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India remains a popular tourism destination despite its lack of infrastructure and much covered safety challenges, which suggests a concerted effort to make the country safer and more pleasant for tourists would yield significant returns.
It is still early days, but the sweeping victory of Narendra Modi in the recent Indian election could lead to something of a revolution for travellers to a country notorious for its potholed roads, Raj-era railways, complicated visa procedures – and standards of hygiene that leave a lot to be desired.
The business-focused Mr Modi has made it clear that he wants tourism to be a significant growth area for India – and that there is much to be done to make it a more attractive, cleaner and less stress-filled proposition for travellers.
In his time as chief of Gujurat state, he introduced a measures aimed at encouraging more visitors, and this is something he now wants to repeat on the national level. In the two weeks since taking power in Delhi, he has appointed a minister of tourism and has announced plans for a programme of renewal and revival of Varanasi, the sacred Hindu city in which he has his own parliamentary seat and which is a major draw for pilgrims and tourists alike.
In the past he has said that India’s ageing railways should be brought into the 21st century with the introduction of a number of routes designed for Japanese-style “bullet” trains.
More broadly, he has said that “tourism enhances the economic development of the poor”.
Mr Modi’s government is also to oversee already agreed changes in the visa system which, from October 1, will enable travellers to pick up visas on arrival.
The initiatives – particularly the changes to the visa system – were widely welcomed this week by India travel specialists. “The new visa rules will really open up our country to visitors and enable more shorter breaks to the country,” said Nakul Anand, executive director of the Delhi-based ITC luxury hotel group. “We’re entering a new era of development in India. I think there will be a tourism boom.”
Katie Parsons, a spokeswoman for Cox & Kings, a long-haul travel specialist company that began operations in India 256 years ago, described the proposed changes as a “very positive development” that should make travelling to India much easier.
Despite its many attractions – from holy cities like Varanasi to the peaks of the Himalayas, the beaches of Goa and the buzz of cities such as Bombay (Mumbai) – and the depreciation in recent months of the rupee against the pound, India lags behind Asian rivals such as China and Singapore when it comes to attracting tourists.
In addition to the visa complications, travellers have always been deterred by overall standards of hygiene and cleanliness and the sheer difficulty of moving around the country.
Of late, there has also been concern over the rise in cases of rape and sexual molestation of women (including Western visitors), a trend the previous government had already sought to tackle with the introduction of tough sentences for offenders.