So one thing we are noticing as we travel through parts of Southern India is the clear growth of domestic tourism since our last visit: It’s been refreshing to stay places and not be surrounded solely by European or other “western” tourists, as this makes the travel experience a bit more rewarding.
The rising middle class of India is over 200 million strong and growing, and they are influencing travel and tourism here more than ever. Foreign visits are still below 2019 levels, but domestic tourism and travel continues to grow substantially. So does India really need (or want) foreign visitors? And what happened to many of the business that catered mostly to foreign tourists?
The short answer is that many of them closed and have not reopened. In the Tamil Nadu hill station of Ooty, many of the pre-Covid travelers cafes and restaurants listed in guidebooks and online had closed. And service at the ones that survived suffered serious interruptions. But fret not weary traveller, as they are being replaced by new trendy cafes, restaurants, and other businesses that a western traveller will enjoy, but will need to learn to share with local (and much hipper) Indians.
The modern growth and poverty reduction in India over the past 16 years is a great thing, and classic traveller towns of Asia may be legendary and great fun to meet other travelers, but they are always a curated experience. Plus, modern Indian cities and the rise of tech and related services are just as important as understanding the symbolism of old temples IMO. And modern India is going to have a big influence on the world over the next century with one of the fastest growing economies and large population growth.
And of course you have always been able to meet “real Indians” at lower cost lodging, but often there are too extreme differences in socio-economic factors to have a relatable conversation based on common frames of references. And English is often limited to middle and upper classes or people in the tourism trade. Sure, we cherish our interactions with any local, no matter how brief or limited, but to us, it is also equally fascinating to learn about the lives of other other educated professionals in a very dynamic place.
Or maybe you are lucky enough to have close contacts, business ties, or even family here….that is always the best experience, and you are probably meeting lots of people. But one resounding theme in the South has been how nice everyone is, especially away from the main tourist areas.
So after 4 nights in Mysore, we finally headed to more remote areas near Masinagudi by hired driver/taxi. There are no train options and the vague bus info I could find involved 2 transfers. And with Cheryl still unable to carry her pack and 35c heat and sun… you get the idea. Car transfers here are affordable and often take out massive stress of uncertain buses and rickshaw connections. We’ve learned not to torture ourselves excessively in our second visit to India. It turns out this car trip included a route through the Mudumalai Tiger reserve and was delightful, as we saw two wild elephants up the hill from the car as we passed through beautiful landscape. (FYI- It was about INR5,500 or $US65 for a 2 1/2 hour trip with coffee/tea/bathroom stop…maybe 4,000 rupees if you shop around but we let our hotel arrange and the little sedan and driver was nice.)
We stayed 3 days at the “Jungle Hut” next to the Mudumalai Reserve, which is part of 4 national parks and reserves which make up the Wester Ghat Mountains biosphere. It’s a UNESCO global diversity hotspot (one of 36) so protecting the endangered and endemic species is a priority. We loved the Jungle Hut, with its great guides, food, vibe, and staff engagement.
It also appeared that the area was being managed well, with a balance of needed tourism dollars and protection of the environment. Perhaps a little more regulation of safari jeeps outside the reserve is needed, but it seemed many area residents are directly involved in the local reserves, or at least reap some of the benefits of money coming from tourism into the their villages. (There are 8 smaller villages that are part of Masinagudi). India has done a good job expanding and managing natural reserves and animal counts are increasing for tigers, elephants, leopards, panthers, bears, and other large fauna. But it’s not easy. We also saw serious anti-poaching patrols.
So we sadly left the Jungle Hut once again by car transfer to Ooty,, “Queen of the Hill Stations”. But as we made our way up the 36 marked hairpin curves to Ooty, all I could think was wow, what an amazing Tour de France stage this would make -:).
Oh, but the logistics! And logistics are what often takes a toll on independent travelers in India. Unless you go the 5 star tour route, doing just about anything in India always seems to come with unexpected challenges or complications. (And a 5 star tour does not buy you safe roadways or clean air outside your AC cocoon.)
Being fiercely independent travelers, we love to find our own way, but recognize sometimes a guide or car transport is needed. But in most cases, all could be done by independent travelers if there was more information provided. Traveling in almost any other country has been easier, including recently in Morocco and Turkey (especially Turkey…a joy), as interactions are more straightforward. There are cultural differences that are hard to adapt to, even after weeks or months here. The local tourists do much better I suspect, as there is more comfort with the systems, customs, and still strict class structure.
So as Cheryl likes to say repeatedly when I complain about a challenge here, “Square peg, round hole!” We are clearly more comfortable with predictable mass transit, cycling, and walking. And I am always torn about guides, as appreciate guide roles provide jobs, but so many times, guides in museums or other tourist sights are just a replacement for any form of curation, or often just repeat what you read on Wikipedia. Wildlife guides are essential and a huge benefit.
But in my naive American perspective, it seems that if India made things easier for independent tourists, more would visit, and spend even more money. Right now, many places are just too challenging to deal with to bother with, linger, or explore further.
One positive change from 2006 is the introductions of E-visas, which has increased tourism visits significantly. But that’s only the first step, as there was still a baffling amount of forms to fly to and enter India. We first submitted all our personal and trip information to get a Visa, including photographs. Next was the mandatory info on the airline app, yet we still got caught out at check-in missing the Air Suvidha form, which was added in January for entry from “high risk” countries. We knew (and somewhat understand) the added PCR tests due to China”s surge in cases, but can’t imagine any scenario in all of India where this form will prevent one case of COVID post entry. Most governments have realized the futility of such measures when COVID is all about in country, but it shows action for politicians.
So we have detailed e-visa with photo, the Air Suvida form, and all other COVID docs, and then get to immigration and are directed to a confusing side desk for E-visas….but first, fill out another manual form with the same info. The few (half dozen) foreign Nationals were all confused and then trying to share the agents one pen and understand why a fourth form was needed….then to immigration desk for questioning….where we were going, my job, was I young to be retired? And immigration officers seemed to be baffled by a tourist listing a hotel as address in India. We’re tourists! Cheryl somehow got less of a rigamorale. Maybe it was the purple hair. Maybe, it seemed, he was trying to be a bit playful and curious, but after all the forms, I wasn’t really in joking mood. Plus, you NEVER joke in immigration or customs unless prompted!
Then to customs ( no one there…walked through?). We then managed to get lucky and find the lone ATM inside arrivals that had cash. (Runs out later in the day apparently, so then you are forced to change cash at poor rates) And then to the one SIM card booth where were lucky to be first in line and getting two Vodaphone SIMs which took about 20-25 minutes, including new digital photos. The time was not the staff’s fault, as they had to enter endless info to register us, as apparently SIM cards are tightly controlled here out of security concerns. The SIM cards work fine and were very reasonable cost 1000INR for 28 days with 1.5GB/day plus bonus on weekends. But note that Airtel has a better network, but getting SIMs outside the airport can have additional challenges.
Next we decided to use the official Airport cabs….which, oh boy, had no one waiting (red flag!). We got in and asked about the meter….as I then noticed the official one seemed to be upside down on the floor and he showed me his phone which had a “meter”. Ughh….and no seatbelts. Ok, but at least he was fairly mellow, preferring to straddle two lanes on the highway most of the way to our modest hotel in Indiranagar. The fare was 2100 INR….more than double than fares listed by Ola or Uber, which explains the lack of line and what all the locals were doing waiting outside the terminal. Welcome to India. But the good news is that a metro is being built to the airport! (Which you know we will take.)
I realize to most natives and past visitors to India it feels as if I’m a man waving fist at seagull. Futile. But India could attract more tourists if some things were more user friendly. The above airport process in Taiwan took 1/4 the time and 5% the stress.
Another issue is the train reservation system for the national railway, IRCTC, can be figured out, but it takes a LOT of patience and working out the payment system for international credit cards. The website (App promised for years…) is twitchy with overlays, ads, videos, and pop up windows. Cmon India, this is your national railway…a more streamlined booking platform and App similar to most modern railways and airlines would be great.
As Cheryl noted in our last post, there are plans to modernize and expand railway service, but will it be fast enough to keep up with the explosion of car ownership and discount air travel. These modes are definitely now the preferred way of travel for the middle and upper classes. But at a huge cost to the environment. The car ownership growth here is a time bomb, and already crippling cities, big and small, as well as killing 160,000 people a year.
And although intercity buses fill a big transport need, most run at night only, and the many decent booking apps don’t take foreign credit cards…..still trying to crack this travel challenge with Google/Amazon Pay or PayPal. But you can generally find something the day before or last minute, but it may not be your first choice for time or comfort. But we are lucky, as we can always buy ourselves out of most situations, even if it means an expensive car hire to the next destination. Flying is often an option too, but we have vowed not to fly in country as much as possible.
So if you are still reading this rant, please know that I think India is a truly unique and fascinating place and we are savoring all the experiences as we head through Kerala now. A cultural and social anthropologists dream. A political and global force. An incredible mix of hundreds of cultures and languages that somehow keeps it together as the worlds largest democracy.
But you don’t make it easy India, and maybe that’s what it’s all about. Happy travels!
5 thoughts on “Does India Need Foreign Tourists?”
Thanks Bert…India is such an amazingly vast and complex country!
I travelled in India for 2 months at the age of 23 but haven’t been back since. It’s so interesting to hear what’s the same (paperwork and bureaucracy at every turn – that legacy of the British civil service) and what’s changed (the rise of domestic tourism, for one).
I was lucky to my travel with Indian friends at first, so I wasn’t always on the “banana pancake” circuit – as we called the network of traveler towns – although I enjoyed those places too. At that age, the hardest thing about India was all the unwanted staring (and occasionally touch) from random men. I remember sometimes carrying my folded umbrella perpendicular to my body walking in the streets, so men wouldn’t brush up against me “accidentally.” I’d love to go back….and I bet in middle age, I’d no longer attract those lascivious gazes. I’d definitely enjoy meeting Indian tourists which I don’t remember encountering when I last traveled there.
Ah yes, the unwanted staring and attention is still an issue, but definitely less now and it seems overall a bit more sophistication in the south as well. Amazingly, the banana pancakes seem to have faded as the international travel circuit seems to have peaked in its old form. Many faded photos of pancakes and other things on menus, but most often they didn’t have them anymore. (Because sometimes you really do just want a banana pancake!) Not sure if it’s COVID or travelers concentrating on more user friendly or Instagramable places?
I was so looking forward to India as a grey haired middle aged lady, for the male gaze reason. And then I went and dyed my hair purple a week before we got there. 🙄 No more grey. But the purple has been a fun bonding thing with Indian women. It’s nice to be able to connect, India is great for that.