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Tuesday, December 02, 2003

The Tourism Conundrum

Francois Gautier is not my favourite journalist. For that matter, I don't even think he is much of a journalist. But, give the devil his due. In this piece, he makes a great deal of sense and reveals why India's tourism industry is in such a funk.

I often shuttle between Chennai and Delhi. A return ticket by Indian Airlines or Jet (which is more expensive) between these two cities costs more than Rs 22,000. For that price, I can fly from Paris to New York, which is triple the distance. And that is economy only: it will cost you a whopping Rs 34,220 return fare for a business class ticket on Jet from Chennai to Delhi. If you have the misfortune to be a foreigner, you will have to pay 30% to 40% extra, depending on the dollar exchange rate, which means you will have to disburse Rs 42,000 for a business class return Chennai-Delhi. For that price you can fly to Europe and back in economy!

The funniest thing is that there is sometimes a 15-day waiting list to travel by train from Chennai to Delhi (or the other way) in second class A/C sleeper, which costs a little over Rs 2,000 and takes 36 hours -- that is when the train is not a few hours late or does not have an accident. If Indian Airlines or Jet had the intelligence to offer Chennai-Delhi tickets at Rs 3,000, regardless of the dates, people will gladly shell out another 1,000 bucks, just to avoid the 36-hour trip. IA could easily fill up six Airbus-320 aircraft a day and make a handsome profit, instead of hiking up its prices four times in the last five years.

And what about Indians paying Rs 20 to see the Taj Mahal or at Hampi and foreigners being asked Rs 500? Are we cows to be milked? Does the Indian government think it is going to earn the goodwill of tourists and guarantee their return, when they are discriminated against?

Moreover, the hassles faced by foreigners in India are not only financial. Take visas for instance. In Sri Lanka, all foreigners are automatically handed a one month visa upon their landing at the airport. But not in India. One has to apply to sour faced, underpaid staffers at Indian embassies abroad -- and forget about five year visas, even if you have been visiting India for 35 years.

These archaic price discriminatory tactics the Indian govt uses against foreigners is something that has annoyed me for a long while, not to mention the crazy visa policies where practically everyone needs a visa to visit India, as a tourist or otherwise. It's part of the we-are-so-great-you-must-feel-privileged-to-visit-our-country mentality that has not gone away despite a decade of reforms. Is it any surprise then that India (with its unbelievable potential for tourism) gets about as many tourists in an entire year as France gets every two to three weeks?

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