AMBIKA Soni looks happier but careworn in her new avatar as the Minister for Tourism and Culture of the Government of India.
She has a more spacious, comfortable and equipped office at Transport Bhavan in New Delhi as a minister than when she was the general secretary of the All India Congress Committee, in charge of media. Happier still, now she has far fewer mediamen to deal with.
Ambika believes in the beauty of continuity and is obsessive about the ongoing programmes of the ministry rather than introducing ideas of her own. She works like a woman in a hurry, to get things done and to have results. Her ministry is probing the possibilities of visas on arrival, multiple-entry five-year visas and electronic visas in an attempt to revolutionise the tourism sector in the country and bring in more than the current four million international tourists annually. Excerpts from an interview with TTN:
How do international tourist arrivals in India in 2006 compare with the previous year?
We have had a very satisfying year so far on the tourism front, with the number of foreign travellers to our country increasing at the rate of 14.7 per cent in the first half. January onwards, we had the number of arrivals in the vicinity of 400,000 every month, though summer time witnessed a decline, naturally. Foreign exchange earnings also have registered a significant growth of 10 per cent in the range of $600-$650 per month.
Do you have specific numbers from the Middle East?
We don’t keep country-wise figures but the number of travellers from the Gulf and the Middle East has increased every year. We have a long historic and cultural relationship with those countries and hundreds of thousands of our countrymen work and live there.
What is being done about visas on arrival? This was one concept you talked up on taking over as minister a few months ago. Has the concept taken off? Will the visa process be simplified?
There is a little bit of a problem for visas on arrival in terms of security, as the home ministry has pointed out. However, providing better visa facilities is our priority and we are thinking in terms of a five-year visa with multiple entry. This will be a big encouragement to the tourism sector. We are also probing the plausibility of electronic visa. There have been complaints about longer visa formalities which have to be addressed, so we are talking to various ministries to help the tourism sector better. Laluji (Railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav) has agreed to provide additional tourist facilities at heritage cites, for instance.
How do you look at upgrading India’s airports vis-a-vis tourism development?
We can’t have bad airports and expect better tourist inflow. Improving airports will help in the development of tourism. At the same time, it isn’t enough to upgrade only the bigger airports. Alongwith Delhi, Mumbai and other metropolitan airports, regional airports also need to be improved and people need to be able to go directly to regional centres.
What are your ministry’s new initiatives?
Village, health, wellness and cruise tourism are some of the new products that we have on offer. Village tourism is the one where we select villages with some specialities to offer, like fishing village of Kumbalangi in the south (Kerala) or handicrafts village of Hoshiarpur in the north (Punjab). We provide for the betterment of the special feature that the village is known for as well as for its infrastructure. Villagers are encouraged to provide clean living apartments and food to visitors.
Health tourism is gathering momentum as we can provide quality medical facilities cheap. Dentistry, plastic surgery and joint replacement are some areas we focus on. There is a rehabilitation period of seven to ten days after the first stage of treatment that can be tapped for tourism. Our guests won't regret to have a taste of ‘Incredible India’ during that recess. Wellness tourism, on the other hand, aims at healthy travellers and offers Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, which already have a big following.
We are planning to introduce a cruise tourism package that will connect tourist spots and beaches across the coastline such as Goa, Mumbai, Kerala and the Andaman islands.
Given the size of the country, isn’t it difficult to sell India as one brand?
All our programmes come under the banner of ‘Incredible India’. We don’t have a cohesive, single package to offer and that is our strength. Diversity is our selling point. We have the paradise of Kashmir, backwaters of Kerala, the mountainous northeast, beaches and monuments. We don’t promote any particular region on its own and are now in a position to offer our diverse, incredible presentations in different packages.
Is it safe to travel to India, especially to places like Bihar?
We are trying to make things safer to the maximum possible extent. We have tourist police in place at different parts of the country to take care of tourists and monuments. Generally India is a safe destination.
How do you look at the bomb blasts in Kashmir and Mumbai? Will that affect tourism?
Very unfortunate. After so many years, Kashmir’s economy, totally dependent upon tourism, had started looking up when the terrorists struck. What the terrorists didn’t understand is that those who fear to travel to Kashmir will go to Kulu and Manali. Kashmiris have sharply responded to the attacks by holding demonstrations in the streets against terrorism. They know that the terrorists are taking away their daily bread and butter. So terrorist strikes in Kashmir and Mumbai aren’t going to leave any lasting impact on the country's tourism industry.