India pins its tourism hopes to America-wide festival this summer
New Delhi — ``India and the United States have a very interesting connection, which most people forget,'' says Dr. N. K. Sengupta, director general of Indian tourism, a man with a twinkle as well as determination in his eyes. ``It was Indian tea which was thrown overboard at the Boston Tea Party,'' he chuckles. He is talking with this interviewer about Indian travel and the 1985-86 ``Festival of India,'' a celebration starting in June which will involve many cultural events from and about India ranging from art and other cultural life, past and present politics, science and industry.
Exhibits will be offered at museums, universities, and cultural and commercial organizations throughout America, starting officially with an inaugural concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington on June 17 and continuing through 1986. There will be a similar festival in France at the same time. The event is patterned after an Indian Festival that took place in England in 1982.
Of course, Indian authorities want to improve the world's vision of India, but there is no doubt that there is another important motivation. Besides bringing ancient and contemporary India alive to the people of the US, there is a need to improve one of India's most important new industries: tourism.
The Indians hope that the focus on their country will result in an increase in American tourists. This matter is of special concern now, because, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the political unrest that followed it, there was a precipitous drop in tourists from America.
``In November, there was a drop of around 26 percent, but it has become a progressively smaller decline,'' Dr. Sengupta explains, ``especially since your State Department stopped advising tourists to stay away.'' Dr. Sengupta wants to make it clear that ``not a single foreigner was affected at all, anywhere'' during the November unrest.
I am talking with the head of Indian Tourism in his teak-furnished office here in New Delhi on a street very much like the wide, tree-lined avenues one sees in Washington, D.C. Dr. Sengupta is a short, dark-haired, bespectacled man, wearing a gray suit and a wool vest. He might be a travel executive anywhere in the world.
Can India cope with a flood of tourism? ``New hotels are coming in all over,'' he replies. ``In the last two years in Delhi alone we have had five new five-star hotels built, with two more on the way. But we are trying to shift the emphasis from five-star [$50 to $90 per night double occupancy] to one-star hotels [around $10] to attract a wider range of tourists. In the next few years we hope that every tourist center will have low-cost, $8-per-day hotels with a clean bed, toilet facilities, and safe drinking water.''
Dr. Sengupta says that the largest number of tourists come from Britain. The US ranks second, with Germany, France, Italy, and Japan in that order. There has been a recent increase in Russian visitors, but last year there were only 16,000 in all, out of a total of 1.3 million. Dr. Sengupta hopes there will be 2.5 million tourists per year before 1990.
What are India's major attractions?
``The most popular tourist destination is the Delhi/Agra/Jaipur triangle, which includes the Taj Mahal. Then there is Kashmir. And, before the disturbance of last year, many people used to go to Amritsar in Punjab. From Bombay there is the Aurangabad circuit -- the caves of Ajanta and Ellora.''
Dr. Sengupta hopes that many tourists will want to see the ``Palace on Wheels,'' a train made up of reconditioned maharajahs' cars, which wanders through Rajahstan, and the ``Great Indian Rover,'' a train which visits mostly places of Buddhist interest but which may be shifted to cover Delhi, Agra, Khajuraho, and Varanasi.
What does he feel is the greatest misconception about India among tourists?
``There is the feeling that they will see only poverty. Well, there are pockets of poverty, especially in some major cities. But mostly the cities of India are as modern as many cities in the US.''
He does warn tourists to drink only tea or bottled water, mainly because of the different mineral and bacteria count of local waters, most of which are safe for regular inhabitants.
He is convinced that many of the glories of his country are being overlooked by tourists. ``India can really offer a great deal -- not just the monuments and cultural things but the scenic beauty, the color, the exotic sounds and costumes, the remarkable variety of people.
``Selling India is like selling the whole of Europe,'' he continues, ``except that the variety is much greater than in Europe. There are regions where the dress, food, and language are totally different from one another. And yet, there is a kind of underlying unity.''
Dr. Sengupta doesn't expect there to be a total shift of emphasis from the Taj Mahal and other architectural monuments. But he would like to place an equal emphasis on India's beaches, mountains, wildlife. ``There's Goa and Trivandrum and Puri,'' he notes. ``We want to promote those beach areas, and also trekking and mountaineering in the Himalayas. And we have more than 90 wildlife sanctuaries.''
He stresses that even today travel in India is not only for the rich. ``For $20, a young person can stay in any of the ITDC [Indian Tourism Development Corporation] hotels, including food. And we are planning such places for senior citizens.''
Dr. Sengupta believes that India has the capacity to be the No. 1 tourist country in the world. ``There is nothing which any other country can offer which India cannot also offer. Until recently Indian tourism was equated with luxury tourism only. We have to live down that image. We must make it clear that Indian tourism can also be mass tourism.''
Dr. Sengupta is proudest of the friendliness of his people. ``Europeans often come to me to say that, unlike in their own countries, in India everybody smiles.'' Then, he thinks for a moment.
``Well, maybe not the customs and immigrations officers. But we'll have them smiling soon, too.''