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Seeking tourists, India launches makeover campaign

The government boosted its tourism budget by $66 million this year.

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Mary Gilbert would love to visit India, but she hesitates.

"I have very mixed impressions of India," says the small-business owner from Cincinnati. "I would want to go to see the beauty. And I'd like to experience the culture." But then her reservations, like those of many Westerners, bubble to the surface: health concerns, difficult living conditions, and poverty.

It's an image India - one of the world's fastest-growing economies, and a nuclear power eager for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council - wants to shake off. Going on a major makeover offensive, the country jacked up its tourism budget from Rs.500 crore ($116.3 million) last year to Rs.786 crore ($182.79 million) this year.

"We're seeing tourism as a major area for employment and development," says Rajeev Talwar, director-general of the Indian Ministry of Tourism. Mr. Talwar is confident that the jobs and wealth tourism creates will efface India's searing pictures of poverty. "There's no better industry than tourism to provide employment in every corner," he says. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the travel and tourism industry in India is expected to generate $121.4 billion in economic activity and 26 million jobs by 2015.

Indian President Abdul Kalam has set the country a target of luring 15 million foreign tourists per year in five years - an ambitious jump from the 3.7 million visitors India welcomes each year.

India has budgeted $674.4 million for tourism over a five-year period from 2002-2007 - $250 million of which has already been spent. Prior to 2002, the tourism budget was just $23.25 million per year, according to the Planning Division of the Indian Ministry of Tourism.

How much progress?

Despite increases in the budget, there hasn't been "much progress," according to Tej Vir Singh, director of the Center for Tourism Research and Development in Lucknow. "In the last three to four years, we haven't been able to go beyond that [figure of] 3.7 million [tourists].

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