The year 2020 exposed the vulnerability of our cultural heritage which is dependent on tourism for its survival and forced the government to look at alternatives to keep not just the sites and monuments alive, but also to position India as the choice of destination when the coronavirus pandemic ends.
While acknowledging that in 2021, both approaches towards policy making and implementing them would be vastly different from what was done so far, Union Minister for Tourism and Culture Prahlad Patel said he wants to be cautious about the way forward.
“We are still dealing with the pandemic and alternatives that work now, like our activities on the digital platforms, they might or might not work when things are normal. We have to analyse if people would still prefer online platforms at a time when they can visit and actually see the sites. We have to be cautious and not take any drastic steps,” Patel told PTI.
In the past nine months, the ministry conducted more than 65 webinars depicting the culture, tradition, museums, monuments and artistes of the country under the Dekho Aapna Desh initiative.
The tourism sector is one of the largest industries and accounts for 6.23 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and provides employment to 8.78 per cent of the population.
It managed to generate around 275.5 billion dollars in revenue in fiscal 2018 with an annual growth rate at 9.4 per cent.
The tourism sector experienced a crippling effect with the nationwide lockdown announced in late March coinciding with the peak tourism season kickstarting from early April onwards.
Guides, tour operators, vehicle drivers, hotels, restaurants, shops and other facilities related directly or indirectly to tourism have taken a hit owing to the spread of the virus.
With both flights, inbound and outbound, and domestic train operations suspended, the Indian tourism industry is projected to book a revenue loss of Rs 1.25 trillion in calendar 2020 as a fall-out of the shutdown of hotels and suspension in flight operations after the onset and spread of the pandemic.
A study by CARE Ratings notes that the figure corresponds to a 40 per cent decline in revenue over calendar 2019.
The report assumes the impact of the pandemic on tourism at about 50 per cent during January and February 2020, while it may be higher at 70 per cent in March alone, following the suspension of international flights.
During April-June, the Indian tourism industry is expected to book a revenue loss of Rs 69,400 crore, denoting a year-on-year loss of 30 per cent.
Patel said now is the time to look inwards and promote unexplored parts of the country. If one cannot go abroad for their holidays or foreign tourists can’t come in, domestic tourism is the only way to keep the sector above water, he said.
“The loss to the tourism sector cannot be ascertained at this time as the pandemic is still underway. But, domestic tourism is the way to revive the tourism sector. Unexplored, unexploited destinations have to be identified and promoted. That is what we are trying to do, encourage people to visit places within the country,” Patel said.
He also said that India’s health, wellness centres, Ayush hospitals offering alternative care will draw tourists post the pandemic and they should be promoted as post-COVID care solutions.
The ministry is in talks to tie up such centres with insurance firms so that tourists can avail the insurance before arriving in India for treatment.
“Whatever damage coronavirus had to do has happened. Now the post-corona situation is one where our system of medicine, local cure and wellness methods are what could be best suited to deal with it. After corona, we are readying to promote medical tourism and we have recognised this opportunity,” Patel said, adding that medical visas could soon be given based on recommendations from these centres.
The tourism ministry has also started NIDHI (National Integrated Database of Hospitality Industry) where all stakeholders in the sector can register and use the platform to ideate, share best practices and connect with the government for ease of doing business.
Efforts are also underway to ensure that India has guides who are prolific in the UN languages so that they can interact with foreign tourists on a one-to-one basis.
There are six official languages of the United Nations. These are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. The ministry has also decided that wherever more than one lakh foreign tourists visit, other than Hindi and English signages will be made in their native language as well.
While on the culture ministry front, the focus so far has been to maintain safety norms, with the ministry restricting the number of tourists visiting such sites, slowly, footfalls are expected to grow.
The minister said that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was working on relisting ancient monuments and the number of such sites could increase from the present 3,691 to around 8,000 to 10,000 resulting in their better maintenance and protection.
“Our immediate goal is to revive the sector, encourage people to travel within the country so that our cultural heritage is promoted and there is succour for tourism stakeholders. There are some states like Goa which are already showing indications of revival. There has to be also a healthy debate on the tourism policy. Let us see how it goes,” said Patel.