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Tourism not hit due to CAA or Article 370: Union Minister Prahlad Singh Patel

"We will take complete responsibility if some untoward incident happens and not go about giving excuses. Even as the minister should not be taking blame for anything happening in the entire country, I will not shun from taking responsibility. However, I disagree that India is highly unsafe for women tourists," said minister of state for culture & tourism.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jan 18, 2020, 11.00 PM IST
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Prahlad Patel, minister of state (independent charge) for culture & tourism (File Pic)
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Prahlad Patel, minister of state (independent charge) for culture & tourism, is confident of achieving the government’s target of doubling foreign tourists within five years. Protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or Article 370 have not hit tourism, says Patel, who is an MP from Damoh in Madhya Pradesh. In an interview with Prerna Katiyar, he talks about the key steps his ministry is taking to boost confidence among tourists and to tackle the battle of perception around India. Edited excerpts:

What have been the key achievements of the culture and tourism ministry in the past six months?

As far as culture is concerned, ASI (Archeological Survey of India) has done two or three good things. First, monuments that have light and sound shows have been kept open till 9 pm. Earlier, these used to be open only till sunset. Second, we have decided that iconic and Unesco heritage sites will have a facility for mothers to feed babies. I inaugurated the facility at the Taj Mahal in November. In the next six months, this facility will be available in a phased manner at all such sites. Tourist places that see more than 1 lakh footfall will have signboards in foreign languages. We started this initiative at Sanchi, where we have signboards in Chinese. Now we are moving to other places in the Buddhist circuit, like Sarnath. This service will be expanded to two more foreign languages; could be Japanese, Sinhalese or Korean. The threshold of 1 lakh footfall will be reduced for this service at a later date. Also, we plan to make it possible for tourists to scan a QR code at a location to listen to information about that place in their own language.

When I took charge, I decided to take cultural festivals from metros to smaller cities and towns. To start with, the one-week annual cultural festival was held across Jabalpur, Sagar and Rewa (all in Madhya Pradesh) this year instead of organising it at one venue. Another such festival that was to be held in Kolkata will now be held in Hooghly as well.

We have also started digitisation of manuscripts, which has been languishing for decades. Specifically, Mongoloid manuscripts that are important from a foreign affairs point of view. We will get these digitised and printed by January 30. As far as tourism is concerned, anyone who visits India wants to experience its culture. So we thought, how can we focus on this aspect? We did what we can at ASI monuments. Soon, three steps taken by our government will show results: extending e-visa facility from one year to five years, cutting down e-visa fee from $25 to $10 and from $80 to $35, and reducing GST for hotel rooms costing more than Rs 7,500 from 28% to 18%. Moreover, the home ministry has opened 137 Himalayan peaks for expeditions. This is historic as earlier, foreigners had to seek permission from the ministries of defence and home to climb these peaks. All this will directly impact the number of inbound tourist arrivals.

Tourism


The PM has made an attempt to increase domestic tourism with the ‘dekho apna desh’ drive and also wants to focus on increasing global tourist arrivals. What steps are being taken to meet these goals?

First, we have to understand the problems foreign and domestic tourists face. The Chinese, for example, may want their tourist guides to speak in Chinese. We are open to all suggestions, grievances and problems of tourists. I have mentioned this on my Twitter account as well. We want to display a comprehensive list of information about an iconic place at its entrance so that people can plan what to see and what to skip.

Tourism in Kashmir was hit after the abrogation of Article 370. What steps are being taken to restore confidence among tourists?
This perception is not correct. It is not true that global tourists have stopped coming to Kashmir. All this is part of a misinformation campaign against the internet clampdown in J&K. This kind of narrative is being built to damage the image of the place. Leaving aside Leh and Ladakh, the contribution of foreign tourists to J&K is negligible anyway. Their numbers were in the hundreds and it is so even now.

But Indian tourists also have started avoiding J&K after August 5, when Article 370 was abrogated.

I went to Bhaderwah (in Doda district) where a four-day cultural festival was organised recently. I did not see any effect on the number of domestic tourists. Then I went to Akhnoor — at the other end of J&K. We are sure the three regions will see a surge in tourism. If you look at the number of tourists going to J&K in percentage terms, I don’t think there is a remarkable change. At least in terms of footfall, I don’t see a remarkable decline. All this is being said to create a negative image. I do not agree with this. Only a change in perception is required to attract tourists. As far as Leh is concerned, everything is smooth and people are happy. We plan to open a centre there with trained manpower, equipment support and medical facility to help tourists climb peaks.

What about the Northeast? There is a sense that people are not going there due to the protests against the CAA.

When I took charge, I said we do need money but we need something more to change perceptions. This is applicable to all Himalayan states. There is no big issue in the Northeast. In fact, we wrote to the human resource development ministry, saying that all universities and schools must organise an educational tour to the Northeast at least once. As far as connectivity is concerned, this year, there will be no state left that will not be connected by roads once Manipur gets road connectivity this year. And air connectivity to the Northeast is taking off in a new way under the UDAN scheme. The Act East policy of the prime minister is already showing results.

Do you feel that the perception of India is changing among tourists after protests began over the CAA? The US has already issued a travel advisory in this respect.

This is the result of a planned conspiracy against us. We have always been against vaampanthi ugravaad (left extremism). In India, there are many ways one can protest — one can protest against the government, the PM, me or any other minister. We do not mind that. But because of such protests, the perception of India must not take a hit in the eyes of the world. Take the case of Iran. No one would want to visit that country after the recent incidents, even if one gets free tickets. At the same time, we feel people are seeing and understanding the ground reality. We are sure the protestors will also change their attitude.

India’s ranking in the global Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index 2019 rose 18 points to 34. But its position has slipped in four of the 14 parameters: safety & security, health & hygiene, price competitiveness and air transport infrastructure. What are you doing to address these issues, especially on the safety of women tourists who often feel unsafe travelling alone?
We will take complete responsibility if some untoward incident happens and not go about giving excuses. Even as the minister should not be taking blame for anything happening in the entire country, I will not shun from taking responsibility. However, I disagree that India is highly unsafe for women tourists. At the same time, we must be careful. There are at least 10 parameters for safety and women safety is of the utmost priority to us. We are bringing a unique platform where all such requirements of domestic and foreign tourists will be made available. In fact, a Paryatan Bhavan is being built in Delhi to serve as a one-stop solution for tourists. It will house offices of state tourism departments, passport renewal centres and visa processing offices of private companies, besides the ministry’s office.

Now that GST on room rentals has been reduced, India is bound to become a more price competitive destination.

You banned the use of single-use plastic within 100 m radius of ASI monuments. But its use is still rampant in the absence of a viable alternative, and punitive action. How are you going to tackle this problem?

The media has a big role to play in making the campaign successful. I have appealed to the press to report instances of such misuse so that we can take action. Suggestions are more than welcome. We will not debate or claim that you are wrong and we are right. We will take the suggestions in a constructive way.

India has set a target of becoming a $5 trillion economy by 2025. How will tourism contribute towards this goal?

Tourism will contribute in a big way. We plan to double the number of tourists in five years. The sector will fulfil all the expectations the PM and the country have. All stakeholders — hoteliers, guides, states or tour and travel operators — are happy with the way things are going.

What specific steps are being taken for the revival of museums across the country? Many are poorly maintained and in a bad shape.
I will thank the PM as it was his vision to develop cultural spaces around iconic buildings in various metro cities. Eighteen sites came up during our first discussion. But I said we must first focus on five. So we have started with Kolkata and are now working on Varanasi, Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The cultural spaces here will have a museum and a library. The Indian Museum (Kolkata) and the National Museum (New Delhi) are on our priority list. Only 8% of the collection is on display at the National Museum. Space is being created at Lal Quila to showcase these collections. The problem is worse at the Indian Museum, where only 5% of the collection is displayed. We will work on these two museums and later move to the ones in Chennai and Hyderabad.

The Bharatiya Shikshan Mandal, an RSS body, has suggested the merger of human resource development and culture ministries. Do you think that is a good idea?
I think such tasks should best be left for the PM to decide. He is always open to good suggestions.
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