Relaxation in visa regime with introduction of visa-on-arrival enabling electronic travel authorisation (ETA) for 43 countries was a high point for the Tourism Ministry in 2014.
Besides the ETA, the ministry launched welcome cards for foreign visitors and operationalised a long-awaited tourist helpline.
It also witnessed a change at the helm with Mahesh Sharma replacing Sripad Naik as Tourism Minister. Sharma began his innings with a series of initiatives to boost tourism.
The ministry drew up an elaborate strategy to embark upon “spiritual tourism” to woo tourists to the numerous pilgrimage spots taking a leaf out of Italy and Saudi Arabia which are flocked by huge number of pilgrims every year.
With the introduction of ETA for 43 countries including the US, Israel, Germany and Russia, nearly 16,000 visas were processed since its launch on November 27. The ministry aims to extend this facility to almost 150 countries in phases.
During January-November, a total of 6.8 lakh visitors came — the highest till November in any year during the last decade and an increase of 7.1 per cent over 2014.
The foreign exchange earnings from tourism in this period crossed the Rs 1 lakh crore mark with a growth of 12.1 per cent over the earnings of the same period last year.
In order to ensure security to tourists particularly foreigners, Sharma announced an end-to-end service for global visitors against the backdrop of tout menace rampant in tourist places.
Launching of welcome cards and helpline are in this direction, Sharma has said.
Welcome cards, containing all important emergency numbers including helpline, would be given to all foreign tourists at their arrivals at international airports.
The bi-lingual toll free helpline 1800111363 is available round the clock for tourists in Hindi and English language. According to plan, 10 foreign languages will be added later on in the helpline service which will guide tourists during any emergency which may include medical, crime natural calamities or on being stranded.
With an aim of expanding the tourism horizon, the ministry earmarked developing five new tourist circuits around specific themes – Ganga circuit, Krishna circuit, Buddha circuit, North East circuit and Kerala circuit under the Rs 500 crore allocation in the Budget this year.
It is the vision of the government to combat terrorism by tourism, Sharma has maintained.
The ministry also launched Swachh Bharat Swachh Pakwan campaign to promote cleanliness and hygienic food among street vendors which constitute a significant percentage of the hospitality service providers.
The programme is aimed at upgrading the skills and hygiene standards of street food vendors, so that they become a distinctive aspect of Indian tourism. The ministry is partnering with the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) for orientation, skill testing and certification of the vendors.
In order to facilitate hassle-free entry of tourists to monuments, e-ticketing for Taj Mahal and Humayun Tomb were launched on a pilot basis.
The ministry also launched a project for Gwalior under a Mega Destination Development Plan for growth of tourism in areas which are least developed. The project with an estimated cost of Rs 24.93 crore is expected to boost tourism potential of the area.
The ministry further initiated steps to woo high-end tourists with the promotion of wellness and golf tourism, a niche product in the tourism sector.