Tourism: The uncared-for pillar of development

MP Bezbaruah, Permanent Representative (Hon), UN-WTO; Former Member, North Eastern Council, (in the rank of MoS); Secretary, Ministry of Tourism; Chairman, PATA and Minister (Economic) HCI, London addresses the lack of development for the important pillar, tourism

The tourism industry has been greatly enthused by the description of tourism as an important pillar of development by PM Narendra Modi. There was a time in India when tourism development was seen primarily as a means to getting much-needed foreign exchange for the country. That perception has now changed. Globally, as in India, tourism is recognised as an instrument to achieve the greater goal of inclusive growth. It is significant that the pandemic ravaged tourism industry celebrated Tourism Day 2021 on the theme of tourism for inclusive growth. The celebration of a day is intended to create awareness and spur committed, continuous and persistent action. Unfortunately, quite often it becomes a one-day event to be quickly forgotten. 

In fact, the entire focus of Millennium Development Goals was on inclusive growth. MDG’s progress was haphazard and SDG has reshaped and redesigned that objective in 17 goals. According to UNWTO, contribution of tourism is implicit in most of the goals and mentioned specifically in Goal 8 referring to “sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promote local culture and products”. Globally, World Travel and Tourism Council estimates, by 2030 travel and tourism’s share in direct employment will grow to 11.2 per cent and GDP contribution to 10.9 per cent. India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF) estimates that in 2020, the Indian tourism sector accounted for 31.8 million jobs, which was 7.3 per cent of the total employment in the country. By 2029, it is expected to account for about 53 million jobs. Such direct economic contribution and earning of Rs 211,611 crore of foreign exchange before Covid-19, indeed makes tourism a very strong economic activity of the country. And there is much more to talk about – contribution to preservation of art, culture and heritage, ecosystems, cuisines, craft, women’s empowerment. The list is long and the story is endless. 

Unfortunately, that is only half of the story and the bigger story is not often seen or appreciated. The indirect impact of tourism is much wider and extensive and that impact – call it multiplier effect or “ripple effect” – is difficult to capture in statistics. UN system of Tourism Satellite Accounts, also adopted in India, devises a way of considering all the indirect economic effects of tourism. But it is a difficult task, accuracy depends on the availability of data and their proper allocation. WTTC, for example, has shown that there are at least 30 activities at the core of tourism of which only five or six like accommodation, transportation, food and beverages, attractions management are generally visible to people. That in fact is like the tip of the iceberg.  

Therefore, UNWTO very aptly says that behind every number there is a person. As the numbers are hazy the face of that person that tourism sustains seem also to recede to the background. And herein is the basic contradiction tourism suffering from – ‘between the idea and the reality’, between awareness of its tremendous economic impact and the lack of attention to nurture it. The experience of the traumatic two years of the pandemic so far reflects this contradiction. The complete story of the ravages of the pandemic is yet to be known but it is feared that about 32 million people might have already been pushed to extreme poverty around the world. Globally, as in India, around 80 per cent of the industry is composed of SMEs and it has been roughly estimated that 21.5 million might have lost jobs in tourism industry in India. They needed some very simple support to survive and recoup – liquidity support, income, payroll support when business was down to zero because of circumstances beyond their control, exemption from statutory dues for the period that business was shut due to state directives and so on. These were action consistent with the objective of inclusive growth, and they would have given much greater return to the economy in the long run. Perhaps in the concern for the bigger picture, the small picture got lost. The support that tourism industry got is much delayed, sporadic and ad hoc, not amounting to any comprehensive plan for tourism recovery. 

This experience has shown once again that this important pillar of development needs to be put on firm footing. That can be done both at policy and implementation levels. Ministry of Tourism for example, depends on other ministries like Civil Aviation, Culture, Home and Surface Transport, for implementation of policies relating to tourism promotion. Such coordination takes time and often policies and implementation get delayed and the Ministry of Tourism experiences helplessness. It would be ideal if a Cabinet Committee under the chairmanship of the PM could look after tourism development and coordination. That would carry a strong message about the importance attached to tourism by the government.

The other stakeholders on whom the quality of the tourism experience and inclusive growth of tourism depend are—the state governments, the private entrepreneurs and the community. Implementation of the policies rest primarily with the state governments. The state governments should also adopt such a system of coordination and monitoring at the state level. However the private sector is the key mover for tourism and it is essential to create a strong, meaningful and constructive Public-Private Partnership mechanism that facilitates constant and continuous interaction. In creating a total and unique tourism experience the local community plays a vital role. And for inclusive growth participation of the community in management of destinations is essential. It would be helpful to constitute a Tourism Development Committee in every district and to link sustainable and responsible tourism planning and management to the process of decentralised development.  

In post covid world the challenges for tourism are daunting, but the potential is immense if we take good care of the Pillar.

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