SAARC Tourism may bolster regional ties and economic prosperity

After talks with the Bhutanese leadership, Prime minister Narendra Modi Monday proposed developing a tourism circuit combining India’s Northeast region and the Himalayan nation. This came weeks after he conferred with other South Asian leaders and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj spoke about some “new initiatives” that could be taken to build a new architecture of development cooperation among SAARC countries. One of those, she said, is tourism.

This is understandable, given the fact that tourism is a high-impact activity, a major generator of jobs and a key export sector. Tourism routes are also key to regional development and integration, and the volume and growth of world tourism over the years have demonstrated that the sector deserves a higher degree of attention than it receives in South Asia that the United Nations says helps promote sustainable, “people-centered” growth. What is significant about the lead is the strategic framework to link tourism with the imperative of economic growth and regional integration.

It is not that the regional grouping has not included tourism in its agenda. An action plan has been there. Promotion of the SAARC region as a common tourist destination by enhancing the role of the private sector, human resource development, promotion of the South Asian identity through tourism, development of cultural and ecotourism have all been discussed in the past. The possibility of joint marketing, relaxing visa regime, giving access to cross-border driving licences, making Indian currency more flexible and increasing inter-SAARC movement by air by national flag carriers have come up from time to time. But nothing substantial has been achieved when seen in the context of international tourism.

International tourism to emerging and developing economies has been growing strongly in recent years. In 2013, over one billion people travelled the world and these countries received 506 million or 47 percent of them all as compared to 38 percent in 2000. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNTWO) forecast this share to surpass that of advanced economies in the coming years and to reach 57 percent by 2030.

Also, as a worldwide export category, tourism ranks fifth after fuels, chemicals, food and automotive products. It ranks first in many developing countries. Tourism accounts for 42 percent of the exports of services of emerging markets and developing economies and has been identified by half of the least developed countries as a priority instrument for poverty reduction. According to the latest World Tourism Barometer, receipts in destinations worldwide from expenditure by international visitors on accommodation, food and drink, entertainment, shopping and other services and goods, reached an estimated $1,159 billion in 2013.

Growth exceeded the long-term trend, reaching 5 percent in real terms (taking into account exchange rate fluctuations and inflation). The growth rate in receipts matched the increase in international tourist arrivals, also up by 5 percent, reaching 1087 million in 2013, from 1035 million in 2012. “Such results confirm the increasingly important role of the tourism sector in stimulating economic growth and contributing to international trade. These results show that it is time to position tourism higher in the trade agenda so as to maximize its capacity to promote trade and regional integration,” says Taleb Rifai, UNWTO secretary-general.

However, tourism, as Anil Agarwal of Vedanta Group rightly says, has been one of India’s most “unsold and underrated asset”. Despite its rich cultural heritage and diverse landscape, the country attracts only about six million tourists annually while around 60 million land in China. India also lags behind Asian competitors like Thailand and Singapore when it comes to attracting visitors. A lack of adequate infrastructure, connectivity, complicated visa rules, overall standards of hygiene and cleanliness and of late the problem of security of women and better marketing are cited as the reasons for the underachievement in the sector.

The state of affairs looks set for a change as the imperative of economic growth has made the new Indian government to make tourism a policy priority. And the business-focussed prime minister has made it clear that tourism has to be an important growth area that will support economic recovery. Earlier this month, he held a meeting of the tourism ministry to discuss plans to promote adventure and religious tourism as well as identification of 50 tourist circuits. The government has also decided to push through the agreed changes in the visa system which from October 1 will enable visitors to get visas on arrival.

Tourism, studies have shown, can create win-win partnerships for all countries in a region. Cross-border cooperation can promote tourist destinations and corridors with complimentary locations. “Cooperation flows for tourism can act as catalyzers for national development efforts at different levels in middle income and least developed countries. These flows can then trigger private sector investment, contributing to a greater effectiveness of Aid and poverty reduction,” says Marcio Favilla, UNTWO executive director for operational programmes and institutional relations.

Swaraj in her first interaction with the media said every SAARC country is pursuing their own tourism programmes and that synergy and a common approach to growth of tourism in the region benefiting all can be followed. She then referred to a suggestion from the Maldives in view of growing medical tourism that people who come to India for surgery can go to the archipelago for post-operative care. Prime minister Sushil Koirala of Nepal has reportedly sought Indian investment in tourism in the Himalayan republic.

South Asia is the world’s most populous region. It is a region of overlapping ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity. However, it is one of the least integrated in terms of regional or cross-border infrastructure. What Swaraj was hinting at is that instead of wielding tourism as an instrument of political leverage, as it has often been, between nations, it can be used as an effective means of economic and public diplomacy to help improve interactions and peace and prosperity in the region that has been one civilizational unit and historically a single market. Tourism contributes to people’s getting to know each other more closely and helps them find out their commonalities, reaching beyond the commercial dimension. As the prime minister said in Thimpu, “terrorism divides, tourism unites”.