They may be long-term rivals on the geopolitical stage, but China and India are looking to expand their relationship on at least one friendly front – tourism.
“Visit India Year” was inaugurated in China last week by Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, and a reciprocal “Visit China Year” is scheduled for India in 2016, as the world’s two most populous nations try to bolster tourism as part of an initiative undertaken during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s India visit last September.
The new initiative will see the two Asian giants, which share a 3,500-km border, working to simplify visa procedures, increase direct flights, develop new travel packages and routes as well as augment the safety of tourists.
Only 170,000 Chinese visited India last year, and China welcomed 645,000 Indians in return. Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang said last week that the numbers were “not in line with the two nations’ massive populations, the gigantic size of their markets and their huge tourist resources”.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has emphasised tourism as one of the “five T’s”, along with talent, tradition, trade and technology that can help drive Asia’s third largest economy. India is currently experiencing decade-low growth of about five per cent, down from about 10 percent during 2004-09.
Travel and tourism is the largest service industry in India providing one out of every five jobs. However, the country lags badly among Asian tourism destinations. In 2013, 6.97 million tourists visited India, comparing unfavorably to Thailand, which received 24 million tourists in 2014 and Malaysia, which welcomed 25.72 million.
Nor has India been able to take advantage of China’s outbound tourism boom. India received a miniscule 2.5 percent of its overall tourist arrivals from China in 2013.
“Both India and China are fascinating destinations and both have ancient heritages. Their proximity also makes travel relatively easy and economical. The scope is enormous, but we have to work hard to bring the Chinese here,” said Sarabjit Singh, vice-chairman of the Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism and Hospitality, an umbrella group for 10 travel organisations.
The biggest bottleneck, according to Singh, is the shortfall of good Putonghua-speaking guides. “Currently, in the whole country we have only 60 trained guides as against the requirement of at least 500. There are no women guides either; this is vital as the demographic of women’s travellers is on the up. Basically, it boils down to the dearth of teachers to teach Mandarin as it’s a tough language.”
Other problems are a paucity of good budget hotels, not enough security for women travellers and a lack of decent Chinese food. Poor hygiene at tourist spots is also a deterrent said Gour Kanjilal, executive director of the Indian Association of Tour Operators.
The Indian government is also considering whether to allow Chinese visitors to participate in the tourist visa-on-arrival scheme, launched by in November 2014 and currently applying to 43 countries.
“We’re getting there,” Kanjilal said, “but it’s still a work in progress. It’s going to be long haul before India achieves the desired aim of receiving 20 million tourists by 2020 as the new government hopes to.”