Something for every visitor in India

The Sunderbans delta is home to Bengal tigers

TOURISM is one of the fastest growing sectors in India and according to Vikas Rustagi, who recently took charge as the new regional director (West Asia and Africa) for India Tourism Dubai, for a first-timer, India offers a very comfortable product.

The country is currently looking to promote newer destinations across the subcontinent as well as newer tourism products including cultural, spiritual experiential travel.

Despite tough times, the country has witnessed a nine-per-cent increase in tourist arrival numbers from last year.

Rustagi said: “Post the global recession, we saw a dip in foreign arrival numbers into India, which was followed by the Mumbai terror attacks and this happened during our peak tourist months. So yes, there was a major setback in tourist arrivals and we were struggling to maintain the five million mark that we achieved in 2007.

“While we lost some fantastic opportunities in 2008-2009, India recovered steadily and in 2009, we recorded an increase of nine per cent in tourist arrivals. Further our foreign tourist arrivals touched 5.58 million in 2010, a further spurt of 9.3 per cent over 5.1 million tourist arrivals in 2009.

“A key contributor to this is that today the Indian economy is one of the fastest growing in the world. And with the growth of a middle-class sector, estimated at more 350 million people, it means more disposable income and therefore a steady increase in domestic tourism across the country. These domestic travellers have evolved and are no longer only visiting relatives or going on pilgrimages, but travelling purely for leisure.”

To support this, India has introduced some very good infrastructural measures including one of the largest train networks of fast trains, making journeys much easier for travellers who are keen to explore new cities across the length and breadth of the country.

While the country’s traditional source markets have been the US, UK, Germany, Italy and France, Canada is now emerging as a new source market as well as regional neighbours such as Sri Lanka and other SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) countries.

Today the Middle East stands in the top 15 source markets and is rapidly increasing. “You can’t ignore the region and countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have continued to show a fantastic response over the years. Currently, we see close to 450,000 arrivals from the region and expect to see an average growth between nine and 12 per cent every year,” said Rustagi.

So what is it about India that appeals to the Arab traveller?

“Arab travellers are now looking for new experiences, something more holistic and adventurous. Cities like Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad can offer the city life, shopping and fine dining; Kerala is already a hot destination for its Ayurvedic offerings. And Goa is a popular beach destination.

India is also becoming popular in the monsoon season for its lush greenery, a unique experience for Arab travellers. Other niche products like our luxury trains, cruises on the backwaters and hill-stations are also becoming very popular,” added Rustagi.

Among the various tourism products available is medical and wellness tourism. Today, India is home to state-of-the art medical facilities, world-class doctors and hospitals as well as the ancient healing systems like Ayurveda.

India is a multi-faceted country and caters to almost every kind of tourism product. With 85 per cent of the Indian population living in villages, rural tourism too is fast gaining popularity allowing guests to experience the true India in terms of lifestyle, cuisine, handicrafts, folk art and folk music.

A programme promoting rural tourism started with 50 centres and today there are more than 125 with demand for the product coming largely from European and Australian visitors.

“We also have something called ‘tribal tourism’, some of which is in restricted areas so as to preserve them,” said Rustagi. “In addition we have developed a number of niche tours like textile tours, which showcase various ethnic textiles and techniques like tie-n-dye or weaving among others.

“Visitors can also try ‘soft adventure’ which includes river rafting, kayaking, river running, trekking, mountain climbing, camping and safaris, etc.”

Sustainability is very important in India which was one of the first few countries to have an eco-tourism policy in place which is implemented everywhere from mountains and beaches to the jungle.

Wildlife tourism in India is also very popular and is easily incorporated into an itinerary with world-renowned wildlife sanctuaries including the Bandipur National Park, the Jim Corbett National Park and Ranthambore National Park.

“History and culture goes hand-in-hand when holidaying in India,” said Rustagi. “Documented history goes back 500 years and our cities boast monuments and architecture dating back thousands of years. Rajasthan alone boasts more forts and palaces than all the 30 countries of Europe. We also have a number of heritage hotels across the country which allow travellers to experience these historic structures, the minimum requirement being that the venue must have been built prior to 1950.

“Business travel is also a growing sector in India. Today we can boast of world-class Mice facilities, in modern convention centres in cities such as Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad or Chennai,” added Rustagi.

He also stressed the tourism authority’s commitment to the north-eastern states of the country  highlighting India’s diversity in terms of distances, cultures, lifestyle and languages with the north-eastern states among the most unique areas of India.

He said: “India Tourism is largely focussed in this area and, as a policy, a fixed amount of our annual budget has to go into the development of the north-east.

“The Ministry of Tourism has a separate allocation for this region since we need to expose and showcase it to the world.
“States like Meghalya (also known as the Switzerland of India) Manipur, Assam and Himachal Pradesh are very unique in their offerings with food, culture, wildlife, traditions and history.

“The Sunderbans delta, located in this region, is the world’s largest river delta and also home to the Bengal tigers.

“While connectivity and limited infrastructure facilities used to be a concern, now with an ‘open sky’ policy and state-run tourism cooperation which is ensuring good accommodation facilities, these states are witnessing an influx of visitors.”

Speaking about his plans for the region, Rustagi said: “We want to focus on medical, wellness and holistic tourism, luxury travel, the monsoon season and the luxury train travel to India.

“Besides the Palace on Wheels, we also have a lot of new luxury trains such as the Golden Chariot and the Deccan Odyssey. The government has understood the importance of tourism, not only in terms of foreign exchange returns but also the employment opportunities it brings for the Indian people.

“The tourism economy has a dispersal effect offering various venues of employment. We have been putting a lot of effort into man-power development with various hotel management training facilities.”

He concluded that for Arab travellers, India is cost effective, the language is not difficult, halal cuisine is easy to find and the country is a very family-oriented destination with strong flight connections to various cities.