Domestic tourism has acquired the size and momentum that travel and tourism as an industry can no longer be ignored by the nation at large.
Tourism is now happening across price-points, across the nation, for all kinds of visitors. It is not restricted to travel for only leisure and it is a global phenomenon. Given its scope and expanse as an industry, tourism should no longer be considered an elitist activity but a core sector for national growth.
Tourism needs new ambassadors and proponents, across other price-points and verticals. Currently, only the hospitality industry is in dialogue with other critical stakeholders such as MOT to elucidate the intricacies of the sector. There is a pressing need for other segments to take a lead in the matter as stakeholders in the industry.
There is a visible need to upgrade infrastructure in the sector and the concept of Special Tourism Zones (STZs) needs to be pushed across with greater effort. The single-window mechanism needs to be put in place for a seamless interface. The experience of Aerocity has demonstrated what should not be done to avoid delays. States must adopt STZs with all the necessary clearances already in place. These STZs could include every possible product and act as key drivers of the economy, generating substantial direct and indirect employment opportunities.
Bring in NITI Aayog as the overarching authority to oversee the process. Create specific products aimed at global tourists. Emulate successful international cultural and destination-specific products to create similar experiences in India.
The hospitality industry faces the challenge of acquiring multiple approvals from several nodal agencies, complicating the process of building a hotel. The hospitality industry is a driver of economic growth which impacts all segments of the economy. Therefore, a single-window clearance mechanism must be set up to centralise policy-level needs of the hotel industry. Simplify procedures and clearance requirements.
Skill development in the hospitality sector must assume greater importance. The government must incentive organisations involved in the process. Increased privatization of hospitality schools, beginning with JVs with the government could be a way forward.
Create land holdings for hotel-specific projects, delinking them from commercial rates that render projects financially unviable.
Revisit property taxes and address the irregularity of differential taxes in different states. Examine the feasibility of creating a homogenous tax structure.
Address challenges in land acquisition by creating a digital database of property records and a credible benchmark for property rates.
Incentivize and improve infra in the budget segment to provide a full spectrum of hospitality offering.
A more favourable taxation structure with lowered rates of luxury, GST and liquor tax would boost the industry’s revenue, consequently boosting government earning.
Religious and spiritual tourism core pegs of India’s offerings but have not yet been adequately addressed. Numerous STZs can be created around India’s countless spiritual and religious centres. Bring focus on tapping the potential of Buddhist tourism.
India’s adventure tourism offering needs to be harnessed; tap the Great Himalayan range to create new world-class offerings.
India’s tangible and intangible offerings can provide new products and experiences. Tap into the immersive experience quotient and create new products.
Relax visa fee norms to bring more competitiveness to India’s standing as a global and welcoming destination.
Roll-out imaginative outreach programs by roping in Air India and establishing overseas marketing representative agencies to boost international visibility and outreach.
The Big Takeaways
Emphasis on domestic tourism in India is the decisive way forward, as it accounts for 1652.49 million arrivals, annually, to states (key statistics 2017). It is far greater compared to the number of foreign tourist arrivals (FTAs) which accounts for 10.05 million per annum. Hence, recognizing the contribution of domestic tourism towards the industry assumes importance to boost the growth of the sector. It is also critical to improve profitability in the domestic market to attract sustainable Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). FDI expectations for the forthcoming 4-year period for the hospitality segment stands at a mere USD 2.8 billion while, in comparison, total FDI inflow into India, for the past year, had amounted to USD 60 billion. This amply demonstrates the need for a systematic acceleration of foreign interest in Indian tourism and hospitality sectors.
A greater incentive for budget accommodation would enable tapping into the vast market potential of the middle and low-income groups of the economy. A scheme of creating accommodation under USD 100 per night should be adopted to ensure greater value for money for tourists across the board. Tour planning and urban development agencies should facilitate its execution. Effective subsidies and allowances should be awarded to incentivise this sector. Land should also be specially earmarked at prime locations for the construction of such budget ventures. India’s tourism being overwhelmingly domestically driven (as much as 90 per cent) would benefit from an increase in leave travel allowance (LTA) as well.
Tackling the ‘Elitist’ tag is necessary to attract planners across government and industry, both at the centre and in states. As much as 60 per cent of all new hotel projects are coming up in tier-2 and tier-3 cities, where the average room rate per night ranges between INR 2000-3000. Add to that the domestic-driven demand, the elitist aspect, if at all prevalent, is only a minuscule minority of the total offering. The so-called elitist component, the creamy layer of the business, today stands heavily marginalised as tourism in India has now come to span across budgets. But the industry must find new proponents and no longer only five-star hotels. The voices for tourism must go beyond! Care should also be taken to standardize and improve efficiency levels across the lowest price points.
Promotion of rural and craft tourism is an innovative means of improving India’s global tourism footprint. Indigenous musicians and craftsmen should be recognised by the government and given financial patronage as they are key drivers for attracting foreign inbound. Provisions should be made to improve infrastructure facilities in villages, including provision of unhindered Internet connectivity, transportation, museums, trade fairs, exhibitions, craft tours and handicraft stalls etc. Development of tourism at the grassroots will create more employment, boosting rural entrepreneurship and improving the overall standard of living in such regions. The cooperation between tourism and heritage must be inter-woven afresh for them to flourish together.
Promotion of religious tourism should be given a thoughtful consideration as India is one of the world’s most sought after destinations for religious and spiritual tourism.
Buddhist tourism in India, especially, being home to 18 most revered Buddhist pilgrimage sites, possesses immense potential for growth. Buddhists account for 500 million of the world’s population, out of which India receives only 0.005 per cent annually as tourists. The need is to, at least, increase the headcount to 0.5 per cent, i.e. 2.5 million Buddhist tourists, through enhanced security measures and infrastructural investment for adequate connectivity and lodging arrangements.
Several centres, such as Kashi Vishwanath, Omkareshwar, Mahakaleshwar, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath, Kedarnath and Amarnath of Lord Shiva are most frequented by domestic tourists, which could be further developed through better connectivity and infrastructural provisions.
Promotion of adventure tourism is an innovative step towards boosting travel and tourism in India. As per the Adventure Travel Trade Association of U.S.A, the international adventure travel market is currently pegged at USD 683 billion and slated to cross a trillion-mark in the next 3 years, with over 238 million global adventure travellers. India is home to 73 per cent of the Great Himalayan range, therefore investing in the sector could bring in sizeable incremental revenue for the government, given its immense potential for development in the country. The government needs to be supportive of the industry by detesting from rolling out outright bans and detrimental regulations as previously imposed on beach camping, river rafting, Rohtang Pass in Himachal Pradesh, or Nanda Devi Sanctuary in Uttarakhand. Instead, adequate research and studies must be conducted on the carrying capacity of various adventure sites to avoid accidents and safely carry out tourist activities. A progressive step towards ensuring safety could also be re-training the existing tour guides and professionals as ambassadors of safety guidelines. If security measures and viability plans permit, India can also develop a Trans-Himalayan trail spanning over 2400 km which could commence at Jammu & Kashmir, spanning across Uttarakhand, Nepal, Darjeeling, Sikkim, Bhutan, culminating in Arunachal Pradesh. This could emerge to be a of a kind trekking experience, boosting India’s stature as a global adventure hub. Improving air and road networks in the Himalayan Region could be a promising first step in this direction.
Focus on heritage and experiential elements through financial support to museums, archaeological departments and heritage monuments should be undertaken with greater efficiency. 8 out of 10 top tourist destinations in the UK are museums, whereas not even a single Indian museum feature in its list of top 100 destinations. This needs to change with a greater governmental impetus towards the development of museum professionals and museology as a discipline through better education facilities and opportunities such as scholarships. Also, a high-level committee could be instituted to choose appropriate heritage and museum sites for development. Creation of service facilities inside museums and heritage sites, such as restaurants, musical performances and other recreational activities could enable such sites to become financially self-sustainable, generating profits.
The growth of experiential and immersive tourism could also aid heritage promotion. This form of tourism focuses solely on highlighting the cultural speciality and uniqueness of a region or a state through its tangible and intangible assets – dance performances, instrumental music, folk songs, plays or immersive experiences such as safaris, tattoos, paintings and adventure activities etc. For instance, the ‘Flamingo’ dance of Madrid or the desert safari of Dubai. Conversion of historical villages into heritage sites is yet another innovative step towards cultural preservation, as has been initiated at sites such as Pragpur village of Himachal Pradesh, Raghurajpur of Orissa and Nirmandh in Himachal Pradesh.
Augmenting foreign tourism is crucial as the country is punching way below its weight with foreign tourist arrivals, as it stands merely at 10.5 million foreign tourists per annum, in comparison to smaller countries like Amsterdam which alone receives 29 million visitors. India also lacks adequate budget category hotel infra with a net inventory of only 200,000 – 2,50,000 rooms. In comparison, a city like New York alone offers the same number of rooms. Thus, the infrastructure needs to evolve to become more inclusive and provide options suitable to all budgets.
a) A promising endeavour by the government in promoting foreign arrivals could be offering a 5-year free tourist visa to key inbound nations to earn a substantial incremental revenue in the longer run. E-visa has been a most successful government intervention which started with 23 countries and now has 163 countries under its umbrella. It sanctions all required approvals and clearances through a single-window.
b) More airports and airline channels (especially low-cost) need to be established in remote regions, as the number of foreign tourist arrivals is directly proportional to the number of airports and available aviation infrastructure. Three Indian carriers have placed an order of 1150 aircraft, indicating a promising growth in the sector in coming years. Foreign arrivals have escalated from 2 million to over 10 million in the past 2 decades due to the construction of premier airports in key gateway cities, such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, among others. The need is to regionally permeate the growth to further tourist footfalls.
c) Connectivity to ASEAN countries should be bolstered, as it could be a source of massive revenue returns, given that it is home to over 40 per cent of the world’s population.
d) 23.9 million Indians go abroad every year, which is still short of 25 million, in comparison to 143 million Chinese nationals who travel overseas annually. These figures need to improve for a healthy tourism culture to flourish in the country.
e) Doubling the FTA count from 10 million to 20 million per annum in the next five years.
f) Creation of 5 million additional jobs, increasing it from 62 million to 67 million.
g) Increasing the contribution of the tourism sector to the GDP, which is currently at INR 65000 crores to INR 105000 crores. (An increase of INR 40000 crores is required)
h) Initiation of the ‘VISIT INDIA YEAR’ in 2020, the key elements include –
- Waiving off visa fee for the year 2020 to make it comparable to neighbouring countries and fixing the price of visa between USD 20-30 for the remaining years. This should be done keeping the sensitivity of off-season tourism in mind.
- E-Visa validity to be extended to 10 years to encourage repeat visitation.
i) Better connectivity to Eastern countries should be established through more flights, given its immense potential for generating tourism revenue. Currently, the USA and Europe account for 50% of total FTAs, which needs to be encouraged in Eastern nations as well.
j) High-level Public Relationship (PR) agencies should be developed for better promotional strategies –
- Overseas Market Representative Agencies should be established.
- Integration of Indian Tourism Offices with Air India Offices should take place.
- Sustainable efforts towards the enactment of the ‘Incredible India’ campaign should be continued.
k) Iconic sites should be developed to provide world-class, state-of-the-art facilities. A sum of INR 5000 crores for the upgradation of 17 such sites should be earmarked.
Special Tourism Zones: The development of STZs had been announced by the then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley back in the 2017-18 budget is yet to materialise. STZs were to be created in partnership with states, which were to be anchored as Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) and connected via major railway stations, bus stands and airports. Conceived way back in 2007 during UPA–1 era, proposals had included – STZs to be located in tourist destinations and cities along the coastline, government provision for single-window clearance for setting up of these zones, 100 per cent tax exemption for a period of 10 years, each STZ providing 2,000 to 3,000 hotel rooms, availability of facilities for shopping, entertainment, historical and cultural centres, exemption from import duty on capital goods, withdrawal of luxury tax, lower GST and exclusive NRI tourism zones or elite world tourist zones for high-end global tourists. These project proposals should be implemented as intended as such STZs could become the hub of thriving tourist activity. While developing such zones, which could provide world-class luxuries and five-star amenities, special attention must be given to retaining the cultural ethos of the host region. Practical, yet economical plans, should be drafted to provide permanent solutions for solid-waste management, sanitation, healthcare, hygiene and security in these zones. Under the Flagship of NITI AAYOG, which would be the centralised authority responsible for these projects, integration of the corporate sector, CSR of public sector enterprises and local entrepreneurs could take place to jointly plan the creation and execution of such STZs on its functioning, maintenance and marketing. Currently, there is a serious dearth of knowledge and technical understanding regarding STZs among states. This could be rectified only when there is institutional accountability, reinforcement of penalties for defaulters and serious adherence to time frames and deadlines by government bodies.
a) Example of the Braj Foundation: Founded by Mr Vineet Narain and focussed on areas in Bharatpur and Mathura, it works towards reviving heritage buildings, water bodies, green cover and promoting cultural tourism through planning and development. It also acts as the advisory to the urban and rural development departments of the region, under the ‘HRIDAY Scheme’. Over the past 17 years, this foundation has undertaken stellar work in renovating dilapidated sites near Vrindavan and Mathura to preserve and create new tourist destinations, which has, in turn, fostered greater tourist retention.
b) Successful examples from abroad: Such as the Sentosa Islands in Singapore, Jumeirah in Dubai, and Disney World in the U.S could be followed to derive an institutional understanding of the concept and learn from its revenue generation strategies. Emulating the same in India could create roughly over 13000 new jobs, also attracting substantial FDI. Projects such as Aerocity-2 and Bopana in Goa do exhibit the same promise, but such efforts need to be replicated in other parts of the country as well.
Initiation of policy changes such as preferential interest rates for hotel development and reduction of the GST bracket for tourism will make India more competitive vis-a-vis neighbouring countries. The payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) programme could be adopted for hotels which are under construction to provide 5-year GST/tax benefits. Incentives should be awarded to hotel companies which organise skilling programmes that generate tangible employment opportunities.
a) Creation of a Single Nodal Body for tourism would help catalyse the elaborate process of securing mandatory clearances, permissions and licensing required to initiate both tourism and hospitality projects. This would, in turn, establish clear accountability and understanding between the industry and the government. Concerns on scaling, infrastructure development and promptness of decision making may then be addressed with greater efficiency. Currently, hoteliers need to obtain close to 100 licenses, involving 10-15 ministries, which needs to be comprehensively simplified under a single-window mechanism. Action plans for performance could be made time-specific and government red-tapism could be put under closer scrutiny. An ideal example to follow in this regard could be the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board which holds frequent meetings in the presence of their PM and Tourism Minister to address issues and developmental strategies concerning hospitality, medical tourism and education tourism in the country.
b) Indian Railways act as the heart of tourist transportation in the country and requires continuous expansion of its network an enhanced reach. Targeted construction has been estimated at 12000 kms for 2019-20, while the target for 2018-19 was 9000 kms. By far, 5000 kms of rail track has been laid in the year 2017-18 and the progress requires consistent replication in forthcoming years.
c) Hospitality education and skill development require consistent support from the government. Detailed mapping of the required skillsets, the timing of their requirement and vacancies available need to be outlined. At least 65 per cent of the trained workforce should be employed by the industry to encourage education institutes to continue imparting the required skill training. Increased privatisation of hospitality education would certainly aid the process. Possibly, a start can be made into converting existing government-run institutes into joint ventures or privatising them to drive increased outputs from existing resources.
d) Emulating successful state and international models could be a valuable source of guidance and inspiration. Be it countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka which have bounced back from setbacks of insurgency and calamity, or countries such as Turkey, Czech Republic and Hungary which have built state-of-the-art airports and hospitality infrastructure, tourism has significantly flourished in all these nations. Domestic examples include states such as Gujrat, Rajasthan, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh which have undertaken instrumental promotional measures by appointing influential brand ambassadors, online advertising, and publishing guidebooks and magazines to boost tourism activity. The state of Goa is another fabulous example, wherein off-season and monsoon tourism has grown substantially and is now comparable to peak season, in terms of revenue and tourist numbers. Hill stations such as Mussoorie and Darjeeling could also be similarly developed by improved parking and roadway facilities. An ambitious plan needs to unfold with possibly 100 cities to be developed into model destinations to catch up on lost opportunities in this regard.
e) Urban Planning – creating cohesive districts – It has been estimated that by 2050, nearly 60 per cent of the Indian population will be living in urban areas – that is half of 1.70 billion people (the estimated population by 2050). For instance, New Delhi is expected to be the biggest Megacity in the world by 2028. Such is the impact of migration in India. With a growing urbanisation and global corporate movement, a holistic urban development approach must be implemented to address challenges of population, economic growth, employment and social change. More cohesive business districts need to be built to promote high economic activity with an appropriate ecosystem and infrastructure to support the livelihood of urban dwellers. Currently, these business districts are being created by private developers in an ad-hoc manner – for eg. Cyber City by DLF and One Horizon Centre by Hines etc. Such developments need to be sensitive to visitor engagements in a more comprehensive manner.
f) Taxation – The immediate impact of GST on the construction cost of a hotel has been prohibitive, as there is no GST input which can be immediately recovered. The developer can only recover part of GST spent on construction cost and that too only when the hotel becomes operational. This has had a direct impact on the increase in construction and interest cost for a hotel developer which is as high as 8-10 per cent and further reduces the ROI from hotel projects.
g) Property taxes – The criteria for property tax must be consistent throughout the country. For example, taxes vary from city to city in the state of Tamil Nadu. In some areas, the property tax is calculated on the built-up area, while in others it is calculated on room rent calculation. In Jaipur, property owners are required to pay urban development taxes as well as lease taxes, while in Mumbai an owner has to pay land revenue tax in addition to the property tax.
h) Earmarking land parcels for hotel development – Most cities in India allow hotel development only on commercial land parcels, meaning a hotel developer is competing with a commercial real estate developer for the same land parcel – where a commercial real estate developer can offer higher land valuations. The industry needs specific sites earmarked only for the development of hotels to enable requisite hospitality infrastructure in cities and towns. Land auction/allotment for hotel development by local state authorities is often at prohibitive prices, rendering most hotel projects unfeasible. For example, the reserve price for the Pragati Maidan IECC Convention centre 5-star hotel was set at INR 611.3 Crores + security deposits, adding up to another INR 40 Cr. This project was so promising yet unfeasible for any interested party that no bids were submitted by the time the tender closed.
i) Sensitization of government bodies to the benefits of tourism (GDP and employment) – The travel & tourism sector in India accounted for 8 per cent of the total employment generated in the country in 2018, employing around 42.7 million people. The sector grew at 6.7 per cent in 2018 and accounted for 9.2 per cent of the total GDP. In 2018, Foreign Exchange Earnings (FEE) from tourism stood at USD 28.9 billion (INR 1.97 trillion) i.e. 5.4 per cent of the total exports. Given the importance of tourism to both GDP and employment, government bodies and agencies need to be sensitive towards the sector and come out with policies and framework to enable its continued growth.
Improvement in lobbying capacity of the industry is instrumental in voicing collective concerns to the tourism authorities in the government.
a) Statistical and research-based reporting to the government is crucial in presenting return estimates in precise numerical terms. For example, adequate representation of the kind and quantum of employment opportunities created by STZs needs to be outlined. Data indicating the incremental revenue return that the government could expect if the GST bracket is brought down from the current 28 per cent mark needs to be elucidated. Such reporting enables a clearer representation of facts in absolute figures.
b) Senior Government representation in industry forums plays a pivotal role in ensuring that concerns relating to this sector, from industry professionals and bureaucrats alike, reach the right audience. Currently, there is a dearth of senior government participation in tourism conclaves which is detrimental to a healthy collaborative atmosphere.
Stepping up hotel infrastructure is pivotal in refining the standards of tourism and hospitality in the country. This is possible provided we tackle the following issues:
a) Reformation of prevailing norms relating to parking, building, and circle and stamp duty is needed. There exists an ambiguity in these norms and practises which dampen infrastructural investment in hospitality:
i) Parking norms:
• Parking norms in most states in India are archaic, unrealistic, and prohibitive for hotel development. They are often linked to the number of rooms rather than to banquet spaces which is the main user of the provision. With economy hotels (with smaller room sizes), the same plot yields a much larger number of rooms and small banquet/meeting spaces (as these hotels are not operationally equipped to cater to large functions). This, however, results in a larger requirement for the number of parking slots which costs more and remains largely unutilized.
• In cities like Thane, hoteliers are asked to provide as much as one car park for every 1 room, plus additional car parks for the public areas and banquet spaces. So, for a 200-room hotel, one would need to provide a 300-car parking slot. A more logical way of calculating parking space for hotels would be to link it to the total built-up development or FSI space constructed of the hotel project only.
ii) Building norms:
• DOT Norms – While development costs are increasing every year, the star categorisation for hotels indicates larger construction spaces which need to be developed for higher category hotels, which in turn push the sustainability aspect of a project. The DOT norms need to be revised to control the carbon footprint and better utilise spaces which would help improve the sustainability aspects.
• NBCC Norms – NBCC is a Pan-India governing body, yet the interpretation of their guidelines is different in every state. Byelaws, standard procedure and understanding by the local authorities vary with every location.
iii) Infrastructure status
• Currently, only those hotel projects costing over the threshold limit of INR 200 crores get infrastructure status.
• This limits the applicability of the infrastructure status to only luxury hotel projects and is biased against the economy and mid-market hotels as they rarely cost over INR 200 crores.
iv) Circle rates:
• Many cities in India have unrealistic circle rates which are higher than the prevailing land prices, making acquiring land for hotel development unviable.
• New Delhi, for example, has circle rates which are sometimes as high as twice of the current market price for hotel / commercial plots.
b) Approvals and licenses:
• There are numerous licenses and approvals (can add up to more than a 100 in some states) that are required to operate a hotel in India leading to loss of time, effort and resources. A single-window clearance and faster approval process could shorten the lead time of opening a hotel by as much as 6 months.
• Liquor license – hotels have faced a challenge with even acquiring Liquor license as it varies from state to state. The hotel categorisation, types of liquor served and even the definition of star categories which vary with toilets sizes, room sizes and the even locational aspect make it a major challenge. The central government creating a country-level guideline which is followed by all states could be a good way forward.
• Time-Bound Approval – A straightforward way to ensure timely approvals would be to place a time-bound procedure for the ‘single-window system.’ Once documents are uploaded on the portal a process of clearance within a certain period would make it a very feasible process.
c) Land acquisition challenges:
• No credible benchmarks are available for land prices and the owner’s expectation is almost always unrealistic. This makes land cost range between 45-50 per cent of the project cost, though any cost steeper than 25-30 per cent renders projects infeasible.
• Provision of public domain information – Provision for public domain information such as geological data of soil conditions, weather, water resources and chemical composition of land etc. which helps during the assessment of land parcels should be available.
• Lack of centralised database – There is a need for introducing a centralised database of digitised records with a single authority for title information. Property records are different for all regions even in states and it is an arduous task to understand land details due to the lack of transparency and a centralised database.
Central and state subjects:
We are aware that many of the above issues are state subjects. Even then, perhaps, central guidelines would help. At least, best practices are then shared. It would also bring clarity on respective states and their focus and seriousness in driving tourism. It is also recommended that NITI AAYOG could also then institute annual studies to create and foster healthy competition among states.