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Are we cows to be milked?

December 01, 2003

Even though statistics show that tourists are coming to India in greater numbers in 2003, smaller countries such as Malaysia get double the amount of tourists, without speaking of China, where everybody is flocking to these days!

As usual, the Indian government is pointing a finger at European countries for putting India on the watch list after the twin blasts in Mumbai, instead of doing some real introspection at what is wrong with its policies and heavily taxing the tourism industry.

I often shuttle between Chennai and Delhi. A return ticket by Indian Airlines or Jet (which is more expensive) between these two cities costs more than Rs 22,000. For that price, I can fly from Paris to New York, which is triple the distance.

And that is economy only: it will cost you a whopping Rs 34,220 return fare for a business class ticket on Jet from Chennai to Delhi. If you have the misfortune to be a foreigner, you will have to pay 30% to 40% extra, depending on the dollar exchange rate, which means you will have to disburse Rs 42,000 for a business class return Chennai-Delhi. For that price you can fly to Europe and back in economy!

This is why, Jet, Indian Airlines, or Sahara, run only two or three flights a day each between New Delhi, the capital of a one billion people nation, and Chennai, a city of five millions souls and the gateway to the South. Even these two flights are not full, in spite of the apex fares.

The French have one flight every 15 minutes between Paris, the capital, and Nice, their gateway to the South. They are always full because all kinds of incentives are offered: return fares, discounts on weekends, off-season fares. You can even fly cheaper on airlines such as Easy Jet: £30 return London-Paris -- hardly Rs 2,000!

A one way economy ticket from Chennai to Bangalore will cost you Rs 3,500 on Jet. Of course, Indian Airlines and Jet will tell you it is because they are taxed heavily by the government (fuel, airport charges, etc), but if Deccan Air can take off, it will prove it is the Nehruvian mentality of Indians which makes it difficult to innovate and offer better services to the customers.

The funniest thing is that there is sometimes a 15-day waiting list to travel by train from Chennai to Delhi (or the other way) in second class A/C sleeper, which costs a little over Rs 2,000 and takes 36 hours -- that is when the train is not a few hours late or does not have an accident. If Indian Airlines or Jet had the intelligence to offer Chennai-Delhi tickets at Rs 3,000, regardless of the dates, people will gladly shell out another 1,000 bucks, just to avoid the 36-hour trip.

IA could easily fill up six Airbus-320 aircraft a day and make a handsome profit, instead of hiking up its prices four times in the last five years.

The price of a hotel room in a five-star hotel in the four big metropolises is never under $300 for a foreigner, that is nearly Rs 16,000 rupees. I stayed last month in the Warsaw Hyatt, brand new and offering much better amenities than many hotels in India: price $100 net. The Inter Continental in Hamburg, with a superb view on the lake: $200. The 35% so-called luxury taxes levied not only on the rooms, but also on food and drinks, makes for outrageous prices: it's $300 + 35% taxes, without speaking of Rs 120 for a bottle of pesticide-laden mineral water!

A dinner in a five star hotel is as expensive as in Europe, although, even today, their continental food can't even compare with a one star restaurant in a minor French town. The 5 star hotels groan and moan that these taxes are levied by the government (supposedly to take from the affluent and give money to the poor, although these levies never reach the needy of India), but why can't they bear a share of the taxes, instead of slapping it on their hapless customers? After all many of these five star hotels are very old hotels and most of the profits go in their pockets -- and not in paying for the loans incurred to buy land and build their hotels.

And what about Indians paying Rs 20 to see the Taj Mahal or at Hampi and foreigners being asked Rs 500? Are we cows to be milked? Does the Indian government think it is going to earn the goodwill of tourists and guarantee their return, when they are discriminated against?

Moreover, the hassles faced by foreigners in India are not only financial. Take visas for instance. In Sri Lanka, all foreigners are automatically handed a one month visa upon their landing at the airport. But not in India. One has to apply to sour faced, underpaid staffers at Indian embassies abroad -- and forget about five year visas, even if you have been visiting India for 35 years.

Renewing your tourist visa can also be a nightmare, although one can buy them, I heard, in embassies of neighbouring countries, such as Nepal or Bangladesh.

What about banks? 30 years ago, it took half an hour to change $100 in the State Bank of India, Pondicherry. Today they may have computers, but it still takes half an hour! It is not only government banks, but also private banks. With the prize money of my Natchiketa award for journalism, I started a foundation against terrorism, FACT -- Foundation Against Continuing Terrorism.

I was advised to bank with ICICI -- and that was a big mistake, although ICICI advertises itself as a friendly customer bank.

It took four months to get a credit card, although there were more than Rs 10 lakhs in the account, I am an accredited journalist with the Government of India, married to an Indian, and a long term resident. Finally, I had to get someone to talk to one of the top directors of ICICI. So much for doing business in India if you are a foreigner. It is still a nightmare: you need an approval for each foreign donation prior to it being put in the bank and it takes one to two months to get it.

You can imagine what it means when many of my donations are of $100, sometimes $50 or $20. Also they turned down cheques made out to FACT, even though it is the name which appears on the letterhead of my Trust. They behaved worse than an Indian government bank.

It is high time the Indian government removes these archaic luxury taxes on hotels, relaxes rules for foreigners and lowers the taxes imposed upon airlines, if India really wants to attract the kind of tourism it deserves. Indian Airlines and Air-India have also to be privatised quickly, otherwise these two heavyweights will never allow fair competition.

For India is a great tourist country which lives for itself. What I mean, is that most other tourist countries put up folkloric and cultural shows, which have long disappeared from their own indigenous way of life, for the purpose of foreigners. In India, Pushkar is a real camel fair, the Meenakshi temple of Madurai is a genuine living temple, garba is still widely danced in Gujarat, Kalaripayat is practiced in Kerala's villages.

Long live this wonderful, vibrant and unique India.

The author is a French journalist, who has lived for in India 35 years. He is the correspondent in South Asia for Ouest-France, France's largest circulation newspaper and was awarded the Natchiketa prize of journalism by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

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Francois Gautier

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