Do it like Xi’an: India can boost its flagging economy by boosting the tourism sector

The economy is in the doldrums. Gone are the days of gloating about India surpassing China in growth rates and leading the world economy. Manufacturing is stagnant in many areas, employment may have declined (which is quite an achievement) and exports have collapsed – even as world trade is revitalising and countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam are increasing their exports.

Could tourism help boost growth? In 2016, tourism and travel contributed 10% of India’s GDP. The largest part of this was domestic tourism, amounting to about 88%. In hard times domestically, foreign tourism may be the more dynamic sector. In any case, the government could do much more to increase both domestic and foreign tourism. India is the seventh-largest tourist economy globally. Given its riches, natural and manmade, it should be much higher.

My recent trip to Xi’an, China, suggests there is much India can do to improve its tourist appeal. Leave aside heavy tourist advertising, improvements in visa issuance and provision of modern infrastructure, there are many micro lessons to be learnt from China.

For one thing, China gets most of its foreign tourists from Asia, almost 70%. Not surprisingly, it caters to all tastes and pocketbooks. This is reflected in air connectivity, cuisine availability, language competencies of guides, types of hotel accommodation and cultural preferences.

For a city of nine million people and a history going back 3,000 years, it is remarkably modern. It is a big, bustling, commercial centre, which puts India’s first tier cities to shame. This means above standard amenities. It is spanking clean. Street signs in English are everywhere. Transport is excellent – taxis, buses and the metro – and very cheap. A metro ride within the city was on average Rs 18. Eateries abound – extremely cheap local food to expensive Western and other cuisines (including Indian). I ate delicious, cheap local food, with no ill effects.

Xi’an is of course famous for the terracotta warriors. The city received 500 million sightseeing visits from domestic and foreign tourist over five years and earned $61 billion in revenue. The warriors receive about one million tourists, about the same as the Taj. The site is beautifully laid out so that there are virtually no queues. Buying tickets is streamlined in a huge reception centre. It took me two minutes to buy a ticket. The site has toilets within easy reach – and they are kept clean.

You need guides in China. Many sites do not have explanatory signage in English. My guide spoke fluent English. Conversation with him revealed he had been a guide for 20 years. Every year, he must attend classes to learn the latest on the terracotta excavations. He was punctual, neatly dressed and cheerful and avoided any cloying or annoying intrusions into my conversation with friends. Every day, he waits his turn to get clients. It is not a free-for-all at the site.

Xi’an and its environs feature many other sites – the Shaanxi Museum, the North and South Gate, the Drum Tower, the Bell Tower, among others. All are impeccably kept and regulated for tourists. One does have to watch out for pickpockets, touts and dishonest taxi-drivers, but i didn’t have a difficult moment.

Finally, Chinese tourists are voracious – they want to see everything on display. This means some jostling and elbowing but never ill-natured. At the Shaanxi Museum, i was amazed to see the numbers and eagerness of the crowd. People were somewhat noisy but quite aware of museum protocol – no touching, no loud talking, no flash photography. Evidently, the government has invested in public and civic education.

India could outdo China in tourism: it still has an enormous heritage, whereas a lot was lost in China through war and modernisation. Both the larger and smaller amenities still need considerable attention. Tourism could contribute to economic growth, but it ne sustained government policies.