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 Article Published in The Economic Times  17 January, 2002

Catching the Chinese Tourist

Events of September 11 brought about a global recession in the airlines, hotel and travel businesses. Indian tourism industry too suffered badly in 2001, with the number of tourist arrivals dropping 6%, from 2.64 million to 2.49 million and foreign-exchange earnings taking a hit. In spite of India’s decade-old liberalization, number of visitors is stuck at around 2.5 million, even though the country offers a huge variety to the tourists, in terms of different cultures, languages, food and monuments of historical, religious and cultural importance. Even smaller countries like Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, with their progressive policies on promoting tourism, attract about 7-10 m tourists a year and earn 3-4 times the foreign exchange that India earns (around $2.5 billion).

Question is how can the Indian tourism industry be revived, so that it generates more employment and brings visitors to the country. Can we really go beyond the traditional thinking and create the necessary tourist infrastructure and also diversify the source of visitors?

Looking to our Asian neighbours could be a sensible solution to boost the numbers. As some parts of Asia grow richer, more and more Asians are now traveling. The Chinese, with their fast rising incomes and a 40% personal saving rate, are particularly a huge lot, traveling outside their country. Chinese citizens made 10 m exits and spent $10.6 billion in 2000, which compares well with 18 m Japanese exits and 25 m that of Americans. China is poised to become the world’s largest source of tourists and India has a lot to offer to these travelers. Number of outbound Chinese is likely to go up to 50 m by 2010, according to an estimate by World Tourism Organisation.

Choicest destinations include Bangkok in Thailand, Kuala Lumpur and Penang in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. Thailand had no Chinese visitors to speak of, till 1994, but in 2000, more than 750,000 tourists arrived there, creating a problem of accommodating them. Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and South Korea each received around half-a-million tourists from China in 2000. However in China, movements of people are restricted and the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) has to accord ‘approved destination status’ (ADS) to the countries, where people can visit. CNTA has declared the ten countries of ASEAN, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand under the ADS.

Why is India lagging behind in getting the Chinese revelers to its beautiful shores at Goa and Kovalam, or in taking the Chinese Buddhists to the religious sites at Budh Gaya, Nalanda, Rajgriha and Sarnath? At least 40% Chinese are firm believers in the tenets of some or the other sect of Buddhism. For India, China has been the most neglected sector for historical reasons of 1962 war. How should we now target for a chunk of Chinese tourists and earn dollars spent by them?

India and China have had strong historical and cultural ties, since ancient times. There had been regular exchanges of people and knowledge through centuries. India had Chinese visitors in the past and some came to Nalanda for studies. Fa-Hien who stayed in India from 405 to 411 A.D, during the reign of Chandragupta II, was the earliest of the Chinese pilgrims who began to crowd into India as the Holy Land of Buddhism, from beginning of the fifth century. Account of the famous Chinese, Hiuen Tsang provides details of Gupta administration.

India’s advantages of religious, cultural and entertainment tourism would surely attract the upcoming Chinese. Religion can play an important role and Lord Buddha, it seems, could rescue the Indian tourism industry, as ‘He’ is worshipped in large number of homes in China. Historical Buddhist monuments at Budh Gaya, Rajgriha and Sarnath and other places could be good attractions for the Chinese tourists. Operators in Guangzhou and Shanghai could be encouraged and provided with incentives to organize ‘Group tours’ to take the tourists to places in the ‘Buddhist circuit’. Taj Mahal too like the ‘Great wall of China’ would be a hot selling attraction.

India must therefore devise a strategic marketing plan by hiring professional services of a Chinese ‘Public Relations’ (PR) firm for getting the Chinese tourists to this country. Further for constant flow of tourists, infrastructure and sanitation services, in particular, must be improved in the tourist places, by privatizing these services.

Tourism also offers a way out for the two estranged neighbours to come together and play an important role in the world affairs. Visit of the Chinese premier, Zhu Rongji, whose itenary includes a glimpse of the Taj at Agra, could be utilized by India to make a new beginning in the relationship between the two countries, by negotiating for ‘ADS’ and allowing more direct flights.