India's plan to expand tourism looks beyond pilgrimage tradition

On any given evening, dozens of pilgrims in India come to the spiritual ashram of Mahatma Gandhi in the textile mill town of Ahmadabad. These admirers, along with a handful of foreign tourists, are treated to a sound-and-light show depicting the life of India's independence leader.

Most of India's attractions require just such a pilgrimage: long journeys to sacred or revered places, whether it is Varasani, on the holy Ganges River, or the enchanting Taj Mahal at Agra, or the many Hindu temple sculptures in the Himalayas.

Up to now, Indians have been their own best tourists, willing to travel the country's vastness to see its religious shrines, despite a shortage of Western-style conveniences such as hotels.

But in November a new chapter on Indian tourism will open. All of Asia will turn its attention on New Delhi for the Asian Games, the regional equivalent of the Olympics.

Over 5,000 athletes and an estimated 50,000 visitors will gather from 32 nations for 15 days of the ''IX Asiad.''

Preparations have been truly Olympian. In a 22-month sprint of construction the city has seen five giant stadiums erected and 10 hotels rushed to total or near-completion. Seven highway overpasses have been built to ease traffic.

The face of New Delhi will never be the same.

Officials say the estimated cost of $5 billion will be well spent, despite India's blatant and massive poverty, even in the capital city. Asians are becoming the country's fastest-growing tourist trade, and tourism has just become a prime industry for a nation increasingly short of foreign exchange.

From just over 800,000 foreign visitors in 1981, India hopes to attract 3.5 million by 1990. Last year, it took in $7.5 billion from tourism, and hopes for

The number of tourists, however, is not the best measure. India claims the record in length of stay for its visitors - over 23 days. That's far more than a three-day sun holiday on Spanish beaches. It's not just that India has so much to see; it's that it takes so long for a visitor to get around here.

To a foreign visitor, India can be overwhelming. Tourist officials recommend taking it in ''chunks.''

To boost tourism by fivefold in a decade will not be easy. The roadblocks are not only physical, but political. Indian officials are all too conscious of tourism successes in Nepal and Sri Lanka. But they do not want to open wide the gates to foreign developers.

One essential for tourist growth is air charters. Longstanding resistance by the nationalized Air-India to this competition has been recently broken, but not completely. Air-India has doubled its seat capacity in the last two years with new aircraft purchases, and it recently recorded a profit. The first charters are starting this month, but they will be limited by country and destinations. Hong Kong, for instance, will be given the travel market to the beachy and relatively rich Kerala State.

Another marketing device will be ''Buddha pilgrimages.'' India plans to build up 10 sites made famous by the prophet Buddha in the 6th century BC, such as his birthplace and the place where he is said to have received ''enlightenment.''

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