If only the government cared as much about ordinary domestic Indian tourists as it does about foreign tourists

Khajuraho temple
Khajuraho temple

By Vidyadhar Date*

If you are travelling abroad, better travel to Greece: It is the best way to show solidarity with the people deeply hit by the financial crisis caused by capitalism. We could help revive the economy there. This was the theme of an article by Alex Andreou in the Guardian recently.

That made me think again what I always felt. Most parts of India are in the same financial crisis as Greece. Why on earth don’t we travel more within our lovely country where there is so much to see? Think about the great boost the rural economy would get if more and more of us travelled there and shared our lives with the people in other parts of the country.

And let us accept it. There are serious problems but still India is incredibly low-cost compared to the West. With the amount we splurge on Europe for two weeks we can have months of decent travel in India and we can learn so much about our country. Most of us are like foreigners in our own country, with little contact with others. Many people boast of their travels abroad but have hardly seen India except the hotspots like Taj Mahal and Rajasthan.

If only the government cared as much about ordinary domestic Indian tourists as it does about foreign tourists.

Arun Jaitley, India’s finance minster, attracted considerable criticism some time ago for his faux pax when he complained that `small incidents’ like rape were keeping foreign tourists away from India. His concern was mainly with the foreign tourists. The tourism industry caters mainly to foreign tourists and rich Indian tourists while ignoring the needs of ordinary tourists.

The Government of India mercifully gives you some free literature on tourist destinations but these all start with astronomical five star hotel prices. The point is five star travellers have other avenues to get information. It is the ordinary traveller who needs information from the government department and he or she needs to be given relevant information on a priority basis.

Khajuraho, one of the major destinations, is not easily accessible for the ordinary Indian tourist. It has been connected by air since a long time but comparatively it got a railway station much more recently. And it is perhaps the only town in India where the airport is nearer than the railway station. So much for government’s priorities. It is only recently that it was connected to Delhi, Jaipur and Varanasi. It is not easy to reach there by train from other parts of India. The Khajuraho airport building is a drab `modern` structure without any relation to the area’s heritage. Mercifully, the new railway station is inspired by local architecture.

I recently visited Nighoj, a wonderful sight of immense geological significance, some 80 km from Pune. It is a product of Nature’s working, apparently for millions of years. It is a sight that fills you with awe and inspiration. Deep crevices have been created in the riverbed in the rock and several stones have acquired the shape of containers. Water must have poured into the rocks at a tremendous speed for years and years.

Yet, it does not figure in any tourist literature of the government, State or Central. The site is some 3 km from Nighoj town but the road is bad and no bus goes there. A few state transport (ST) buses run up to the town but there is no bus stand or a public urinal anywhere in the town.

One has to depend on some local motor cycle riders for a lift. But the people are wonderful. A motor cyclist gave me a free lift, declined to accept money. On the way back, I got into an auto-rickshaw hired by a family and the driver refused to take money from me and finally took Rs 10.

Last May I visited central Europe as a tourist and while it was wonderful, I did not get the same joy thee as at this geological site and then at the waterfall at Chinchoti, deep in the Tungareshwar jungle, some 30 km from Vasai , a remote suburb of Mumbai.

For miles together I was the only human being in the forest and it was bliss. In the rainy season, one has to walk up the hill through a stream full of boulders and one has to be careful to avoid crabs and scorpions along the way. But it was absolute fun.

As for going abroad, it is better to go on one’s own and if one chooses to go on a conducted tour even by a reputed company one has to be careful. The service can often by shoddy. I found that my top international brand company simply lied in its brochure about showing beautiful Paris on the day we reached. When we got the air tickets, it was clear that this was a lie. The flight was scheduled to land in Paris only by 8 p.m. and in even with the summer weather and late sunset there was no way they could show us the city after landing at the airport at that time.

Yet, the staff was far from apologetic, we will show you all the sights the next day, they maintained. It did not matter to them that this would cut into the rest of the schedule. Their main focus as also of most tourists with us was on seeing Disney Land and the Lido dance show. No one even mentioned Louvre museum. A public sector officer with his family seemed to be never short of money and took even his child to the Lido show. True, he could not have left the kid behind but then instead of spending so much money on the show, he could have seen much better sights.

Think of the pleasure jaunts of ministers and other politicians to other countries. That apart, many of these guys show extremely cheap tastes. They go there for glamour and shopping and exhibit little interest in culture or history, people.

Has one ever heard of a politician going to Indonesia or Cambodia which have great architecture and share a lot of ancient heritage with India? Or do they go to Egypt, Turkey or Iran or Greece, Italy with their great ancient civilisations?

Several ministers of the previous Congress government in Maharashtra were found to have made frequent trips abroad in total violation of the Prime Minister’s directive to reduce foreign travel in the interest of saving precious foreign exchange.

Chhagan Bhujbal, the state’s then tourism minister, was found to have made visits abroad seven times in one year and the cost would be clearly beyond his declared income. Most other politicians flying abroad for fun were from Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress party. The NCP had a culture of engaging private aircraft for domestic travel for legislators to attend functions or weddings with help from people like Vijay Mallya.

In 20 months since the government in the state came into being 31 ministers went globe trotting on 78 occasions.

Many chief ministers simply use the state government helicopter for going short distances that can be easily covered by car or train. Some come to grief as YS Rajshekhar Reddy, chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, who was killed in a helicopter crash some years ago. They cannot claim that they are trying to save time by flying. If they travel by train, they could as well do a lot of work in the train and save time.

That apart we have a whole new class of rich guys who just want to have fun travelling by air when ordinary people are becoming more and more immobile, they cannot afford to travel even by bus or train.

Many of these affluent guys are extremely uncultured and go abroad only for glamour, shopping, sex; they have no understanding or respect for local culture. Thailand has great ancient culture, closely tied to India, but most of these guys go there because it now has a big sex industry which grew because of visits by American soldiers invading neighbouring countries. And few Indians go to neighbouring Cambodia with is great Angkor Vat and other monuments.

Many of Maharashtra’s powerful politicians come from Western Maharashtra, particularly the districts of Pune, Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur. Most of them and other politicians have no interest in real domestic tourism. Neither do they have any interest in travelling and enjoying the great cultural and environmental diversity in India nor do they want to provide basic amenities to ordinary tourists.

A plateau called Kaas Pathar near Satara is now gaining increasing attention from Nature lovers because of its unique flowers which grow in abundance post monsoon in a natural environment as in the Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand. I tried for a long time to get a bus from Satara bus stand to this place on two days but I had to come away disappointed. Such is the callousness of our politicians towards our great natural heritage. They don’t care because they have all the mobility in the world .

It would be much better for our economy if our upper and middle class spends its surplus on domestic travel to a major extent. It should be socio-cultural-ecological tourism where people from urban areas can meet people in rural areas, talk to them, study their life style, culture, eat their food. It can do wonders. The North East of India is now said to be much more peaceful and this is the time to promote tourism of a healthy kind there which will provide greater interaction between the local people and others. Five star tourism is the last thing the country needs. But that is precisely the kind of tourism that is being promoted because the corrupt politicians in league with corporates want to make money.

It is astonishing to see how foolishly the middle class is spending its money on foreign travel. They go on conducted tours operated by private companies which simply fleece them, cheat them but this class is so ignorant it does not even realise this. Just a little imagination and adventure and it can be so much fun travelling abroad on one’s own. One can see much more and at half the cost charged by private operators. I know of well known companies taking tourists to Europe and spending just half a day or so in London or Paris.

The whole travel experience is controlled by a nexus of big travel operators in league with luxury hotel chains and shopping establishmens. Just think of the time these operators make tourists spend on shopping and Disney Land and sites of consumption rather than enlightening contact with the local people, culture and Nature.

It is worth spending Rs 1,000 or so on a travel guide book like the one produced by Lonely Planet and going on a tour on one’s own. Such books give astonishing details about different countries, hotels for all budgets and so on and one can see much more and at a very low cost. To start with one should visit neighbouring Sri Lanka and Nepal which have great cultural heritage and natural beauty. Sadly, most of us go to far off countries rather than these really nice countries.

If only land routes were opened to neighbouring countries like Myanmar, Thailand, China and countries in Central Asia and visa regimes liberalised. I desperately tried to get a visa to Iran though this would have meant jeopardising prospects of subsequently getting a visa to the United States.But I could not get it. I was told I must get an invitation from someone in Iran.

Land routes would sharply bring down costs and one would see so much of the countryside. I made a very low cost visit to Pakistan in 2003 to attend a conference of the Pakistan India Forum for Peace and Democracy in Karachi. I went to Amritsar by train and then in a group from Wagha border to Lahore by bus and from there took a train to Karachi. It was so much more fun than by air.

It is now more expensive to travel to some neighbouring countries by air than to Europe because there is so little traffic between us neighbours. If only our neighbours opened their borders. It would be good for all. Indians could go right upto Turkey and China and Russia by land. How spectacular these road journeys would be.

*Senior journalist and author of the book “Traffic in the Era of Climate Change: Walking, Cycling, Public Transport Need Priority”. Courtesy: countercurrents.org

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