DESTINATION India is the flavour of the season.
From far and near, tourists are flocking to this ancient land in unprecedented numbers.
There is pressure on airlines, hotels and other allied services.
With over 20% growth expected in tourist arrivals this winter, India is set to break the three-million jinx on tourist arrivals this year.
Because the existing number of flights by foreign airlines into India were unable to cope with the great rush, the Vajpayee government took the unprecedented, and one-sided, step of further opening up of the Indian skies to foreign airlines without insisting on the customary reciprocity.
Last week, a slew of foreign carriers were permitted to add over 100,000 extra seats to clear the winter tourist rush.
Among the beneficiaries will be Malaysia Airlines, which has raised the number of seats by over 17%, from the earlier 20,000 to 23,000 for the December-February peak tourist period.
The winter airline seat crunch is likely to benefit a dozen airlines, mostly from Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf.
Apart from Malaysian Airlines, others set to increase the frequency of their flights this season are Sri Lankan Airlines, which will hike its capacity by 25% to 30,000 seats per month till February.
The tourist industry ascribes the spurt in demand for seats on incoming flights to a variety of factors, but the most important being relative peace in the country.
The feel good factor the chattering classes seem to talk about incessantly has reached foreign ears too. Suddenly, the quality of life in India, especially in the urban areas has improved, resulting in a hassle-free stay for foreign tourists.
Better domestic airlines, especially in the private sector, improved road and telecom networks, easy availability of major global brands of foodstuffs and drinks, world-class hotels and lodges, have all made Brand India very saleable this year.
Most of the foreign tourists come from the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Singapore, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China.
Admittedly, a large chunk of the tourists from these countries have an old Indian connection. These Non-resident Indians (NRIs) might not live in five-star hotels or shop in boutiques and fancy stores, but nonetheless they do add to the nations already bursting foreign exchange kitty.
Significantly, medical tourism, especially from the neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan, is on the rise thanks to the increased availability of world-class hospital facilities at a fraction of the cost prevalent in the developed world.
Along with the rush of foreign tourists, domestic tourism too is on the rise.
With growing personal incomes and tax and employer incentives for leave travel, more and more Indians are beginning to explore their country.
Across the country, locals vie with foreigners for domestic airline and hotel reservations.
Since Government of India pays leave travel allowance to its employees every other year, there is substantial traffic of public servants visiting exotic tourist spots from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.
Goa is the hottest destination in winter, with the traffic peaking at the time of Christmas- New Year.
All seats on domestic flights and even on railways are booked months in advance.
With its clean beaches and affordable accommodation, Goa attracts tens of thousands of foreign and domestic tourists in winter.
It is the only destination in India where the Government allows charter flights from abroad, though tourist industry is pressing the authorities to open more destinations in the country to charter flights from designated foreign countries.
Security concerns however preclude the possibility of additional destinations being opened to chartered aircraft bringing in low-budget tourists.
After Goa, the most sought after destination for foreign tourists is the desert state of Rajasthan.
The opulent palaces of former maharajahs now turned into luxury hotels attract foreigners by the droves.
Such is the pressure for hotel rooms that some of the old and crumbling havelis in the State have been restored as attractive and affordable lodges which cater to discerning tourists keen to imbibe the spirit of ancient India with modern plumbing and air-conditioning, and, of course, 24-hour room service.
Admittedly, given its size and diversity and its ancient culture three million foreign tourists per year constitute a merely trickle, especially when compared to the huge numbers visiting a couple of other Asian destinations.
Authorities are only now waking up to the need to revamp the tourist infrastructure from airports to road, rail and air transport.
Some weeks ago, the Government decided to privatise the maintenance of airport services, including, remarkably, the cleaning of airport toilets and floors.
Efforts were also on to deal with the ubiquitous beggar menace which hobbles foreign tourists in general, and western ones in particular.
As the Tourism Minister, Jagmohan, keeps asserting tourism requires a holistic approach.
Unless the civic infrastructure is in good shape, ancient monuments and temples and first rate hotels by themselves cannot attract foreigners.
It cannot be a pleasant sight if the approach road to the Taj in Agra is pot-holed and there are touts fleecing you inside the complex, Jagmohan argues, making out a case for a comprehensive approach to tourism.
It would also help if domestic travel was priced competitively.
In recent years domestic air fares have gone through the roof so much so it now costs less to fly to Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and back than to fly, say from Delhi to Bangalore or Trivandrum to Delhi.
Indeed, with liberal packages on offer by foreign airlines, the cost of a ticket to these foreign destinations often included free stay in decent hotels for a couple of days and the provision of group transport.
But there was hope that things could change soon.
For a high-powered committee last week recommended that the taxes on domestic air travel be slashed in order to bring down fares by at least 25%.
All these steps, if taken, ought to make domestic travel as affordable as foreign travel.
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