I have also recently noticed a new campaign in the newspapers in India, fronted by Aamir Khan, a very popular Bollywood actor. Indian tourism had a campaign running for a while - Atithi Debo bhobo, 'Guest is God' - evoking the ancient Sanskrit dictum to tell Indians to treat the guests to the country with warmth. Aamir Khan is now fronting the campaign for making India more tourist friendly, by appealing to people directly and in a more targeted manner, to the youngsters, who would have found connecting to a Sanskrit dictum difficult.
India, rather obviously, has a lot to do to attract tourism. Despite being World's sixth largest country by the size, and the second most populous country, India is far down below in the tourism league - not even in the top 25 destinations in the world. India is cheap, somewhat middle of the world, with lots of sun, lots of history, with great mountains and sea-side resorts, but yet it fails to capture the imagination as a tourist destination. Advertising is a good start, but there is indeed more to be done, starting with our airports and railway stations.
Someone told me about her travel experiences of India and said you can either love it or hate it. Being an Indian, I sure disagree - I can always find something to love in India. However, the truth is, in this competitive market of tourism, when every country is vying for the holiday season dollars, it is a buyers' market and a tourist is not going to take the trouble to find anything to love in India. All they would want is safety and convenience, decent hotels and transparent service providers, hygienic food and water and a system which they can trust. India has work to do on many of these areas.
Take hygiene for example. Food safety standards are still too lax. There is no other way than bottled water, and even bottled water in India, as many surveys indicate, fail the western standards. Transparency and customer service are non-existent outside major luxury hotels, and if you are out on the street, everyone is out to make a few quick bucks out of you. Many airports are tottering, including the one in Kolkata, a major city, and though railway stations have improved, it still has miles to go. Most apparently, information - about reservations, hotels, transport etc - is difficult to obtain, creating a class of 'information intermediaries' at every level, making travel difficult and scary.
As I said, I can always find something to love in India. In the small, rather unknown places in Kumaon and Garhwal, in the dark alleys of Varanasi and Delhi, in the deserted sea shores of Mandarmoni and Chandipur - there is a great beauty lying unexplored. We have taken Atithi Debo Bhobo in our heart, no one had to tell us that we must treat our visitors well, not for an economic advantage, but for the sheer pride of our land and our culture. We are tolerant, almost indifferent nation, and many a times, we shrug off insults thrown at us by western tourists with a smile.
But, then, at the same time, our government allowed the formation of the agent class, information intermediaries, who keep things complicated and difficult. I think it is our deep-rooted corruption, the morality of trying to make money without an honest effort, which makes us so difficult to deal with. I have noticed, and wondered, how people change when they interact without an apparent economic opportunity and when one such opportunity arise. I think this is what really makes India so difficult to travel to, above everything else.
I have heard horror stories of travelling to India. They always relate to the corrupt agents and officials. I know perception is an issue and some Indians are currently lecturing that Slumdog Millionaire will destroy India's perception as an emerging nation. But then, so will the taxi rank in the Mumbai airport, or the ticket office in the Delhi station. So will be the bureaucrat in the air-conditioned office, who will ask for money for nothing. I am surprised that so called India lovers are okay with all that goes on, but ashamed when Mumbai slums, which are indeed real, are photographed.
So, welcome, incredible India this is. This is a place where the ordinary men and women can show you the decency in poverty, whereas the officials and the powerful will demonstrate the poverty of decency. This is a country which you will think one way, see another way. You will see great beauty lying unexplored, and cheap wares being hawked everywhere. You will see modernity as an aberration - unfailingly the guy who speaks English is the most corrupt and bending the rules - and if you care, you will see an ancient soul lying unstirred. The message you will get from India - all this will pass, the filth, the corruption, the glitz - and you will see timelessness. Welcome to my land.