MUMBAI CALLING

Can India's tourism sector save the nation's semi-skilled workforce?

Holi celebration in India. Credit: Kristin F. Ruhs / Shutterstock


Almost as soon as India gained its independence in 1947 it was a fairly prominent tourist destination. During the 1960s, the counterculture movement in the US led to large numbers of young people from the West touring the subcontinent, in search of enlightenment and some other things.

And even back in that decade, India had something to offer to everyone. At the same time that cash-strapped youth were able to pay their way across India on a tight budget, those of a posher disposition were lavishly served in places such as the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai—not to be confused with the mausoleum of the same name in Agra.

Half a century on, and India is still a tourist magnet. There is hardly a travel agency in the world without a picture of the Taj Mahal or other Indian monuments on its walls or in its brochures.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), tourism earned the Indian economy over USD240 billion in 2018—almost twice as much as India's world-famous IT industry. Tourism, meanwhile, created just under 43 million jobs, which is ten times more than jobs created by the IT industry.

Thanks to a series of rebranding efforts and long-standing political stability, tourists have been arriving in India in relatively high numbers in recent years, with the number of arrivals exceeding 10 million in 2018. Most visitors were heading for Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Agra, and Jaipur.

Admittedly, ten million arrivals per year is still far from ideal for a country the size of India. To put things in perspective, France welcomed 90 million tourists, China 62 million visitors, and Turkey 45 million travelers in the same year of 2018. So, there is still a long way ahead of India in terms of rebranding and policy-making.

A right step in the right direction was taken in terms of policy-making in 2014, when India considerably relaxed its visa policies. When the change came into effect in October 2014, citizens of some 168 countries were allowed to apply for e-Tourist Visas or Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) only a few days before landing in one of India's 28 international airports.

Prior to the visa policy reforms, travelling to India, for many nationalities, involved visits to an Indian embassy or general consulate, the filling out of multiple forms, and other obstacles that would tend to discourage pleasure-seeking travelers.

The measure was, evidently, a successful one, as arrivals in India showed a 20-fold month-on-month growth between October 2015 and October 2014, leaping from around 2,700 per month to over 56,000, according to The Times of India.

There is still room for the figure to grow since there is no shortage of attractions in India. As the seventh largest country in the world, India's climate ranges from snow-covered Himalayan highlands to picturesque tropical regions in the south.

This vast geographical expanse is home to countless cultures, which have over the years produced many examples of fine architecture, spiritual traditions, and delicious—but spicy—dishes.

The e-Visa scheme has accelerated the growth of medical tourism in particular. In 2017, roughly half a million people traveled to India to seek medical treatment. This was accomplished thanks to the presence of highly skilled healthcare providers in the country and the relatively low cost of medical services in India.

Medical tourists in India traditionally come from Southeast Asia, the subcontinent, and the Middle East, though in recent years and with the inauguration of world-class clinics and hospitals in Chennai and Mumbai, medical tourists from Commonwealth nations such as Australia and Canada are also seeking treatment in India—at a fraction of the cost that they had to pay for their required procedures back home.

In 2019, visa policies were further relaxed for medical tourists, allowing them to remain in the country for up to six months and receive any type of treatment in India, excluding organ transplants. Combined with other advantages such as the absence of language barrier for English speakers, this is going to be a big selling point for the industry in the coming years.

In the final analysis, India needs to focus on tourism as much as its other main economic sectors such as IT, pharmaceuticals, and automotive manufacturing.

If nothing else, tourism has the potential to create jobs in greater numbers than the aforementioned industries—as it was noted earlier. More importantly, tourism is a job creator for the nation's sizable semi-skilled workforce—which cannot be said of a sector like IT or pharma that exclusively recruits the highly skilled.

It goes, almost without saying, that a huge leap in Indian tourism is unlikely to take place in 2020 while the specter of COVID-19 is still hanging over us, and especially India. But with all the right elements already in place—and perhaps some little help from India's other major industry, pharmaceuticals, in defeating the new coronavirus—the 2020s could be the decade when Indian tourism takes off.