This 1982 stamp featuring a Bengal tiger marks 10 years of Project Tiger, a massive conservation initiative Image Credit: Shutterstock

India offers tourists a wide bouquet of experiences, from centuries-old heritage and diverse culture to varied wildlife, unusual adventures, singular culinary traditions and a rich ecological experience. In the 70 years since its independence, Indian tourism has travelled far beyond its primary focus on the heritage sites centred around the golden triangle of Agra’s Taj Mahal, Rajasthan’s forts and Delhi’s immersive history. However, the inbound tourism sector still has a lot of untapped potential, while outbound tourists continue to grow exponentially.

“India had less than 10 million international tourists visiting in 2016, while the much smaller but tourist-focused Dubai had close to 15 million and Thailand over 32 million,” says Bharat Malkani, Executive Committee member and ex-President, Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI), India’s apex body for the hospitality industry. 

“This can be attributed to the greater tax friendliness to tourism support sectors such as hotels and restaurants in these other countries as compared to India. With the range of options we can offer, the travel and tourism sector could potentially contribute to a much larger percentage of the GDP and employment than it does at present.”

Meanwhile, the nature of outbound travel has changed over the years, says Sandiip Srivastava, Director and Head Travel Solutions at Youdian Business Solutions, a boutique travel company. “In the early days post independence, outbound travel from India was a luxury afforded by the rich,” said Srivastava.
“Only a few could afford to travel abroad, primarily to the UK and some other parts of Europe, either for education or employment. Tourism wasn’t exactly their objective for travel. Much has changed since then. Today more than 18 million Indians travel overseas on holidays.”

Some key milestones have shaped the sector and nurtured its evolution: 

Marketing India

Inbound tourism came into focus in 1956, when, as part of the Second Five Year Plan, it was decided that India should be promoted as a tourism destination.

Successive marketing strategies have helped, but none so much as the Incredible India campaign launched in 2002 by Amitabh Kant, then Joint Secretary under the Union Ministry of Tourism. An updated 2.0 version of the campaign, with an interactive new website is slated for launch by September 27 this year, which is World Tourism Day.

ITDC formed

The India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) completed 50 years of managing hotels for the government and drawing in tourists last October. “We learnt the art of promoting ourselves in a way that appealed to overseas travellers,” says Srivastava. “Culture, heritage, music and food became focus areas.”

ITDC runs eight Ashok Group hotels, six other joint venture hotels, several restaurants, transport units, duty free shops and sound and light shows. 

Project Tiger

On April 1, 1973, Project Tiger, the biggest conservation initiative of its time, was unleashed in Corbett National Park, a designated tiger reserve. It was the first of nine protected areas set aside under the initiative of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

“Project Tiger was India’s first step away from British colonial-era historical and cultural tourism,” explains Malkani. “It spawned an entirely new segment of ecological and wildlife tourism. India is today Asia’s only country with such diversity of wildlife, probably second to only Africa in what it has to offer visitors.”

States promoted

Malkani attributes the rise of Goa as the popular international as well as domestic tourist destination it is now to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) hosted there in 1983. The hippies had already discovered Goa in the sixties, drawn by its more liberal policies and local values. But it was CHOGM that fuelled the rise of luxury hotels, one of the first being the Taj Group’s Fort Aguada property. The many others that followed strewn around Goa, brought an influx of a wealthier class of tourists.

Goa’s state-focused promotion soon had other states such as Kerala, Rajasthan, and more recently Madhya Pradesh and Bihar following suit.

Going private

The rise of private airlines,  truly knit the nation together, bringing remote areas and metropolitan capitals within the reach of a wider population. East-West Airlines was the first scheduled private airline to take to the skies in 1992, soon after the 1991 Open Skies policy was announced. 

Several others followed, including numerous private air charter operators. Among them were Damania and Jet Airways, as well as budget carriers such as Deccan Airways, JetLite, SpiceJet, GoAir and Indigo. However of the clutch of full-service private airlines that emerged, only Jet survived in the highly competitive market that quickly turned price sensitive. 

An audience of travellers were at the ready. “The IT wave of late 1990s and early 2000s resulted in the Indian middle-class segment having more disposable income. Combined with the rise of low cost airlines, this had a positive impact on domestic tourism,” says Alankar Chandra, CEO of Wild Voyager, an experiential travel start-up.

Recent moves have pushed the envelope further. “With the new aviation policy, in 2015, smaller airports got a fresh lease of life,” says Srivastava. “Cheaper flights into these locations began to boost local tourism in a very big way.” 

Unesco awards

Ajanta and Ellora Caves were named World Heritage sites by Unesco in 1983, alongside Agra Fort and the much celebrated Taj Mahal. The caves hold a wealth of paintings and sculptures, considered masterpieces of Buddhist religious art.

“The declaration resulted in a rise in the development of tourism support infrastructure by way of transport, amenities and hospitality,” Malkani says. “Further, this led to what we know as tourism around the Buddhist Circuit, spread across India across locations such as Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh, Dhauli in Orissa, Rajgir and Vaishali in Bihar among others.” Today, India boasts a total of 36 Unesco World Heritage sites — a mix of cultural and natural structures, the most popular of which include Kaziranga in Assam, Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, Qutub Minar and Red Fort in Delhi, Elephanta in Mumbai, Maharashtra and Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh.