Little Christmas cheer for Indian tourism

December 22nd, 2008 - 12:46 pm ICT by IANS  

Ambika SoniNew Delhi, Dec 22 (IANS) Vipin Sharma, a Delhi-based travel agent, says he has lost over Rs.2 million worth of business this season. The Mumbai terror attacks and global economic recession almost seem to have pushed India off the tourism map.”December is peak season. But almost all bookings - at least 70 percent of them by foreigners - have been cancelled,” a despairing Sharma told IANS, echoing the concerns of hotel owners and tour operators across the country.

“It is all because of the Mumbai attack. Even Indian tourists are not travelling much, never mind what picture the media is projecting and what the authorities are claiming,” Sharma said.

The travel trade is still waiting with open arms for the tourist who just won’t come even though Christmas and New Year are just days away and the winter season is so inviting. Optimists hope things will bounce back soon.

Be it Rajasthan, Goa, Kerala and Agra, which are popular with foreigners, or cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, all favourites with corporate travellers, tourist arrivals have dipped beyond doubt.

Hotel occupancy has fallen by 40 percent in some places.

“Yes, there have been cancellations after the Mumbai terrorism,” Lally Mathews, honorary treasurer of the Indian Association of Tour Operators, told IANS.

December is when tourists from Britain, Italy, the US, Canada, Australia, and closer home like Malaysia and Singapore head for India.

The country last year attracted 5.08 million foreign visitors.

According to Tourism Minister Ambika Soni, the figure had touched 4.84 million from January to November, an eight percent high over the corresponding months in 2007.

Now the scenario looks grim.

The aviation industry is witnessing low traffic after the Mumbai savagery that killed over 170 people including 26 foreigners. It is expected to suffer a loss of Rs.2 billion in December and January, according to global consultancy KPMG.

Navin S. Berry, who organises SATTE, one of the India’s biggest travel and tourism fairs, said: “The immediate effect was (what) happens anywhere when a terrorist attack takes place. But the condition is fast stabilising now.”

Even Indians have cut down on visits to various states. In 2006, there were 461.76 million domestic travellers, according to official statistics.

The Taj Mahal, the 17th century monument to love in Agra, last year drew 25,000 Indians and around 3,500 foreigners per day. On Dec 18 this year, the booking window figures were down to “7,404 Indian tourists and 1,682 foreigners per day”.

“At the Taj, you hardly see any foreigners. My fear is that the crisis will continue for at least six months, the whole season has been wasted,” said Abhinav Jain, an exporter of handicrafts and marble works.

Another badly affected destination is Rajasthan, which with its royal heritage, desert charm and ethnic Indian hospitality is an all-time favourite.

Tourist arrivals, especially of foreigners, have dropped by 30-35 percent in Rajasthan. “But the domestic sector has not been affected greatly,” said Navendu Goswami, a travel agent.

Luxury hotels around India have taken a hit. The fact that terrorists ravaged the five-star Taj and the Oberoi-Trident hotels and targeted foreigners is lost on none.

Neeta Sen, who manages Cidade de Goa, a five-star resort on Panaji’s outskirts, said the free independent traveller (FIT) category - people who travel without fixed itineraries - is reeling.

Jaipur hotelier Surendra Singh said: “The economic crisis has also been so bad that the tourists who were ready to spend Rs.10,000-Rs.15,000 a day on hotel rooms are now not ready even to shell out Rs.2,000-Rs.3,000.”

Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, has seen a drastic fall in tourist arrivals.

“There have been many cancellations in hotel bookings though the winter season has started,” said Anoop Kanuga, chairman of the Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI) Western Region.

Southern India, a favourite with religious pilgrims, too has been badly affected. One houseboat owner in Kerala complained that he had never seen such a steep decline in tourist traffic.

According to officials, neighbouring Karnataka has suffered a 70 percent fall in tourist arrivals in the first eight months of the year — due to economic crisis.

Bangalore serves as a gateway to southern India. But the city’s hotel industry has depressing figures to report. At most luxury hotels in India’s Silicon Valley, the occupancy rate has dwindled by 40 percent.

Some resort chains in Karnataka are reporting business as usual.

In Andhra Pradesh, hotels are reporting 25-30 percent occupancy.

Andhra Pradesh Hoteliers Association secretary B. Jagdish Rao said: “The fall has been mainly due to the IT slowdown.” The association represents 2,000 hotels of various categories in the state.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has painted a gloomy picture of India’s aviation sector. IATA chief Giovanni Bisignani stated that Indian carriers would witness a drop in demand following Mumbai.

Ernest Dias of SITA Travels said that while the number of flights coming into the state from Europe remained constant, there has been a 20 percent drop in actual arrivals.

Those in the tourism and hospitality trade are hoping that the situation will improve in the coming six months.

“The tourism industry experienced a similar situation after 9/11 in the US. But we are hopeful as the Indian tourism industry is resilient,” said Reddy.

Goa is beginning to see foreign and domestic tourists trickle back.

Rajeev Narain, president of the Tourism Guild of Agra, said: “It is high time we changed our focus to domestic tourism to provide continuity and stability and assured revenue. We are hopeful of getting more bookings from next month.”

Perhaps 2009, meant to be “Visit India Year”, will bring good tidings and be a new year in every sense of the word!

(With inputs from Sanu George, Mohammed Shafeeq, V.S. Karnic, Qaid Najmi, Anil Sharma, Mayabhushan Nagvenkar, Brij Khandelwal and Mayank Agarwal.)

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