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Australia woos Indian tourists

November 03, 2004 13:37 IST

Tourism between Australia and India has been like froth and bubble for too long. Both countries have too often focused elsewhere and ignored each other, says Timothy Fischer, 58, chairman, Tourism Australia. Fischer was in India recently to try to change just that.

Tourism Australia, an initiative launched by the Australian government on July 1 this year, is chalking out plans to unveil a new 'Brand Australia' in January 2005.

As part of the initiative, Fischer was in Mumbai to meet representatives of the travel and hospitality industry and to plan a media blitz to promote his island nation as a brand.

After tasting success with its tie-up with entertainment company Balaji Telefilms to promote the country in its television series, the board is negotiating with the entertainment industry for more. A number of serials from the Balaji stable have showcased Australia. Fischer is also pushing to introduce new flights to Mumbai and Delhi.

With the new campaign, Fischer intends to cash in on the potential that the Indian travel market offers. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of Indian visitors to Australia is on the rise.

In the last calendar year, 45,600 Indians visited Australia, a one per cent increase over the previous year. By this August, the number had swelled to 53,500, clocking a 23 per cent growth over the figure in the corresponding period last year.

Yet, there is more to Fischer's interest in India than just tourism. Australia's best known train enthusiast is fascinated by the Indian rail and the opportunities it provides.

"For colour, action and movement, there is nothing to compare with a big Indian railway station and in particular Mumbai's Victoria Terminus (now known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus)," he says.

Fischer has rated the terminus one of the top 12 stations globally in his book on great railways of the world -- Transcontinental Train Odyssey: The Ghan, The Khyber, The Globe.

Fischer's romance with the rails began in 1966 when he joined the Australian army as a transport officer. He went on to play an instrumental role in building Australia's north-south railways.

Mike Mohan, former US railroader, Southern Pacific Railways (now ARG, Perth), says of Fischer in his book: "Tim is one of the few people who have combined an interest and expertise in railways into doing something worthwhile for his country. Without his help, the Alice Springs to Darwin railway and other projects in Australia would simply never have happened."

Fischer says India has the potential to develop sentimental rail tourism as a niche market. According to him, people come from Germany and Australia simply to ride the Darjeeling toy train, the Simla train and the Palace on Wheels. Today, tourism is being seen as part of the vital fabric of a modern economy, he says.

In fact, Fischer sees rail as the future of tourism in the country, especially with over 10 million passengers using Indian Railways every day. In India, rail fatalities are less than one-seventh of the road fatalities, which numbered 75,000 last year. So rail is much safer per passenger-kilometre. "The world has no choice but to swing back to rail," he adds.

Indian cricket too is a great dimension of tourism, he says. "We have set up an Aussie army of curry crusaders to support India the next time it plays in Australia," he says. He believes there are many people like him, who travel across continents to watch cricket.

The cricket lover is also a chess player and a trekking enthusiast. Next on his agenda is a trek to Ladakh.

This is not the first time Fischer has come to India. On his maiden visit, he had taken his father to see the Taj Mahal at Agra. Since then, he has made scores of trips to the country to promote greater collaboration between trade and tourism as Australia's deputy prime minister and minister for trade during 1996 and 1999.

The former parliamentarian has all his fingers in as many pies. After retiring from the Federal Parliament in 2001, Fischer has been spearheading the Crawford Fund on International Agricultural Research, the Australian Winemakers Foundation and Famu Holdings, a private company.

He has a number of interests, primarily in export-oriented businesses. He juggles all this along with his responsibilities as the chairman of Tourism Australia.

And amongst all this, he manages to pack in his various trekking trips. Fischer's army background could be behind his athletic looks, active lifestyle and a smiling, impeccably well-mannered demeanour.

After all, not many at his age go trekking to Bhutan, Darjeeling and Ladakh. "I do have a lot of varied interests in Australia. But I am no longer in parliament and so get to spend a lot more time with my family. It is all about time management," he says.
Richa Singh in Mumbai