Centre will not dictate food choice: Alphons

Two months into his stint as tourism minister, KJ Alphons spells out his view on religious tourism and plans for the sector in a conversation with

Swati Mathur

. Excerpts

You have been tourism minister for two months now. What have been your key learnings?

Currently, India receives about 14.5 million tourists annually, of which 8.5 million are foreigners. Though our growth has been about 10%, this is not enough. France‘s Louvre Museum, for instance, gets 22 million tourists annually. Why should India not attract the same numbers? Tourism has a multiplier effect, both on employment and on revenue generation.

What, according to you, are the problem areas possibly holding back foreign tourists?

One problem is that India is perceived as a filthy country. This is something that the PM has been working very hard to correct. While the message has now reached every person in the country, the PM and the President talking about cleanliness cannot bring about last-mile changes. Local bodies and citizens must get involved. Also, there is a perception that India is not safe enough. My position is that India is very safe. The US, which gets far more tourists than us, is a lot more unsafe. At the same time, I think we need better policing, and a separate cadre of tourist police.

So what changes are you proposing?

Our aim is to offer help in creating infrastructure while giving ideas to states. In Kovalam (Kerala), once a hub of tourists, not a single chartered aircraft lands any more. That’s because there are no toilets. Those that are there are not properly maintained. Hampi, another heritage site, has the same problem.

There’s a perception that the Incredible India 2.0 campaign has taken a ‘religious‘ turn. Do you agree?

See, I have to cater to what people want. Seventy per cent of inward travel in India is religious travel. So, I have to make that experience better. The ministry is spending more on developing religious circuits, and the Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spirituality Augmentation Drive (PRASAD) schemes, among others. This involves all religions. It is the states which make the suggestions.

Is there an attempt to devalue the Taj Mahal?

What the UP government tried to do was to say that there are destinations other than the Taj that are important. The UP government made it very clear that Taj is at the core of UP’s tourism. There is no doubt about that. The entire issue was grossly misunderstood. The government has no intention to devalue the Taj Mahal. It shall always continue to be the biggest tourist destination in India.

Food, a vital part of Incredible India, has also attracted controversy. Is the government attempting to control what people eat?

The government of India has made it very clear, and BJP has also made it very clear, that people in every state will decide what they want to eat. The Centre is not going to dictate all these things. We are very clear on that. Some of the so-called ‘loose statements’ are misunderstood by certain media. It is a democratic country and we have made it very clear that states will decide these things. So, let us put an end to this controversy. The Centre does not dictate terms. The states decide. The people decide.