Column: Offer more than just visa-on-arrival

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Published: April 13, 2015 12:46:56 AM

For India to get more Chinese tourists, it must tell them more about its tourist attractions, preferably in Mandarin

The Chinese have become one of the most travelled people in the world. A couple of years back, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) had predicted the number of Chinese tourists travelling abroad would swell to 100 million. Originally predicted for 2020, the number might already have been reached.

Studies also show the Chinese to be the biggest spenders while travelling. In 2012, Chinese travellers spent more than $100 billion while travelling overseas; more than what the Americans ($83.7 billion), Germans ($83.8 billion), French ($38.1 billion) and Canadians ($35.2 billion) did in the same year.

India has been getting its share of Chinese tourists. Around 175,000 Chinese tourists travelled to India in 2013, making for about 2.5% of total tourist arrivals. But the number is well short of what India received from other countries. The US and the UK remain the top sources of tourist arrivals in India, accounting for more than a quarter of the inward tourists in 2013. Russia, Canada, Germany, France were the other major sources along with neighbours Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The point to be noted is this: Chinese outbound tourism is growing at a rapid pace.

But the bulk of the outbound Chinese traffic is not directed at India. The US and Europe remain the top destinations for the Chinese as does Southeast Asia. While India has begun receiving more Chinese tourists, it is clearly not the topmost destination.

The ministry of tourism is justified in demanding visa-on-arrival facilities for Chinese tourists. Foreign tourist arrivals are increasing in India. It is logical to try and attract one of the biggest cores of global foreign travellers to India. More so, given that the Chinese tourists are happy spenders abroad.

The larger point, however, is whether extension of visa-on-arrival will see a jump in Chinese tourists coming to India. Till now, despite the global focus on ‘Incredible India’, India is not one of the top travel locations in the world. At the turn of the century, India was ranked 50th in foreign tourist arrivals. Over the last fifteen years, it has been able to improve its position to 42nd. As a proportion of total foreign tourist arrivals in the world, its share has improved during this period from 0.39% to only 0.64%.

One does wonder whether the Indian authorities have adequately appreciated the importance of tourism, both as a foreign exchange earner, as well as an instrument for increasing the nation’s strategic appeal to the international community. Most countries of the world view tourism as a priority. Economically, it is an activity that is neutral to the state of the domestic economy. Tourism is unaffected by domestic slowdowns as long as the basic infrastructure remains in place. Indeed, tourism is often a great help in keeping the economy going even when the chips are down.

For India, though, the realisation appears to have come in much late. The visa-on-arrival is a useful step. But when it comes specifically to attracting Chinese tourists who are now among those travelling the most, just visa-on-arrival might not help in achieving large volumes.
India is still as unknown to China as China is to India. Prior knowledge and information are important drivers of tourism. The West is a clear beneficiary of such knowledge. Furthermore, a considerable part of the tourist traffic to India is driven by the diaspora. An elaborate diaspora spread in different parts of the world—the EU, UK, USA, Africa, Middle east and Southeast Asia—positively influences tourist flows to India.

China suffers from inadequate information on India as well as the lack of a well-entrenched diaspora. The content on India available on Baidu—the most popular Chinese search engine in Mandarin used by Chinese travellers—is limited. While Indian movies are widely viewed on the Youku—the Chinese counterpart of the Youtube—they are not enough to get potential tourists up and running. On the other hand, the Indian diaspora in China is smaller than in most other countries and comprises mostly the new generation NRIs. The mainland Indian diaspora hardly has PIOs, unlike in Southeast Asia, who have been settled overseas for multiple generations and are keen on exploring and rediscovering links with the country of their origin.

As a source country, China has enormous potential of foreign tourists for India. But realising the potential requires some specific measures. Extending an across-the-board visa-on-arrival to several countries including China might not produce desired results. What is also required is a combination of steps aimed at making travel knowledge on India more accessible to Chinese travellers and also making India a more friendly travel destination for the Chinese. One of these is the greater use of Mandarin. Across the world one comes across travel spots describing various details in Mandarin, along with other major global languages. Its time for India to think of similar innovations.

The author is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore.

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