreign. Why, then, are we making such an appalling mess of it?

India has some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes and some of the most outstanding historical monuments. Then how come we get such a pitiful flow of tourists? Tourism may not be the “clean” employment some accounts make it out to be, but it supports many jobs, both in developed countries and in emerging economies. The Indian government periodically makes efforts to improve things (there was an announcement in early March that Incredible India 2.0 is being rolled out), but India is really not on the tourist map: in 2017, continent-sized India had 10.3 million foreign visitors; Los Angeles (LA) alone had 7.1 million. LA also had 40 million domestic tourists; in 2015 (latest numbers available), Rajasthan had only 35 million.

There are no simple solutions to the problem, but there are two necessary conditions: one is improving facilities, and the second is marketing. As I have in the past visited many of the world’s most popular sites, and more recently travelled to emerging Asia’s attractions, I have some suggestions. Policy needs to be formulated and implemented, and public awareness needs to be enhanced.

Let me focus on the first problem, that of poor facilities. Indians – to make a sweeping statement – simply do not care about either their heritage or their environment. So long as this is the case, we have bigger problems than just poor tourism arrivals, of course: the fact is that both our heritage and our environment are deteriorating before our very eyes. It is not irreversible, but it needs focus and leadership to fix.

Mountains of avoidable garbage

Most tourist sites in India are overwhelmed by trash. Everywhere, you have mountains of plastic garbage, food waste, and worse. I recently went to a site in Karnataka, near Mysuru, a triveni confluence of three rivers, with someone who remembered it from 30 years ago as a pristine location. She was shocked at its current state: food and plastic waste from the stalls around dumped all along the ghats, piles of cloth dredged up from the river and left on the ghat steps (apparently people make offerings of cloth), and water weeds that choke the rivers.

I don’t want to dump on Karnataka, because it is in some ways better than other parts of India, but it frustrated me because we had just come from the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Pattadakkal, a compact space with some of the earliest extant temple sites in South India (Chalukya, from the sixth and seventh centuries CE). Along with Badami and Aihole, Pattadakkal forms a triangle of ancient sites that are archaeological marvels.

The Pattadakkal site has a World Heritage tag, and so I expected things I have seen recently in other sites designated as such: Hampi, also in Karnataka; Borobudur and Prambanan in Java, Indonesia; and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. All of them have neat boundaries marking their (relatively large) sites, separating them from nearby villages. There are good hotels, travelling to them is easy and comfortable, and once you are inside the site, it is clean and well-maintained, with good signage. In particular, I was impressed by the well-maintained toilets in the Angkor Wat complex, which are themselves attractive buildings.

Travel to World Heritage Sites like Angkor Wat is easy and comfortable – there are good hotels, and the sites are clean and well-maintained, with good signage. (GUOZHONGHUA/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM)
Travel to World Heritage Sites like Angkor Wat is easy and comfortable – there are good hotels, and the sites are clean and well-maintained, with good signage. (GUOZHONGHUA/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM)

Well, Pattadakkal has a small but scenic location right by a river, and amongst its many ancient temples (non-working), there is a working temple (dedicated to Virupaksha, notable for its lovely black granite Nandi) that faces the river and is 200 yards from it. A small village divides the heritage site in two, with one ancient temple being separated from the rest of the complex by a pathway about 15 feet wide, from the river to the village.

We tried to walk across that path. It has puddles of stinking water from the village, some agricultural machinery such as tractor-trailers are parked next to the gate to the smaller site, and there are cow patties and pigs. Once inside the smaller site, you find drains bringing sewage water from the village under the garden and then dumping it in the river.

We thought we’d stroll down the path to the river, carefully avoiding the cow patties, etc. It was a mistake: the path was full not only of pig excrement, but also human excrement, and the pigs were wallowing in it. If we had gone there in the morning, we’d have been treated to a full display of open defecation, I am pretty sure. Just outside the steps to the Virupaksha temple, there are piles of garbage. We beat a hasty retreat.

The intriguing fact is that all around, there is nothing but agricultural land and the river. If only there were political will, it would not have been a difficult task to relocate the small village (about 20 houses) a mile or two away and turn the environs of the World Heritage Site into a pleasant park with a walkway to the river. It is criminal that people have let this little village turn this site into a disaster. Just give them compensatory land, and I suspect the residents will move without demur. They face the usual problems farmers face: I saw monkeys raiding the nearby field and digging up whatever was planted there, and a small boy was chasing them away.

Easy Access

The less said about the ease of getting to Pattadakkal, the better. There is a perfectly fine state highway that goes by, but the last mile is a problem: we went down a rutted and pockmarked path through a forest of the thorn bush that is the default flora (remnant of the impassable customs hedge the British put in to tax salt: see Roy Moxham’s The Great Hedge of India) to get to the site.

There are no facilities for food in the vicinity, except for some rather sorry-looking stalls; and you wonder how old the packaged snacks are, considering the small volume of visitors.

Indians simply do not care about either their heritage or environment. Both our heritage and environment are deteriorating before our very eyes. (PHUONG D. NGUYEN / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM)
Indians simply do not care about either their heritage or environment. Both our heritage and environment are deteriorating before our very eyes. (PHUONG D. NGUYEN / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM)

We had a particularly hard time getting to Pattadakkal, although I am not generalising: I am sure ours was a rather unique experience. The day we had designated for Pattadakkal and nearby Aihole, it turned out there was a massive agitation about sharing Mahadayi river water with Goa, and they stopped all traffic on the highway by blocking it for the day. We were stuck at a roadblock about four kilometres away, and in desperation, a couple of us decided to abandon our vehicles and fellow tourists and walk to Pattadakkal. Those who stayed – which was about 40-50 vehicles including tour buses – were stuck there for a full eight hours, until 6pm.

In hindsight, it was a dangerous decision: we were obvious tourists, and during the 4km walk, any thug could have beaten us up and robbed us, maybe even killed us and tossed our bodies into the thorn bush forests. Who would know? We were counting on the inherent good nature of the interior Karnataka farmer; but I would be nervous to do this in Kerala, because it is dangerous to be seen as a “strike breaker” (“black leg” in the jargon), even if you have nothing whatever to do with the strike.

I took the desperate step of walking 4km in the hot sun because we had only one day in the area, and had to move on the next morning, as otherwise our carefully laid plans would go haywire and we’d lose our hotel bookings and disrupt our entire trip. So, after years of planning and dreaming about the trip, we were forced to abandon plans to see the beautiful horseshoe-shaped temple at Aihole; and after sitting for several hours in Pattadakkal, we went back at dusk to our hotel in Badami. We never had the chance to go to Aihole.

In Badami too, I couldn’t believe the path that Google Maps directed us along to the site: I was sure there was a mistake. It went through the middle of a marketplace, and then up narrow paths where we could see right into the living rooms of small houses, and women were washing clothes on their front steps. The path was just wide enough for a car, and then when you went up a hill, there was a 90-degree turn and a portal that was literally the size of an Innova car. There were monkeys and pigs and dirt all over the place.

We parked in a tiny parking lot at the bottom of the rocks and climbed up to the four levels of some of the most astonishing carvings in the world. Badami’s rock carvings are truly phenomenal, and we spent a full day at the site. The four layers of caves (three dedicated to Hindu deities, one to Jain deities) are marvels, with sculptures cut directly into the rock. Some of them are incredible, for instance an 18-armed Shiva Tandava image carved into the living rock so that his left arm projects out, unsupported, in front, in 3D, much as a living dancer’s would. The imagination that that sculptor must have had, and his audacity!

The imagination and audacity of the sculptor of the Shiva Tandava image at Badami are truly amazing.
The imagination and audacity of the sculptor of the Shiva Tandava image at Badami are truly amazing.

These amazing works of art are unprotected from the elements and from the crowds which could harbour would-be vandals. In any self-respecting country, these ancient images would be cordoned off and protected from the weather. I was reminded of the same cavalier treatment of the spectacular “Descent of the Ganges” in Mahabalipuram, which is also unprotected from the elements and visitors. And these are cultural artifacts that are at least 1,300 years old, and it is not at all clear if the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is capable of maintaining them.

What can be done?

A lot of what can be done is in the realm of policy, where the government, instead of running its own hotels and so on, creates mechanisms that nudge entrepreneurs to set up the infrastructure, without undue interference. That means licensing concessions, with some quality control, and some regulation, but to leave the implementation to small firms on the ground. This can lead to entrepreneurs as well as some large firms coming in to fill the gaps.

One general thought would be to play to your strengths. Compare this chaos to the way other countries have highlighted their history. China, for instance, has made its “terra cotta warriors” of Xian a must-see item. The World Heritage Sites in Indonesia or even in very poor Cambodia are so much better-maintained – and the restoration work there even after earthquakes and volcanic eruptions seems so efficient – that it is clearly not a matter of money, but of political will and cultural pride.

The ASI does not seem to have the inclination or the ability to maintain the heritage sites the way they should be; nor should we expect state tourism boards to be better. However, Kerala Tourism did a good job of marketing “God’s Own Country”, and unapologetically played to its strengths by offering homestays, backwater cruises, and Ayurveda, without trying to outdo, for instance, Goa, with its tropical paradise, beach party/drugs spiel that attracts low-end backpackers. Identifying the competitive advantages of a site should be done by the government in conjunction with local entrepreneurs. For instance, ecotourism, wellness/rejuvenation are themes that can attract well-heeled tourists.

A second step would be to help locals benefit from tourism. In South East Asia, you find that locals offer accommodation and other services at different price levels; and thus, for instance, heavily visited Bali is more prosperous than Java (even though the latter has the World Heritage Sites). Why is it that in the Badami-Pattadakkal-Aihole triangle, there are hardly any decent hotels or restaurants? Compare this, for instance, to the myriad beach shacks in Goa’s Calangute, and the homestays in Kerala. If the locals have a stake in tourism, they would automatically insulate tourists from bandhs and hartals.

In India, the number of hotel rooms is low; and they fall into either the truly expensive or the truly appalling categories. There is very little by way of rooms that middle-class tourists and pilgrims would prefer: something in the Rs 1,000-2,000 range, but safe and clean, with no frills. The Ginger chain was supposed to meet this need, but its prices have gone up. Incentives to local entrepreneurs to offer rooms in this range would increase the facilities available.

A related idea would be to promote local artifacts through geographical indications, for instance, Etikkoppaka wooden toys, so that the artisans with traditional knowledge may benefit. Can artisans be encouraged to open up handicraft emporia? They certainly do roaring business in Bali with local crafts.

A third would be the beautification and clearing away of unsightly neighbours. A clear demarcation of tourist sites as distinct from the villages would be helpful. For instance, in Badami, the village that abuts the caves should be relocated so that the approach is clean, attractive, and welcoming, not the unsightly mess it is now. The villagers should be compensated fairly and perhaps given priority in setting up services for tourists, such as souvenir shops, restaurants, and so on. But the approach to the sites should be beautiful, preferably with large parking spaces, a large, well-maintained park, and other appealing add-ons. For instance, at Prambanan in Java, there is a very popular performance of the Ramayana every night on a large stage with the temples in the background.

A fourth would be to charge a reasonable fee, with differential tariffs for foreigners and Indians. I think the fee at Borobudur for us foreigners was 10 times the fee for Indonesians, but that sort of differential is accepted by those who come from afar, though they would also expect facilities that justify the fee.

A fifth would be to construct well-maintained toilets in appropriate locations around the attraction. I have to say, Pattadakkal had decent toilets, but I can’t recall if Badami had any. It should be obvious to all that nasty, stinking toilets are the easiest way to turn off any tourists, domestic or foreign. If I remember right, in Angkor Wat, the toilets are free for foreigners who pay the hefty entrance fee, but Cambodians have to pay a small amount to use them (but Cambodians do not have to pay any entry fee).

A sixth idea would be to improve access. Perhaps the new, low-cost flights under UDAN, to smaller airports, will help. And there are some convenient trains, for instance, the Hampi Express from Bengaluru. But today, we are faced with the situation that it is cheaper, if you consider both airfare and accommodation costs, for an average tourist to go to Thailand or Indonesia than to many parts of India. And so I suspect outbound tourism is increasing more than internal tourism.

Finally, market these sites appropriately and widely. There is interest among Indians in heritage and in visiting some of the landmarks in India itself. For instance, I have noticed a lot of North Indians going to Kanyakumari and to Kerala, and an increasing number of South Indians heading to Rishikesh, Haridwar, etc. Temple circuits can be a big attraction, so can regional trips (e.g., Coromandel coast: Mahabalipuram, Puducherry, Thanjavur). If cleaned up, the “Buddhist circuit” can attract many from South East Asia and East Asia as well. So if these pilgrim and other locations are marketed through pin-point data analytics, it would be possible to increase internal tourism dramatically.

The problem, as usual in India, is not the lack of resources, but a lack of imagination and will. Let us also not forget that tourism is by no means an unalloyed good: it can lead to, among other things, the debasement of culture. When I see a “light” Kathakali performance in Kerala or a touristy Barong dance in Bali, I know it’s dumbed down, an aabhasam of the original. Yet, it’s better than the real thing disappearing forever.

Rajeev Srinivasan focuses on strategy and innovation, which he worked on at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley. He has taught innovation at several IIMs. An IIT Madras and Stanford Business School grad, he has also been a conservative columnist for twenty years.


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