In the early eighties, in the US, I recall our drive to Saratoga Springs. Looking at all the signage and hoardings, I conjured up an image of some majestic springs. After nearly an eager hour on the road, what greeted me at Saratoga was something slightly short of disappointment! To an extent that within our family, ‘Saratoga’ has become a metaphor for something that is exaggerated or drummed up while it is actually not quite that. In contrast sites steeped in historical, cultural and religious significance where nature’s bounty is on ample display – right from the rann to the lofty Himalayas — are a treat that India offers!
And yet, despite all this, even today India is believed to attract only two thirds of the number of tourists who throng the tiny island nation of Singapore, less than half of the number that visits Thailand and less than a quarter of those who visit Malaysia!
Christopher J Graves goes on to recount that in 2011, India had only as many tourist as Bulgaria – a country several times smaller. Where could we be possibly going wrong?
Most places of interests in India are wanting in development. Connectivity, infrastructure, collaterals, hotels & resorts are lacking. Even basic cleanliness is found lacking. In addition to the lack of facilities, our marketing faculties seem to be deficient.
Last summer, a pilgrimage tour in south India while completely satisfying in terms of the divine experience, left us with a bad taste due to the very reasons mentioned here. The aspiration and faith makes one overlook all the concerns of jostling crowds and poor civic facilities. But that cannot be a reason to let things be as they are.
Visiting the taluka town of Vijayanagar in Sabarkantha recently brought back great hope once again. Vijayanagar stood tall with its pristine forests on the hillsides very well suited for trekking, the ancient Polo temple and the 15th century destroyed city, Polonagari.
This year as part of the republic day event, a ‘Tour de Polo’ bicycle race is being organised! This has the potential of becoming an international event! Following my years in Panchmahals, Champaner was declared as a world heritage city.
Against the backdrop of the magnificent Mahakali temple atop Pavagadh, the city had exquisite mosques, Jain temples, palaces and water bodies. The Pavagadh hills provide the right opportunities for trekking and adventure sports such as paragliding. This is yet another place, in addition to the many others that I know of, in our backyard, which has immense potential. While these areas may be specially endowed, one can comfortably say that most districts in India have some or the other unique feature that lends them a special place from the travel & tourism perspective.
Proper planning, development of infrastructure, marketing and presentation of such places can make them sought after destinations. However, instead of blindly aping some of the tourist destinations of the world, can we think of addressing this differently?
Can we not ride on India’s strong culture of hospitality, her rich and diverse cultural heritage in the form of music, art, dance and entertainment, the unending cuisines, health therapies including Yoga and Ayurveda and make it an eco-friendly tourist destination with a phenomenal difference?
We may have missed the bus, so far, but can we not leapfrog without making the mistakes that others may have made? Can we capitalise on our strength of uniqueness and effectively present and convey this richness to the world to realise what Mark Twain had said, “So far, as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone by man or nature to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds”
Jayanti S Ravi
The author is a Harvard educated civil servant and writer, now working in the education sector