India looks to court a new wave of high-spending tourists

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Speaking to a small group of journalists two months back, Indian Tourism Minister KJ Alphons said that, if the country wanted earnings from foreign tourists to jump from $27 billion currently to $100 billion in the next five years, it would need China’s help.

Chinese tourists have not only become the largest group of travelers worldwide, but they’re also increasingly spending more.

Last year 145 million Chinese traveled abroad, according to the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute. Chinese tourist also spent $258 billion in 2017, almost double what their American counterparts did in the same year, according to data from the World Tourism Organization or UNWTO.

So the fact that only 247,000 Chinese visited India in 2017 is now beginning to rattle Indian policymakers.

With a recorded history two millennia old, India hosts more than 70 percent of the Himalayas, has a 7,500 km (4,660 miles) coastline and is home to the iconic Taj Mahal, to name a few of its attractions, yet it’s losing out to smaller countries with much less to offer when it comes to attracting the Chinese, Indian tourism officials said.

For example, 1.8 million Chinese tourists traveled to Indonesia in Southeast Asia, and even the United Arab Emirates has more than doubled arrivals from China over the past few years, Indian tourism ministry figures showed.

“Tourism with China has just not taken off. Getting what, around 200,000 Chinese every year is peanuts,” Satyajeet Rajan, director general for tourism at India’s Ministry of Tourism, told CNBC.

The Indian government, looking to change these numbers, is aiming for at least 1 percent of the Chinese outbound market in 2019. “If you ask me, it can happen, 1.3 million to 1.4 million Chinese can visit India next year, we just need a strategy to crack the China market,” said Rajan.

And the way to do that is to “make the Chinese happy, give them their food and speak their language,” added Rajan. He was on a recent four-city tour of China, accompanying his minister to meet with potential investors who could build hotels in India catering specifically to Chinese tourists and set up language institutes teaching Mandarin.

Despite the relatively low numbers, India is a short-haul destination and Chinese carriers have 25 flights a week to Indian metros from different Chinese cities. Some blame it on the fact that rising political tensions from border skirmishes have had an impact, while others feel India has just not marketed itself aggressively in China.

Rajan himself conceded that, while the UAE has wooed the Chinese by holding roadshows in 30 cities of China and sold itself as a shopping haven, India’s marketing efforts have been relatively restricted.

India is now looking to showcase its traditional embroidery handicrafts to Chinese shoppers and also target solo travelers outside of large tour groups. “Young guys, like those who work in Alibaba, we need to target them,” said Rajan.

“There is a lack of awareness among the Chinese. They still think India is a poor country. They don’t even know that we have world class hotels,” Arun Anand of Midtown Travels, who has a marketing office in Beijing, told CNBC.

He added that, in order to reach out to the Chinese, India should use the help of Bollywood because Hindi commercial cinema has become a huge draw in China over the past few years.

“I use popular Hindi film music in my presentations to break the ice,” Anand said.

While China’s connection with Bollywood can be exploited, one of the biggest lures of India — that it is the birthplace of the Buddha — has yet to translate into Chinese arrivals.

“There are 200 million Buddhists in China but only 30,000 or 40,000 visit India,” Ravi Banker who runs Genesis Leisure Consultancy said.

Minister Alphons acknowledged that discrepancy, saying that “Sri Lanka [which is home to several Buddhist temples] is getting more Buddhist tourists when Buddha lived in India.”

The reason for this, according to Indian travel experts, is focused marketing by Sri Lanka and subsidies on group air travel. India, on the other hand, suffers from a lack of effort to promote its niche Buddhist circuit to the Chinese and also create the required infrastructure, they said.

The government is planning to air link the four major Buddhist centers in North India with smaller planes. “We are seriously thinking (about this plan). If airlines want support (to run on these routes), we can give. We will have to do these things fast,” said Rajan.

Despite the fact that India has not been able to fully tap the lucrative Chinese market, tourism in the country has had a good run. Tourist arrivals have grown 14 percent in 2017 compared to the global growth of 7 percent, and tourism receipts have also been above the global average, according to official Indian figures.

But the minister is in a hurry to push up those figures.

“We can’t wait until all our tourism infrastructure is in place. We cannot waste time. We have to invite people now to come see what we already have,” he said.

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