Special opinion by Indian specialist and author Aline Dobbie.
India is the land of my birth and when one grows up in that ancient land it imbues one with a sense of the great diversity and antiquity of this wonderful sub-continent. From the traveller’s point of view, it might as well be a whole continent because of the choice of terrain, heritage, culture, languages, wildlife, music and art let alone the ancient science, maths, early engineering, organic medicine and great religions that have originated here. For me the year is incomplete unless I return to India. I have arrived by sea on two occasions within the last decade but usually by air and the gentle greeting of Namaskar at the Indian airport and the smell of the dust and the noise of the hubbub…well that is Indian. Follow that with an efficient chauffeured ride into town where one is greeted with warmth and efficiency at a luxury hotel. Swiftly follow that welcome with a hot shower in a comfortable bathroom and the nimbu pani (fresh lemon and water) of a hovering waiter and the contemplation of a splendid curry lunch…and I am home or at least in my second home…beloved Bharat.
In the last seventeen years India’s tourism has progressed significantly and most especially in the last five years with the rapid increase of infrastructure modernization and the move to build luxury and comfortably westernized hotels. Domestic air travel suddenly took off with the advent of low cost airlines and these days Indian cities and towns are easily reached whereas in my childhood a journey could take days with overnight stops at dak (post office) bungalows that owed their origins to the colonial administrators long gone who had to make long and wearying visits around this great empire and needed somewhere safe to rest and indeed work from when not in their Calcutta office or branch. (In those days Calcutta as it then was the capital of India…now Kolkata).
Whereas for a long time Delhi’s IGI Airport required improvement since 2010 the new build Indira Gandhi Airport at Terminal 3 and the Domestic Airport are excellent and can stand alongside any other new airports in the world; the other big cities have also invested in modern international airports which help to create a good impression.
I just love arriving at a place like Jodhpur where the airport is excellent but ‘dinky’ and though there is lively civilian traffic it stands as a bastion of the Indian Air Force to protect the nation’s borders. Swooping in as the sun sets and one looks down on this fine city of Jodhpur with the great sand coloured palace of Umaid Bhavan and further away the mighty Mehrangarh Fort on its rocky outcrop with the desert glowing gold in the late rays of the sunshine and perhaps a flight of pigeons wheeling beneath the aircraft; it is just so special and the fact that it is just a five-minute drive to one’s hotel makes it even better. Udaipur is another favourite destination with Arvind Singh Mewar and his Foundation deeply committed to their heritage and development of the lovely ancient city and its environs.
I am heartened that India has amongst her entrepreneurs a number of pioneering resort and hotel owners who are determined that they will only build or restore or provide eco-sensitive facilities and live alongside tribal people and wildlife or in the case of vast cities not contribute significantly to that city’s pollution. In a country with such a vast population it is that which threatens conservation and responsible tourism. I am particularly committed to tiger conservation.
There are two sides to every story, and India definitely needs much better regulated wildlife tourism. But no tourism at all would be a disaster as it would be an open invitation for poachers to operate in the tiger reserves. Tourism should be doing a lot more for local communities, and it is also the local communities that will suffer the most if all tourism is stopped. Their only other source of livelihood is a single annual crop and forest produce. The buffer zones are not a short-term option for tourism and in most cases is not an option at all.
Nudged by the Supreme Court of India to put in place a set of comprehensive measures for conservation of tigers and wildlife in entirety, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests has submitted its final guidelines. The emphasis is on promoting ‘community based tourism’ with a gradual phase-out of tourism related activities in the tiger reserves of the country. The real danger of exploitative tourism must be tackled despite those with huge vested interests – some of the threat however is from the country’s great mining conglomerates which see pure profit as their aspiration and have no thought it would seem for a collective role as custodians of India’s wonderful wild places and the diverse beautiful wildlife therein. Near all the accessible great wildlife parks there has been a proliferation of badly planned resorts which erode the natural world around them and though I subscribe to the idea that tourism ensures vigilance for the protection of what is left of India’s tigers I know that uncaring tourists scatter their detritus carelessly and behave very often in an irresponsible manner; moreover I really do not see the need to wallow in a jacuzzi or private swimming pool because one has come to see wildlife. Very often the monsoon has failed or been poor and the denizens of the Indian Jungle have to seek diminishing water holes so it behoves those of us who come to see these animals not to waste water or behave irresponsibly. All of that harms these great parks which are the very precious last havens of India’s wildlife. The tiger is king but for that great beast to survive there must be security and sufficient prey species. Left in peace tigers actually breed prolifically. When I was born in Bareilly in India there were 40,000 tigers and now if we are lucky there are maybe 2,800 left in India. Poaching is the main danger but drastic reduction of habitat and pressure from people and their cattle herds are others; India has a huge number of scrub cattle which are of no real value except as the treasured holy cows and thus seen as wealth by innocent village people.
Tiger tourism keeps the tiger as an indirect source of income for hundreds of thousands of people in many rural areas, but if this is ceases, due to the recent Supreme Court ruling banning tourism in the core areas of the parks and reservations, the tiger may become a direct income source for those left without a choice. For the poor and destitute and uneducated the poachers’ money is welcome as they as yet have no perception of being custodians of the tiger and other wildlife – their aspiration is just to survive. Sadly, there is no dearth for demand of tiger skins and tiger parts in the Chinese and Vietnamese markets despite all the encouragement being directed to the governments of those countries to clamp down on this dreadful trade to feed a foolish myth.
I can think of people like the Dominics and Ramapurams from Kerala who run family owned resorts that are totally committed to responsible tourism in southern India and do everything practicable to ensure their lovely places co-exist with local people and indeed encourage conservation. Butterfly Gardens are a fine example of that aspiration. India has a host of the most marvellous butterflies and in southern India this is becoming a feature of well-run places and believe me these wonderful creatures are huge and exotically coloured and sometimes a bush can be covered with as many as sixty at a time. Equally the ITC conglomerate which has three levels of hotels, luxury, business and heritage have been very ambitious in the construction of their modern luxury hotels and do everything that is possible to be eco-sensitive and responsible. In Rajasthan, the various princely houses who have converted to heritage hotels or home stays try and make conservation part of their ethos and are succeeding admirably. The desert has its own challenges but I love Rajasthan and am never happier then waking up for the sunrise and hearing the peacock’s call, or indeed watching the sunset over a holy river like the Ganges or the Narmada. Timeless and with just the sounds of village life around one or a pilgrim’s tinkling bell and simple aarti offerings on the water India casts her spell.
Small tourist organizations are becoming very popular with western travellers; I can think of Village Ways a firm that takes people walking through the foothills of the Kumaon and Gharwal and gives them hospitality in village homes as a Walking Tour. They are spreading their wings I believe to other countries as well and have been rewarded with a Responsible Tourism Award at World Travel Market in London.
Sometimes however I am dismayed by what seems to me to be the general lethargy amongst the Union Government and politicians for tourism. They appear unaware that it is the world’s largest industry and that if there were a truly methodical approach to the promotion of India the whole country would benefit enormously. Quite simply it is not a job for bureaucrats but rather for those who are committed and enthusiastic and determined. For a country as large as India with all her diversity her current level of tourism is not impressive. Nor should her politicians confuse the return of Non Resident Indians (NRIs) with tourists. As I found once in 2006 when a flight had been cancelled at Delhi airport and a huge delay was the alternative, the majority of NRIs go back to visit their relatives and have very little experience of actual tourism in the land of their origin. In trying to salvage a bad situation on the coach from the airport to a five-star luxury hotel where the planeload would be hosted in Delhi over night I acted as tour guide on the journey from the airport. They were amazed and impressed and enchanted…you see they mostly make a bee line for their ancestral village or small town. I suggested they spend their afternoon after a suitable curry buffet lunch visiting some of Delhi’s great heritage sites. The next day they thanked me and said they would return…as tourists!
I have returned from my annual six week visit to India a month ago. Because I return for such long visits every year and travel very widely I do get a good sense of the whole Tourism Picture. Moreover, I attend World Travel Market in London in November annually; last year India was the Lead Partner. Sadly, a great many claims were made in the press conference that do not hold up. Moreover, the follow up procedure from the Government is dire to writers and journalists and the PR companies they use just do not have the commitment nor the actual knowledge to provide a worthwhile service…. they are doing a ‘jobsworth’. Clean India resonates with us all…the PM’s Swachh Bharat campaign was much needed but it needs real dedication because I know from what westerners say to me and indeed Japanese that litter, garbage, and human detritus make a first impression and it is not a good one. Poverty is a fact of life but the scale of mess and decay as indeed I witnessed this year in parts of Gujarat are just totally repelling to most first time visitors. Even Agra has this effect despite the four UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I brought my searing comments to the attention of the ASI last year in relation to Bhimbetka. It was in a shocking condition with looted washrooms, poor educational boards and general decay. Appalling actually.
On a positive note: be it mountains, rural countryside, great ‘holy’ rivers, beaches, jungles, soaring Hindu temples, magnificent Islamic mosques, Buddhist stupas, deserted great relics of Hindu empires and Mughal cities, the wonderful Taj Mahal, the Bishnoi People welcoming you to their modest village or the wetlands providing winter homes for millions of migratory birdlife – Go, visit India and you will be made welcome, but keep your heart open and somehow, someone, somewhere will give you a special experience which will remain with you forever. Believe me India has the capacity to enter your heart.
Aline Dobbie was born in India to Scottish parents and spent the first 16 years of her life in the sub-continent. Aline is the author of a celebrated trilogy of books on India including,The Peacock’s Call (www.thepeacockscall.co.uk) and Quicklook at India which is specifically aimed at business people.