Security of women is a priority goal in promoting India as a tourism destination, says Mahesh Sharma, Union minister of state for tourism, culture and civil aviation. He talks to Arijit Paladhi & Nivedita Mookerji on the steps being taken. Edited excerpts:
What is this government doing in the tourism sector that has not been done before?
Our potential remains untapped. Our share is barely 0.64 per cent of global total tourist numbers and foreign exchange earnings are low, too. There are essentially three catch points we have focused on - cleanliness, safety & security and hospitality. Security for women is a primary concern; each untoward incident sets us back by years in our potential as a tourist destination.
A student from India was turned down for an internship by a professor in a German university, citing 'India's rape problem'. How is your ministry addressing such issues?
This is not a legal or ministerial problem. It's a social problem and that's what our prime minister said in his speech from the Red Fort. The person raping is someone's son and we need to focus on that aspect, rather than simply protecting our daughters.
We are thinking of facilitating end-to-end tourism. We have also introduced a 24x7 helpline, with the number 1363, operational in two languages and to soon be expanded to 12 languages. Adding six more countries to the list of nations granted e-visa will help us reach 62 per cent of our potential tourist inflows. With a total of 150 countries to be added, it's going to be a massive boost for Indian tourism.
Is there any timeframe you are holding yourself to for e-visa to 150 countries, announced in the Union Budget?
It's going to be in a staggered manner. We proposed six countries for consideration over the next six to eight weeks.
Do you think the recent documentary on Nirbhaya, India's Daughter, that was banned, would depict India in a bad light and affect tourism?
India's perception and that of another country on the documentary are slightly different. If the documentary is seen through the Western perception, we essentially advertise that India is a country with a rape problem. I have heard the alleged culprit's remarks are and these are not in good taste. Why advertise a thing that's not in good taste? We need to educate the next generation. We are also bringing out a booklet to be issued at the immigration counter at airports, about the do's and don't's while visiting India.
Does it help that you have both the tourism and civil aviation portfolios?
Yes, I think it's a great synergy.
With that synergy, how do you propose to make destinations such as in the northeast more accessible?
Our PM's special focus is on the northeastern and Himalayan states. Where connectivity is poor, we propose to introduce helicopter services.
What is more challenging, selling India to Indians or selling India to those living abroad?
Both present their own challenges. While our primary focus is to make India an attractive tourist destination for foreigners, our focus on domestic travel remains as well.
Service tax has recently been raised to 14 per cent, a deterrent to consumer spending in the hospitality industry. How do you plan to engage with the sector on such issues?
The increase is a matter of concern for us, since hospitality forms the bedrock of tourism. We have been and currently are engaged in discussion with private stakeholders to draft and revise a tourism policy, which you will see in the next two months.
What will be the thrust areas of the new policy?
The thrust is on making it a clean, safe and hospitable tourism industry. The focus will be on e-ticketing, helpline, promoting tourism through portals and single window systems.
There has been a consistent endorsement of the Hindi movie industry's celebrity faces to promote tourism. Are we likely to see the trend continue?
Yes, absolutely. We will love to make use of anyone who comes forward for commercial or other purposes to promote our brand.