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'Position India as an upmarket destination'

Q&A: Amitabh Kant, former joint secretary, ministry of tourism

Aanand Pandey  |  Mumbai 

Amitabh Kant

Amitabh Kant, former joint secretary in the ministry of tourism, has come up with his account of the making of Brand India in his recently-released book, Branding India — An Incredible Story. Kant is regarded as ministry of tourism’s point man who steered the Incredible India campaign. He also led, as secretary of tourism in Kerala, the “God’s Own Country” campaign that drew much acclaim. On the day of the book launch, he spoke to Aanand Pandey about Brand India and the future of tourism.

Why the word incredible? Is it not the opposite of credible? Foreigners, especially the British would not see it as a metaphor.
When you are looking at a brand-line for promoting a destination, it must cut across your key markets, to an extent that even French-speaking people must start accepting the phrase “Incredible India”. It’s not the word alone. It is the creativity behind it, projected through 360-degree marketing. The imagery must connect to the mind of the consumer.

Based on a well-researched strategy, we worked out a marketing plan and the Incredible India communication fell in place. We were clear about the positioning of the destination, in that we were not looking at a mass destination — we were looking at India which was going to appeal to the upper end of the market.

This at a small scale had been attempted in Kerala which has moved from a mass to value destination. The Incredible India campaign started in 2002. Since then, tourism in India has grown more in value than volume. It has grown from $2.8 billion (Rs 13,200 crore) to $11.5 billion (Rs 54,300 crore) whereas the numbers grew from about 2.3 million to about 5.6 million.

How much of India’s rising stock as a tourist destination would you attribute to the Incredible India campaign? The BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) phenomenon and India’s political success have been major factors that, on their own, have led to an increased global interest in India.
You can’t look at tourism in isolation. The Incredible India campaign was about converting interest in the country into real traffic and marketing India’s strengths to add to the value. When we did the branding, we were not looking at an all-round for a destination that included improvements in infrastructure, to the opening of Indian skies. I remember it used to take three days to get a flight ticket from London to Delhi a few years ago. New airports like Kochi and the modernisation of Bangalore and Hyderabad airports have lead to a lot of focused attention to infrastructure within India. Much has changed. The monuments in Delhi used to close like government offices at 5 pm. They are now open till 9 pm.

How much help did you get from other ministries?

A good thing was that Jagmohan and Ambika Soni, both of whom I worked with at the time this campaign was done, held tourism as well as culture portfolios. We had to reach out to a number of ministries and departments outside our domain. We were dealing with home ministry for visas, for instance. We were dealing with our embassies in foreign countries, with immigration and customs departments.

A marketing-led strategy, to my mind, also forced the government to improve the infrastructure. It made state governments partners in the process. Our campaign was totally multi-sectoral in approach and it was all a game of partnership. We also worked in partnership with the private sector.

The Incredible India campaign employed big advertising agencies and launched high-profile marketing campaigns. How did you convince the government to spend on these campaigns?
The campaign began in the middle of the tourism crisis in 2002 when hotel occupancy rates were down to 20 per cent. Factors like SARS, 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and attack on Parliament had forced international travel operators to dissuade travellers from coming to India. At that time, all our outlays used to be divided into 18 foreign offices. Some offices called it “Spiritual India”, some called it “Cultural India”, and some, “Unbelievable India”.

We started off the Incredible India campaign on a low note with an outlay of just Rs 15 crore. We began with traditional markets such as the UK, Italy, France and Germany. The American market had not started moving at all so we made no spends in the US for two years. We demonstrated results and went back to the Planning Commission to urge that outlay be increased.

We convinced them and the result has been an increase of outlay from Rs 15 crore to the current budget of Rs 210 crore. Money is not a constraint now. We have worked with top-line creative agencies Ogilvy & Mather and BharatBala Productions.

Government departments work on the lowest-cost model. How were you able to get in agencies like O&M?
It took some convincing. We were clear that we wanted the best creative minds in the business, so we worked on a QCB (Quality-cum-Cost Basis) model under which we evaluated every bid based on quality and costs — where, say, 80 per cent emphasis was on quality and 20 per cent on costs. The Asian Development Bank and the World Bank also follow the QCB model.

The Incredible India campaign at Times Square, New York City in 2007 was well-received by international media at that time. How did the idea come about?
That was the time when a UN General Assembly meeting was underway in New York and a good number of world leaders had descended on the city. The Confederation of Indian Industries wanted to celebrate the 60th anniversary of India’s Independence with an event called India@60 and the industry body met with the then tourism and culture minister, Ambika Soni. That’s how we came into the picture. Usually, such events comprise seminars and conferences but we wanted to take it to a whole new level in participation with industry. Bigwigs such as Nandan Nilekani (Infosys co-chairman) and Tarun Das (CII mentor) played a critical role in organising the event. It was a powerful demonstration of India’s soft power.

What are the constraints that still hold the Indian tourism industry back?
The quality of airports in India, the arrival experience of an international traveller is a big factor. India gets 90 per cent of traffic through air. We need more reforms rather than control as far as skies are concerned. We need more airports in the hinterland. It would mean more tourist traffic to the hinterland. The politicians must accept tourism as an employment driver. Even our states have not opened up to the fact that tourism has a multiplier impact on employment. You need seven or eight states to become sub-brands of the whole drive.

How do you see the future of international tourism shaping up?
I see a dramatic shift towards Asia, which means we will see more Indian and Chinese international tourists. The biggest outbound growth has taken place in India. We see more Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans tourists now like we used to see the dominance of Americans tourists in international travel in the 1950s. A lot of these tourists are affluent.

A recent survey says that Indians are bigger spenders than the Americans in the UK. Almost 60 per cent of the European population has travelled abroad, whereas only four per cent of the population in India and China has travelled overseas. Soon you will see European catering institutes training students on how to cater to Indians and Chinese tourists; and Indian catering institutes teaching students how to serve an Indian patron.

The rise of BRIC countries, change in demographics and the rise of urban consumers — by 2050, 50 per cent of Indians will living in urban cities — will all provide a boost to tourism. The future of tourism will be propelled by India and China.

We need to position ourselves as an upmarket destination. To do that, we must appeal to the informed traveller who is looking for experience. This is the type of traveller who wants to give to the destination more than what he wants to take away with him. Experience is key and this is what our politicians and bureaucrats need to understand.

First Published: Tue, June 09 2009. 00:42 IST