India receives three million foreign tourists a year while a small country like Thailand, with much more limited geographic and historical attraction, receives more than three times that number and they plan to double it to 20 million tourists in the next decade.
The importance of tourism is not only the foreign exchange it brings in but, more importantly, in the employment it generates at several locations and in several layers of society -- ranging from airline staff to hotel employees and scooter-taxi wallahs.
India is yet to be marketed to its full potential as a tourist destination. Let us explore some possible ways of marketing India in new ways.
The first step in any marketing exercise is to identify the customer and his or her needs and inclinations. Tourism is a leisure occupation for those who can afford it.
The major sources of such tourists are the three richest regions of the world, viz. the US, Western Europe, and Japan. And in those regions, the target groups we have to attract are people who have the time and the money.
These are usually people who have retired and can afford to explore the world outside their own immediate reach. The younger backpackers or student-type tourists are not sufficiently well funded.
Therefore, they are not our primary target group although they should also be encouraged and welcomed to this country as they can be our brand ambassadors to the older generations of their countrymen and one day when they can afford it, they may come back with their own families.
Taking our primary target group of retired people, there is one common characteristic among such people throughout the world. They like to play golf and explore history, religions, and arts, for which they had little time when they were busy with their careers.
So far, the Indian tourism industry has focused on selling ancient, medieval, and Mughal India, the temples and forts of ancient days. This is good but it isn't enough.
We need to explore opportunities for leisure tourism, and for playing games like golf. There are people who will come to enjoy India's winter sun, and so Goa has been marketed, but India has many more beaches.
More recently, Kerala has successfully marketed itself for everything -- from the ayurvedic massage to its backwaters. India's hill states can easily attract more tourists than Nepal does, especially now that Nepal is in trouble, but Nepal is much better organised for trekkers and mountain-lovers than Uttaranchal or Himachal Pradesh.
The Japanese and Chinese will willingly do the Buddhist circuit in much greater numbers, if we can organise a pleasant experience for them in Bihar. Then, our colonial history presents its own opportunities.
Fortunately, in my opinion, we as a nation have become confident enough in our own standing and achievements that we can rise above anti-colonial feelings and talk about the colonial period without inhibitions or resentment.
Although the Mughals colonised India and even converted our people to their religion four centuries ago, today we take pride in showing tourists monuments like the Taj Mahal as the pride of India.
With the passage of time, the same is happening to the monuments and cities built by our European colonisers -- the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the British.
For a European tourist it is often more interesting to see remnants of the adventurers from their own countries. Even for the Americans, it is easier to relate to such sites as most of them are descendants of Europeans.
Fortunately, we have several such monuments and sites bearing witness to the history of our European colonisers. We should use them to market our country.
Take Pondicherry. It has several French remnants, including the use of the French language. In France schoolchildren are still taught about the French empire in India, which consisted of Pondicherry, Mahe, Karaikkal, and Chandannagar.
Of these, Pondicherry is probably the most attractive and easily accessible from Madras. If our tourism ministry produced a film in French about Pondicherry and showed it as an advertisement on French television, it would boost French tourism to India.
From Pondicherry a French tourist can go to Mysore, where Tipu Sultan, an ally of the French, fought the British along with the French. The story of Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach our shores by sea, will be of immense interest to most Europeans.
He was buried in Cochin in a church which is still standing.
But perhaps the people who have most historical connections with India are the British and through them their cousins from the US. The British East India Company began its operations in Madras.
Inside the walls of Fort St George in Madras, there is a small church, St Mary's, where Clive, the founder of the British Empire, was married. St. Thomas Mount and Santhome Cathedral in Madras are other historical monuments from Portuguese times.
The other legacy of the British is the plantations of the Nilgiris on the Eastern side and Munnar on the Western side. The pioneering British planters braved malaria and wild animals to create the rubber, coffee, and tea estates which are totally Indian-owned today.
A drive from Ooty and Conoor over the hills to Munnar can combine history with some of the most beautiful sights of nature in India. On the way one can see how wild elephants are captured and trained systematically and humanely to become useful vehicles for the movement of heavy timber in difficult terrain.
There are very few locations in the world where this can be seen. A travel film on this section of India in itself can be a great advertisement for India.
The drive from Munnar to Cochin is an essay in the beauty of nature. Tea plantations give way to coffee estates and then to rubber estates as we descend and suddenly we break out into plains with rice fields and coconut groves.
We can end up in some fine hotels, located on the shores of the vast backwaters of Kerala, the like of which one can never see anywhere else in the world.
But perhaps the least exploited among our cities is Mumbai as a creation of the British. Until about 300 years ago, Mumbai was a collection of fishing villages inhabited by Kohlis, who were local fisherfolk.
It was only when it was gifted to the British as part of the dowry of Charles II, who married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, that Mumbai came to the notice of the British.
They shifted their western base from Surat to this collection of fishing villages, which they discovered were bordering a deep-sea harbour.
They built a fort and a church, as they did everywhere they settled. The church is still in existence as St Thomas Cathedral, the fort gate to which was called Churchgate (after which a whole part of Mumbai is called even today).
But if you ask anyone today where is this church in Churchgate, no one can recognise St Thomas Cathedral as it is dwarfed by high-rise buildings.
The other gates in the fort were Bazargate facing North, and Apollo Gate, leading to Apollo Bunder in the South.
Mumbai Castle, which they inherited from the Portuguese, still exists within the Naval dockyard.
There is a whole treasure trove of British history woven around South Mumbai.
In short, if we were to look at different parts of India against the canvas of the history of the European merchants in India, we can create a whole saga of great interest to Western tourists.No other country in Asia has this asset and it is time for us to exploit it by marketing this part of our history.