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India pins hopes on tourism

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Minister of State for Culture & Tourism Dr. Mahesh Sharma meets the Yoga Guru, Baba Ramdev, in Haridwar

India’s new Tourism Minister Mahesh Sharma is targetting to double the foreign tourist arrivals by 2015. An interview with Mr Sharma by Prashant Sood and Shilpa Raina 

Minister of State for Culture & Tourism Dr. Mahesh Sharma meets the Yoga Guru, Baba Ramdev, in Haridwar
Minister of State for Culture & Tourism Dr. Mahesh Sharma meets the Yoga Guru, Baba Ramdev, in Haridwar

The Narendra Modi government intends to double the number of foreign tourists by next year from the present 7.2 million, union Tourism Minister Mahesh Sharma said and assured that total cleanliness will be ensured in the most visited tourist monuments in the next three months.

In an exclusive interview , Sharma talked about a slew of initiatives planned by his ministry to realise the country’s untapped tourism potential, including tourist police, cleanliness and safety.

Sharma said India’s share in foreign tourist arrivals was far less compared to other Asian countries like China and Thailand.

“Our total inflow of international tourists is about 72 lakh. (7.2 million). We want to double it by next year. We are lagging behind, considering the fact that India has vast natural resources and (places of) beauty. So there is a lot of potential,” Sharma told IANS.

According to government data for 2013, India’s share of international tourist arrivals was 0.64 percent. India ranked 42nd in world tourist arrivals and 16th in world tourism receipts.

The data also says that China was much ahead of India in terms of foreign tourist arrivals, getting 55.7 million tourists in 2013. The figure was 26.5 million for Thailand, 60.7 million for Spain and 69.8 million for the US.

Sharma, who is minister of state (independent charge) of tourism and culture and minister of state of civil aviation, said that three things needed to attract more tourists were “cleanliness, safety and hospitality.”

He said the tourism ministry has embarked on ‘Swachh Bharat, Swachh Samarak’ (Clean India, Clean Monuments) to carry forward Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clean India campaign.

“We have set a target to clean the most visited monuments in the next three months,” he said.

He said monuments such as the Taj Mahal would have provision of e-ticketing by Jan 1 next year.

A doctor by profession, he said that cleanliness will also be taken up at the partially-visited monuments followed by those monuments which were relatively unexplored.

Sharma, who represents Gautam Buddha Nagar (Noida in Uttar Pradesh) in the Lok Sabha and was inducted in the council of ministers earlier this month, said the ministry intends to increase “safety of international tourists” by providing them a phone number, which can be used for round-the-clock assistance.

“We plan to implement a system where a tourist is given a toll free number which he can call on 24 X 7 and seek assistance,” Sharma told IANS.

“We propose to employ tourist police also. It is an important part of tourism,” he said and added that the ministry could create its own tourist police in the future.

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi talking of the potential of tourism to create employment opportunities, Sharma said the ministry has a “Hunar se Rozgar tak (from talent to finding employment) programme which seeks to create employable tourism-related skills in the youth.

“Our rich Indian heritage and culture has been our strength, so we propose to take this rich heritage and culture via the mode of tourism (by) giving wings of aviation to the corner of the world,” Sharma told IANS.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, tourism employs one out of every 12 people in advanced and emerging economies and one job in the core tourism industry creates about one-and-a-half additional or indirect jobs in the tourism-related economy.

Referring to complaints about international tourists being harassed by touts at some crowded tourist destinations, he said such visitors sometimes are physically touched by those who want them to avail of their services such as hotel and transport agents and vendors.

“We propose to have a strong law so that no body touches the tourist or creates any problem,” he said and added that if a few people are penalised, the message will go across.

Sharma said the proposal had been taken up with the Home Ministry.

He also favoured setting up of Jewar airport in Gautam Buddha Nagar, saying that it will help take the load off Palam airport and improve cargo business.

“To offload the existing airport, a place has to be near Delhi. We have no such land available other than Jewar. Land acquisition laws are so stringent now that acquiring over 2,000 acres of land at any other place would be quite difficult,” he said.

The minister also said that there were airfields which were not being put to regular use and the government intends to use them to boost tourism.