Destination for all reasons...

A land of paradox ... temple elephants exist amicably with microchip industry.

India is a country of immense diversity offering friendly people, great monuments, art, culture, festivals (330 annually) and cuisine. It is also a modern nation leading the E-revolution with a pool of talented software engineers.

Modern India is often viewed as a paradox being home to tribes with anachronistic lifestyles as well as the urban jet-setter.

Temple elephants exist amicably with the microchip industry. India is home to one billion people, which makes the country the world's largest democracy. Industrial development has brought India with in the world's top 10 nations.

JONNA SIMON speaks to Gour Kanjilal, regional director West Asia, Government of India Regional Tourist Office in Dubai about the country's tourism industry, its growth, prospects and potential:

Q: Approximately how many tourists visit India from the UAE annually?

A: About 22,000 and last year 21,000 Arab nationals visited India besides about 8,000-9,000 tourists of European origin as well as 20-40,000 Indian citizens, but we do not count the latter as tourists. Many Indian nationals are visiting families or doing business in India.

The figures for Arab nationals visiting India show a 25 per cent increase over the previous year.

From an Arab vacationer's standpoint, Singapore is the number one destination and India comes in as number two. Singapore has been offering some very attractive free stays, we cannot compete with such offers.

Q: Which areas of India are most popular with visitors?

A: Many visitors go to Mumbai and Goa, others prefer New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.

In the summer months, visitors prefer to go to the mountains, where it is cooler. They go to the northern hills of Himachal, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir or Rajasthan, or they visit the eastern hills of West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.

Some visitors prefer to go to the western hills of Maharashtra and Gujarat or to the southern hills of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.

We have now started promoting Kerala as the new destination of the new millenniium. Hyderabad is also becoming very popular with Emirates flying seven-times a week to the city. A festival similar to the Dubai festival is now being planned by the city.

We have produced brochures in Arabic to encourage UAE nationals to visit India. We can offer 60 airports for visitors to fly into the country.

Emirates' new destinations, Chennai (Madras) and Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), have also helped in attracting visitors to India.

Q: Indian nationals living in the UAE - would they go on holiday to India?

A: Yes, many Indians go to India for their holidays, they practically fill up our planes for us. We have to reserve seats on flights to India for other nationalities in order to accommodate travellers of other nationalities.

During the school holidays, we have more than 170,000 Indians going to India for holidays, weddings, business or higher education for the children on more than 220 flights from the Gulf every week.

Q: Do you have any marketing campaigns planned to encourage tourism to India?

A: Yes, we have a promotion billed as 'India - Destination of the New Millennium' and also 'India - One Nation - Countless Destinations'.

We try to project India as a destination for all seasons and for all reasons.

Europeans normally take two holidays a year, one for going to their home countries and the second for culture, architecture or sports such as golfing. And Europeans working and living in the Gulf often visit India.

UAE nationals go to see wild life, the hill country with waterfalls and lovely scenery and increasingly for medical treatment, as there are numerous medical facilities on offer all over India.

Visitors can even go skiing in India at certain times of the year, they can enjoy golfing in many areas of the country or river rafting, we have many adventure holiday packages on offer.

We have also created special holiday packages in conjunction with Dnata Agencies.

Arab visitors often travelling with extended family members prefer to hire apartments, rent a car and do their sightseeing and excursions at their own leisure.

Q: Last year, how much was the tourism industry worth to India?

A: Last year India received 2.7 million visitors overall, which was worth $4 billion.

Q: Do you expect the current conflict in Afghanistan to have a major impact on tourism to India? The English cricket team originally hesitated to visit for instance.

A: Everybody has felt the after-effects of the atrocities committed in the US, and it has affected the aviation industry very hard with several airlines laying off staff or going bankrupt.

We have lost business from the UK, Germany, France, Scandinavia and other European countries as well as from the US. India is perceived to be close to the conflict in Afghanistan, as many people forget that India is a continent and visitors do not have to go to the north of the country for holidays, but can go to the south, west or east of India.

India is a safe destination for tourists and charter flights have started landing again in Goa and Kerala.

Of course, we do not know what will happen in the future, but I can assure visitors that India is quite safe to visit, also at the present time.

In the month of September this year, we had 162.000 visitors to India and up to September 11, 1.82 million tourists had been to India this year.

We are continuously working on confidence building measures with the travel agents, airlines and tour operators. We have articles in the print media, advertising, roadshows, workshops and have continued with TV participation.

Q: Has the Government of India invested in new hotels and other tourism infrastructures in the past year?

A: This year the prime minister of India has created a special committee to oversee the development of the tourism industry and the private sector has been given the initiative.

Many foreign hotel groups have opened hotels in India such as Hilton, Le Meridien and Inter-Continental, for example in Kerala. Indian groups such as Taj and Oberoi have also expanded their portfolios in India.

India every year has to cope with natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods, but we still try hard to maintain a high priority for the tourism industry.

Q: Would you say that a holiday to India is: Expensive, but good quality? Average priced? Not expensive and good value for money?

A: India can accommodate every type of tourist from 5-star luxury accommodation in converted palaces to budget hostels. Whatever the visitor desires, India can provide anywhere. India is a vast country with a multitude of experiences awaiting the visitor - thus we could say yes to all three suggestions.