India’s Tourism needs to move beyond the Taj Mahal
Sudarshan Ramabadran March 25, 2019
An economic impact report (2018) by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) has said that India is expected to establish itself as the third largest travel and tourism economy by 2028 in terms of direct and total GDP and that the total number of jobs dependent directly or indirectly on the travel and tourism industry will increase from 42.9 million in 2018 to 52.3 million in 2028. Therefore, tourism has an untapped, huge potential in India. Each city in India has a fascinating story to tell and share, something that a contemporary traveller seeks.
There is much to do. As part of research to understand the boundless tourism potential of India, India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power speaks to travel experts who specialise in travel to India and those who are really passionate about coming up with unique ways in enhancing the image of India to inbound tourists. In this interview I spoke to Philippa Kaye of ‘Indian Experiences’ who strongly advocates for an India #BeyondTheTaj campaign. During the Interview, she shared some of the insights she has gained from her two decades of travelling to India. She is someone who is constantly striving to deliver something different.
- Please explain the genesis of of ‘Indian Experiences’.
Indian Experiences in its current incarnation is two-fold but both elements of it have the same end objective. I began specialising in travel to India in 1998. In 2015 I revisited standard sightseeing in all the major tourist destinations and was shocked at how dreadful it was. It was the same monologue of a dull history lesson that was preached at me from 17 years previously, as I was taken from monument to monument. Nothing had changed except that the shopping scams had become worse. I left each city having some sense of the monuments and some nice photographs, but no sense of the people, culture, food or any of the other reasons travellers, particularly the modern traveller, seek. I was working for a large travel company at the time in Delhi and curated a whole plethora of unique ways of sightseeing in each of these destinations but I couldn?t find anyone who was prepared to deliver something different. Fortunately, I then started to come across people who thought like me, who truly loved their home cities and wanted to showcase them as they believed the traveller wanted to see. Their problem was that they were finding it difficult to get an avenue to market. As I continued to explore and post my experiences on social media, the foreign travellers began to take note and started asking me how they could include the experiences they saw me having, into their clients? itineraries. They weren?t being offered anything new despite asking for something different and so it made sense for me to provide a platform whereby these experience providers can get their product out to the tour operators (and ultimately their clients) who were asking for them. The consulting part also started out of demand. I have sold holidays for years but my knowledge and understanding of India as a destination was not a scalable model. Then a few new tour operators and travel companies started approaching me for help to put together a product portfolio for them that would give them USPs in a crowded market. And existing India specialists asked for help with new product development which has led to producing new brochures and websites for them. India isn’t the one size fits all destination that many people sell it as. There is a whole host of different destinations, activities and experiences but people just don’t get to find out about them. I?ve been approached by companies who had been told they needed to sell the Golden Triangle despite making it clear that they sold adventure holidays or wellness! So, at Indian Experiences, we don’t just look at companies and give them a standard Golden Triangle package to sell to their clients. We look at their company brand, client demographic, the USPs they have in other countries and the reason that they want to sell India and then we give them a product that matches that. Some might want to sell holidays to young groups, some might have a wildlife focus, some into history and culture, some women only groups, etc.
Ms. Philippa Kaye: India offers a wealth of experiences beyond the traditional monuments. (Source: All photos provided directly by Ms. Philippa Kaye)
- In your eyes, what is the best that India has to offer in terms of experiential travel?
Goodness, where to start? How long is a piece of string? India is full of experiences, horse safaris, camel safaris, walking with elephant experiences, discovering the spices and different cuisines, treks and white-water rafting, art, literature, poetry, yoga and wellness, sculpture, jeep safaris, desert safaris, wildlife, kayaking, cycling, motorbiking, architecture, textiles, rural tourism, the list is truly endless. A visit to India can be so enriching and can tailor to any demographic. In fact, the Golden Triangle can be tailored to a clients requirements in terms of experiences. A more adventurous client can do a cycling tour of Delhi, a morning walking tour of the old city in Agra and a half or full day trek behind the Amer Fort in Jaipur or a hot air balloon safari; a foodie can visit the spice markets in Delhi, then the food markets and then learn how to cook a typical Punjabi meal; in Agra they can head to Peshawri and discover Frontier cuisine, then they can visit an organic farm in Jaipur and have a traditional Rajasthani lunch cooked by village women. Even the most ‘mundane’ of trips to India can be made to be experiential.
- In one of your testimonials for “Indian Experiences,” you are referred to as a ‘South India Specialist?’ Could you explain why?
I started my India career in 1998 in south India, specialising in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I was lucky enough to work with a great London based PR Company and in 1999 we managed to get Kerala featured on the BBC Holiday program which was huge in those days, and our business shot through the roof. I jokingly became known (amongst friends in the industry) as the Kerala Queen. I didn’t branch into the rest of India for a couple of years. I guess in an industry where most people focus on the north, I was a bit different and stuck out!
- India continues to charm international tourists. According to a World Economic Forum report, Tourism generated 40 million jobs in India in 2016. Do you think Indian tourism’s economic potential has been fully tapped?
I’ve also heard that tourism accounts for 1/11 jobs globally which is quite something. I don’t think that India’s tourism potential has been tapped at all. There is such a focus on a pathetically small number of monuments and cities and the rest of India – its variety, destinations and experiences – struggle to get noticed. There are many reasons for this, so many companies only focus on selling the mainstream destinations, the places people have heard of and the places where extra money can be made from shopping commissions. There are companies out there who truly care about the client experience, discovering what the country has to offer and what the client wants and they put it together really well, but they will always be more expensive than the bigger companies and as with all things, it is a price driven market. I also think that it is the global awareness that lets India down. People will ask for what they have heard of and these tend to be the main stream destinations. I have always sold India by asking the vital question that most people tend to forget when speaking to possible travellers, and that is asking them why? Why do they want to travel to India? Take out the main stream destinations they have heard of, they can be included easily, but why else would they like to visit, what are their interests – the food, wildlife, art, adventure, photography, health and wellbeing? Once you know what a client is looking for, then you can tailor a trip for them. The problem is, most agents don?t know their country well enough and the PR machine doesn?t do anywhere near enough to promote India?s extraordinary diversity.
- In your assessment, from which country does India get the maximum amount of interest and why?
Traditionally one of the main inbound markets was from the UK, we have a long history with India and a fascination about it. Of course, there is nothing as good as word of mouth publicity and with a bigger market traveling, the word spreads further.
- What are the ways in which India can become tourist friendly and offer to the world distinct value propositions?
India has a whole host of value propositions already, they are there, ready and waiting for people to come and discover them. India?s Natural Heritage is rated as the 6th best in the world, its natural history as being the 10th best. It has 29 states, a plethora of UNESCO sites, vibrant cities, beautiful countryside. However it does lack in a multitude of ways. The inbound tourist figures, when compared with other countries, are incredibly low and do not reflect India?s rich diversity at all.
Infrastructure needs to be improved throughout the country, both in terms of the quality of more affordable accommodation for a mid-range traveller, to the delivery of useful information. On arrival at airports, there is no useful, helpful information to be given to travellers no one telling them the best way to get somewhere or to tell them best and safest places to stay. They are then left to fall prey to unscrupulous scamsters or get ripped off with expensive taxis. There is no one tourist board coming out with uniformity across the country as to what policies should be put in place to assist tourists. There also need to be tourist police available in mainstream destinations. Perception is also a massive issue with travel to India. Even after 20 years I still get asked about Delhi Belly and the poverty. India needs a PR department to improve its image, no one is out there combating bad news stories of which India gets more than its fair share.
- What are the increasing or changing areas of interests for inbound international tourists vis a vis India?
Tourism for India has been cast in the ‘Raj Era’ mould and follows the same circuits. The modern day traveller does not just want to look at monuments, have a mediocre history lesson and be dragged into shops. They want to engage, meet the people, gain a level of understanding of the country and its people. They want it to be real. They want to discover how people live in different environments, learn about the culture, sample the different food, learn about the spices, learn about its religions and arts and crafts and textiles. In short, the modern traveller wants to engage. This is true globally, not just in India, the traditional fly and flop beach holiday is very passee now. Of course then there is also the social media generation who are only interested in getting a photo in front of a monument to be able to post it on Instagram, but then maybe that’s me being a bit cynical?
The modern day traveller does not just want to look at monuments, have a mediocre history lesson and be dragged into shops. They want to engage, meet the people, gain a level of understanding of the country and its people.? (Source: All photos provided directly by Ms. Philippa Kaye)
- What ought to be done to enable the soft skills of the labour force in the Indian tourism industry?
There are very few training schools within the tourism sector and it doesn’t have a ‘sexy image.’ Kids these days don’t see the tourism industry as a career opportunity. In many cases, IT is still their mantra, but in a country where 70% of the population is under 30 years old, this is a massively untapped population who, with the right directives, could be wonderful ambassadors for the Indian tourism sector. They need to be shown the fabulous diversity of their own country, need to be shown that it is fun, exciting and rewarding. The industry needs to ?walk the talk,? perhaps have tourism professionals doing workshops in schools and universities to show its potential. But, India doesn?t treat tourism as an industry, where are the training programs, communication skills trainings, sensitisation of cultural differences? Even many travel companies don?t do soft skills training or destination training for their employees.
As mentioned 1/11 people globally are employed in the tourism sector and yet as an industry the economic benefits are not highlighted at all. Cities and mainstream destinations aside, rural regions could massively benefit from appreciating what they have and learning how to showcase this to the traveller, these rural and real experiences incidentally are what the modern day traveller is looking for. The drift from villages to the cities could be halted if the villages could be shown just how they can benefit directly from tourism. Indian Experiences works to promote companies who are working on exactly this. On a larger scale also, tourism needs to be taken more seriously as an industry, its economic benefits showcased which will bring more people willing to set up training programs, will encourage more people to take it seriously as an industry and in turn will enhance India?s soft power in terms of tourism which as of now it is failing woefully in. Young people today, if they are taught what their country is, how it can be showcased and how they can be proud of it, can be its ambassadors which would be a powerful tool to enhance their self-worth, their appreciation of their own country and improve the image of the country globally. This could also assist in changing the short-sighted approach which the current tourism sector has in the treatment of its foreign visitors.
- Do you think India?s public and private enterprises have been steel-willed to join forces to enable India’s tourism potential, or not?
No, very little is being done. The individual state governments by and large make occasional efforts in an ill-thought and often ill-conceived way. Little is done with a long term thought process in place or to actually think about the market they are targeting, there are very few, clear long term sustainable policies put out there. It mainly comes down to private enterprises, most of which have their own specific interests at heart and not the greater good of the tourism industry at large, which is understandable. There are a couple of states which do better, Kerala and Rajasthan are the two most noticeable examples where the government and private enterprises work well together and have a more focused and sustainable policy. I have had many meetings with state tourist board officials from around India and the people I have spoken to don?t even know the product they are promoting, they do not know the potential that their own states have and in the instances where they do know a bit about it, they recite a list of monuments/sites at you and that?s about it. No one is actually trained on their destinations or how to promote them. I spoke to the guys at Punjab, all they could talk to me about was Amritsar. In Maharashtra it was only Ajanta and Ellora, I could go on. In terms of infrastructure there is also a long way to go. Ensuring tourists safety is key, so many at a more budget level in particular fall prey to scams and have a bad experience.
- In Japan, there was the #UnknownJapan campaign on Instagram which helped the country attract a lot of inbound tourists. What would be your recommendations for India to tap into the potential of social media to attract inbound tourists? If you were to suggest a possible campaign for tourism in India, what would it entail?
I have a personal rant against the Taj Mahal as I personally think that it prevents people doing the actual trip they want to do when they come to India. It’s all they focus on and therefore they miss out on the hundreds of other reasons that there are for visiting India. I have always been a great believer in my first mantra, India #beyondthetaj.
Also, people are so bored with Raj era tourism, Kerala backwaters, just the same old promotions. India needs to reinvent itself. The message that needs to be got out there is that there really is something for everyone in India. India also needs to get a strong message out there to appeal to a much younger traveller. If we think about it, India has culinary, textiles, adventure, architecture, beaches, forests, deserts, mountains, cities, golf, horse riding, trekking, rafting.
However, one thing, above all others in the feedback I?ve had about India over the last twenty years, is about its extraordinary people and it is the warmth of the people. That is the memory people take home with them. This leads me to my second most popular mantra: Monuments create the backdrop but people create the experiences.
Also, it’s about stories, there are countless stories in India. A brilliant campaign could be started around #storiesofindia.
- Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb thinks that in 10 years, India will be one of the world?s biggest markets with respect to the tourism industry. What will be your suggested roadmap for the next 10 years for ?Incredible India 2.0??
I think any individual is unqualified to answer this. I know that I am, because it requires a team of thinkers, movers and shakers! In the immediate term there are a whole host of fabulous people in the private sector from hoteliers to DMCs and people who are passionate about India?s arts, crafts, food, etc., who know India and its potential and I would invite these people in a think tank who can then brainstorm on the various aspects which would need to be considered. In working together with the government the problem is continuity and so a system and 10 year plan would have to work around the instability of non-continuity.
To find out more about the work Philippa does via Indian Experiences: https://www.indianexperiences.com/
To find out more about the Centre for Soft Power: http://www.centerforsoftpower.org/