Narendra Modi is right about Agra. As he said, it is unlikely to get a sizeable share of the world’s $3 trillion tourism business. Unlikely, despite being home to the iconic Taj Mahal, the stunning garden tomb of Akbar – the Maqbara and the imposing Agra fort – all zeniths of Mogul creativity and engineering.
Driving past the swanky Yamuna expressway from Delhi, as one enters the historical town, there is genuine bafflement, horror in fact, at how much dirtier, smellier and lacking in infrastructure or character the city of the Taj is, even by our abysmal Indian standards. The roads are chaotic, traffic is in a perennial jam and contrary to all your hope of being transported back into Mogul era splendor, you are in for an all rounded assault on your senses - harrying travel agents, filthy budget hotels, incessant power cuts and the astounding lack of activities considered necessary at a tourist destination to pad up a holiday.
There is of course, no nightlife in Agra, or colorful street bazaars to hunt for bargains. You can’t make easy connections for day trips to places like the Bharatpur Bird Sanctury or the heritage capital city of Emperor Akbar Fatehpur Sikri, without being ripped off, and inconvenienced by bad road conditions. As a matter of fact, for a non luxury tourist, the hassle to get going on any activity is so intensely difficult in Agra, that you want to tune out, and get out as quickly as possible, after doing the obligatory Taj ritual.
So spectacular however, is the Taj experience that one agrees to tolerate Agra, even revisit perhaps, in the hope that things would change.
I did! Twice after my first visit. But nothing had changed. Only the Yamuna had become more squalid.
Alas, Agra doesn’t solely hold the dubious distinction of being an apology for what it could have been. Traverse the length and breadth of ‘Incredible India’ – to Varanasi in the North, Puri in the East, Hampi down South or the Ellora caves in western state of Maharashtra – tourism is in shambles. Outside Ahmadabad, in Modi’s prized Gujarat, on a sneaky excursion while covering the Vibrant Gujarat Summit earlier this year, a fellow journalist friend & I almost missed the magnificent Adalaj Ni Vav – the 7 storied, 1499 AD step well, eclipsed as it was by an ugly political hoarding. On another occasion, so hassled was a female friend from overseas for being checked out from tip to toe outside the Red Fort in Delhi, that we canned our plans to explore.
No surprise then that many middle class Indians now flee overseas; to Bangkok and Singapore, or Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, substituting them as destinations of choice, to escape the travails of travel in India. International visitors too aren’t flocking Indian shores. India attracted a mere 6.65 million tourists in 2012. That’s fewer than the 10 million that visited the city state of Singapore and far below 25 million that visited Malaysia, 57 million that made a trip to China and hold your breath – barely equivalent to what the tiny Italian heritage city of Venice attracted. Hong Kong, Morocco and even Poland managed to attract more inbound tourist traffic than India.
A quick glance at the World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2013 gives you an idea about why ‘Incredible India’ is simply not that incredible for tourists, languishing at the 65th place on the survey of 140 economies that were assessed. The real story is found in category rankings. We are placed in the top ten (9th) on nature, 24th on culture and heritage and 20th on price competitiveness, but a dismal 95th of tourism infrastructure, 132nd on restrictive visa policy and 109th on hygiene standards. The problem clearly isn’t that India isn't bountifully endowed, but that we’ve been so dreadfully to the rear in creating an ecosystem for tourism that the practical nuisances overbear the good things we have on offer.
In an environment where growth is faltering, the currency is instable, core investment is simply not taking off, allocating resources has become more difficult than ever and the services industry is looking for cheaper pastures, India must make tourism and the ancillary infrastructure around it, a focal point for development. Media reports, quoting a planning commission draft document illustrate how critical a role tourism can play in boosting economic growth. It is the main source of foreign exchange for a third of developing countries, creates 78 jobs for every million rupees invested in it as compared to 45 in the manufacturing sector and accounts for 53 million jobs in the country according to the report. The fact that despite spending only close to a percent of our GDP on it, tourism contributes to close to 7% to India’s GDP and over 10% of total employment generation shows how much of a multiplier effect it can have.
Sadly, with the campaign discourse restricted to mudslinging and one-upmanship, a more intelligent discussion on an inclusive tourism policy is unlikely to be heard. Modi spoke about it, only to take potshots at the incumbent government. The Congress is rarely heard referring to it, and the AAP too has ignored in its manifesto, any mention of a tourism policy for the city of djinns.
Incredible isn’t it, India?!