Politics and tourism are strange bedfellows, but the big fat Indian general election next month is giving that notion a vote of no confidence. The festival of democracy can spark a new niche: election tourism.
India is valued the world over for a great many things, but for three over all others: The Taj Mahal, Mahatma Gandhi and India’s electoral democracy.
So wrote S.Y. Quraishi, Chief Election Commissioner of India between 2010 and 2012, in his book, The Making of the Great Indian Election.
Few people would argue with that. Yet, while the Taj Mahal is a must-see and Gandhi tours are aplenty, the last of the three greats has eluded tourism players.
But as the big fat Indian general election approaches next month, Manish Sharma, founder of Akshar Travels in Ahmedabad in India’s westernmost state Gujarat, may be sparking a new travel niche. He calls it election tourism.
What he is doing is essentially putting an election component into existing tour packages, such as lectures and visits to polling places.
“Our industry has various niches like pilgrim tours, sports tours, honeymoons. Why can’t election tourism also be a niche? People always want new experiences,” Sharma told Skift in a phone interview.
Why not indeed?
The world’s biggest festival of democracy should indeed resonate with travelers who want to go into the fabric of society than staying at the hem.
More than 900 million eligible voters will vote, in seven phases from April 11 to May 19, with results coming in on May 23. Among them are 15 million voters aged 18-19 and millions more first-time voters.
According to an election snapshot compiled by Creative Travel India, there will be no less than one million polling stations, 11 million polling officials, two million electronic voting machines and an expenditure of around $7 billion, which is bigger than the $6.5 billion spent on the U.S. election in 2016.
There’s even a budget for elephants to carry electronic voting machines to inaccessible areas, so that every voter could vote.
“Elections are a long and major exercise which involve a huge force. They are safe. It’s a time for a lot of political parties making a huge spectacle with music, trucks decorated with pictures and many speeches,” said Dipak Deva, managing director of Sita Travels, Travel Corporation India and Distant Frontiers, which are among India’s leading inbound agencies.
Added Ashwani Kumar Goela, general manager of Radisson Blu Plaza Delhi, “Elections in India are safe. I would not say it is colorful and fun.”
Deva said he does not do any election packages. “If a client requests to see something of it while he’s here, we will take them to a rally, if there’s one, and explain the background and the processes. But the reality is no one will pay money to come to India to watch the elections. It’s nonsense. Unless of course they are students in political studies or people who are interested in politics. If you don’t understand the politics, it’s no use traveling for it. It’s complex,” said Deva.
But Akshar Travels’ Sharma thinks differently. The tour operator has created 15 election tour packages with untouristy names such as Grassroot Democracy of Kerala and Hustings in Himachal. And he’s expecting to sell more than 10,000 of these tours this year, compared with 5,200 when he first had the idea and featured election tours in Gujarat.
To be sure, no one is going to go home an expert on the Great Indian Election in seven days, although for certain they will experience India’s heritage, tradition and culture. These five to six nights tours are primarily sightseeing itineraries spiced with a good drizzle of election oil. In between the normal touring, there’s an opportunity or two, sometimes more, to go to a public rally, poll campaign and even meet party leaders and the election commission officer.
The hottest package currently, said Sharma, is the Domestic Affairs of Uttar Pradesh where, right on the first evening in Lucknow, guests get to dine with party officials. That one election encounter aside, the rest of six-night itinerary takes clients to explore Lucknow, Ayodhya, Allahabad and Varanasi, which is Modi’s constituency and may explain why the package is getting a lot of bookings.
But another package, Election Moves in Uttaranchal, packs in a lot more election stuff in between sightseeing. This includes joining a party promotional rally in Haridwar, having “the most luscious dinner” with party officials in Mussorie, “in-detail” conversations with local folks in Corbett about their views on Indian democracy and politics and meeting party officials in Nanital.
Direct bookings can be done through a dedicated Election Tourism India 2019 website that makes politics look as colorful and charming as the movie Big Fat Indian Wedding. A well-done site, it sells India through the lens of political party videos and has backgrounds to political parties and a list of India’s Prime Ministers through the years.
Aside from direct bookings through the website, the packages are also sold through more than 20 travel agents across the country.
Sharma said he has access to party leaders and their rally schedules, and that they too are interested in meeting and talking to tourists about India’s politics and elections.
“We even have the endorsement [on the website] of [current] Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who wants the world to know elections in India are the biggest democratic process,” he said.
According to Sharma, he employs 175 volunteers to take care of tourists during the period. The packages cost between $1,000 and $3,000, excluding air, and generate “reasonable profits,” he said.
He is seeing bookings from Japan, Europe, the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates. “So far, we’ve received 1,600 bookings and more than 3,300 enquiries from both domestic and international tourists. They are students, journalists, researchers, but also tourists who want to experience something new,” said Sharma.
Currently it looks like Akshar Travels has the whole election market to himself.
“This is something new and not very popular as of now. Some of the people from the travel trade whom I spoke with are not aware of this,” said Radisson’s Goela.
In general, hotels will see an increase in business during but the election but this is because there is a lot of foreign direct investment in the country, thus the election is seriously followed by business analysts and reporters to gauge India’s future economic stability and government policies, he said.
Rajeev Kohli, Joint Managing Director of Creative Travel, said the idea of election tourism is a good marketing ploy but one that is “shallow” as it is not likely to offer a deep understanding of the election.
“We have elections in this country all the time [in the different states]. If you are a client who is interested to understand the election system — and yes India’s election is unique and also the most complex — you don’t come in the middle of it, because everyone is so busy to see you. The election day itself is a public holiday, no alcohol is served, so what do I do, bring Mr Smith and make him stand outside and see people coming in and out of the polling station?”
He added, “This is not the, say, Kumbh Mela festival, which is a structured festival for a few weeks and there are areas for foreigners to go to. These rallies are groups of villagers brought to a field, some small some large, and it’s not like there’s a lovely program. Rallies here run late and are mass events.
“But in the world there are people who are interested in everything. I’m sure there are 1,000 people in the world who are interested in this,” said Kohli.
He said in 25 years in the business, he never had a single person asking him to see the election, adding virtually all of India’s tour operators don’t do such packages.
“In fact I have people asking me if they should avoid India during the election period. The answer is no of course, as it’s not a dangerous movement by any measure and we work around it. In any case, it’s coming in the off-season,” said Kohli.
Still, Sharma should be credited for his creativity in using the Indian election as a means to gain incremental business. Tour operators in Indonesia and the Philippines, where elections will be held in April and May respectively may pick up on his idea and strengthen the vote for election tourism.
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Photo credit: India's elections are spurring new efforts to draw tourists. Bibhudatta Pradhan and Archana Chaudhary, / Bloomberg