He changed the literacy landscape of Kerala, has been called ‘The Demoliton Man’, was placed among the top 100 young global leaders by Time magazine in 1994 and is now working towards making India ‘a vibrant hotspot’ for all tourists. Excerpts from a candid chat:
Words & photographs: Ambica Gulati
With little time on his hands, the Minister stepped into office, between coming back from Varanasi to flying to Kochi. Driving the tourism sector and finding ways to make it a sustainable livelihood, he is constantly racing against time but does not look flustered.
The tourism sector accounted for 8% employment in 2017, providing employment to 41.6mn people. And this is where the Minister’s focus lies—livelihood for the people involved, growth for the sector and pleasure for the tourists. “There’s no point in building resorts or hotels if no one is going to stay there. Our success in tourism is measured when people go to other places to enjoy, stay there for a few days, shop and eat,” says the Minister.
Safety, hygiene, infrastructure, heritage and culture preservation–India’s challenges and appeal lie in its diversity. Despite the odds, the Ministry of Tourism’s annual report (2017-18) shows an upward trend:
- Foreign Tourist Arrivals (FTAs) during 2017 were 10.18 million with a growth of 15.6% over same period of the previous year.
- Foreign Exchange Earnings through Tourism (FEEs) during the period 2017 were Rs.1, 80,379 crore with a growth of 17% over same period of previous year.
For steady growth in all areas, the ministry is working on different arenas at the same time. For increasing FTAs, the Minister spent a good many hours on honing the 60-second videos launched under the Incredible India 2.0 campaign. The videos cover different aspects of tourism (luxury, spirituality, wellness, adventure, heritage, cuisine) and are being promoted in the world market. “These are being aired on CNN at prime time and other prominent global channels. There is a story in everything and we want the world to experience that story in India. We had only a small percentage of visitors from China last year. We should have more and that’s why we participated in two roadshows in China recently. We need to go for more roadshows.”
In the domestic market, religious tourism is on a high. For augmenting this area, the ministry has two schemes: Swadesh Darshan and PRASHAD or Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual, Heritage Augmentation Drive.
Under Swadesh Darshan, theme-based tourist circuits have been identified, so that the tourist gets to see the entire belt related to that theme. The 15 circuits are: North-East India Circuit, Buddhist Circuit, Himalayan Circuit, Coastal Circuit, Krishna Circuit, Desert Circuit, Tribal Circuit, Eco Circuit, Wildlife Circuit, Rural Circuit, Spiritual Circuit, Ramayana Circuit, Heritage Circuit, Tirthankar Circuit & Sufi Circuit. During 2017-18 (up to 31.12.2017) Ministry of Tourism had released Rs. 907.36 crore for the projects sanctioned under this scheme.
Under PRASHAD, the objective is to develop holistic and heritage destinations. In this, 25 cities have been identified for development: Amaravati (Andhra Pradesh), Amritsar (Punjab), Ajmer (Rajasthan), Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh), Dwarka (Gujarat), Deoghar (Jharkhand), Badrinath (Kedarnath), Belur (West Bengal), Gaya (Bihar) , Guruvayoor (Kerala), Hazratbal (Jammu & Kashmir), Kamakhya (Assam), Kanchipuram (Tamil Nadu), Katra (Jammu & Kashmir) Kedarnath (Uttarakhand), Mathura (Uttar Pradesh), Patna (Bihar), Puri (Odisha), Srisailam (Andhra Pradesh), Somnath (Gujarat), Tirupati (Andhra Pradesh), Trimbakeshwar (Maharashtra), Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh), Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) and Vellankani (Tamil Nadu). During 2017-18 (up to 31.12.2017) Ministry of Tourism had released an amount of Rs. 83.24 crore for these projects.
Addressing issues related to safety and the Thomson Reuters report (2018) ciitng India as unsafe for women, he says, “We have to work together and we are all brand ambassadors of our country. India is a safe country. When a foreign couple was attacked by monkeys in Agra (May 2018), I personally went there and offered them a stay. But they were so polite and said that this could have happened anywhere.”
On infrastructure and hygiene, the Minister does agree that India needs to up its game. Which is why the schemes are to be implemented with full force where state governments and district collectors play a crucial role. “But we do have a fairly good infrastructure in some places, such as Khajuraho. It has an airport, five-star hotels and heritage,” he emphasises.
On a personal note, his normal meal is a ‘three-minute one with food coming from home’, does not watch the stars on the silver screen and doesn’t mind taking selfies. In a hotel, he just needs a clean room with clean bed sheets and towels.