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‘We have to shed the obsession with night & nightlife’

Thursday, November 2, 2017, 14:52 Hrs  [IST]

Minister of State with Independent Charge for Tourism, Government of India, KJ Alphons has made a mark within a month of assuming office with his open and honest views and opinions on various subjects, including shortcomings in tourist infrastructure at destinations, need to open avenues for fun and entertainment at destinations, reasons for higher taxes in the sector, etc. He also led from the front to pull off a remarkably successful national tourism sensitisation campaign, Paryatan Parv, shortly after taking over his role as a Cabinet Minister. In an exclusive interaction with P Krishna Kumar, Alphons shared his vision for Indian Tourism.

Q While for the government, tourism is an engine to garner foreign exchange and there by create employment, tourism is largely seen by the people as an elitist indulgence. How initiatives like Paryatan Parv would help in mitigating that image about tourism?
Tourism is not meant only for the elite in the society. Ordinary people also have the right to lead a dignified life and travel, see the country, right for fun, etc. Our idea is to take tourism back to people and tell them that this country, its culture, heritage, all belongs to them and they are the custodians of it and the government is just a facilitator. We want the society and local communities join hands with the government to celebrate it. We want every citizen of this country to travel, see different places, fall in love with them and its culture and heritage and take pride in it. That is the vision of the Hon’ble Prime Minister also - Let Indians see India.

Our entire focus is to make that happen, Indians see India. Last year about 1.6 billion trips were made by the Indians within India. Domestic tourism generates more money than foreign tourists. Therefore, domestic tourism is a big focus for us. Indians are good spenders while on travel, and that in turn will generate lot of employment for people.

The entire focus of Paryatan Parv that the Ministry organised was to celebrate tourism and create that awareness about the value of travel & tourism among the people. We had over 1,500 events across the country from the panchayat level to the national capital with overwhelming participation. It was a huge success in creating awareness about India and its tourism potential.

Q Your initial statements that tourists are people who have spare money and should be ready to pay higher taxes which ultimately supports the government with funds for infrastructure development had drawn flak. However, after meeting the CEOs of the industry recently, you supported the demand for lower taxes for the luxury segment. What made you change your hard stand on taxes?
It should not be seen that way. As government we are here to listen to and provide facilities for all types and segments of travel. We want appropriate accommodation to be created and available to all kinds of travellers. We have to take into account demands of all kinds of people. The objective of tourism is two-fold – Providing employment to people and generating revenue for the country. Therefore, both lower and higher segments are important.

There is paucity of quality rooms in the mid-level segment. The shortage is estimated to be 2 lakh rooms. We have to fill that shortage so that the people who travel have access to rooms and opportunities for entertainment, etc. 60% of Indian travel is for religious purposes. We have to make sure that basic and affordable accommodation infrastructure is available at such destinations.

We will, therefore, be approaching the Cabinet to get the threshold limit for Infrastructure status reduced. Simultaneously, we want infrastructure development for the tourism industry so that there is better access to finance from banks, and finance is available on a longer repayment period at lower interest.

We also want the GST on hi-end hotels, which are currently at 28%, to be brought down. It is three times more than the existing rate in South East Asia. We have to be competitive as a destination. We have decided to bring it to the notice of the Finance Ministry and ask for a lower GST rate for hi-end rooms.

Q It’s the first time, a Tourism Minister of the country has shown the courage to speak openly in favour of entertainment activities in our destinations for tourists after sun set. What’s your perception on entertainment and nightlife?
We think that whatever that happens after sunset is sin. It should not be talked about thus banned. You can have serious fun without being a criminal. All over the world, the big money comes not from entry tickets to the monuments; it is generated through entertainment after sunset at hotels and restaurants. As a nation, choice is ours. Do we need money or not? When people go to hotels and restaurants for entertainment, lot of employment opportunities will be created in that segment.

What’s wrong with nightlife? We have to shed that obsession with night and nightlife. Night is not sin. Even the holiest of holy places like Vatican are open at night. If day and night exists, night is as good as a day!

Q The tourism policy of the government which was sent to Cabinet approval more than a year back hasn’t seen the light of the day. What is the status of that policy?
We are redrafting the policy. We had series of discussions with all concerned on the policy. It will go to the higher ups in the government for further consultation in the next one month’s time.

Q While the government is revisiting its overseas marketing strategies, most of the Indiatourism offices abroad are more or less defunct as postings haven’t happened for a long time. Even NITI Aayog in its agenda has asked for proper ‘Cost-benefit-Analysis’ of Indiatourism offices. Is the government thinking of closing down those offices?
It’s not true that Indiatourism offices abroad are unmanned. There are competent people there. The only question is whether we need to retain all these offices or not? Are there alternative ways of promoting tourism other than having huge offices and spending vast amount of money. We are examining the matter and looking at best options possible to market India.

Q The Ministry of Tourism had convened a meeting of CEOs of the industry recently in Delhi. What was the agenda of the meeting?
The agenda was basically to explore bringing investments into the sector. The industry, on the other hand, wanted GST being lowered, land being made available at reasonable rates, problems related to clearances and approvals, etc. We also discussed infrastructure related issues at destinations and what the government should do. People are willing to invest in infrastructure and creating wholesome destinations. Very good suggestions came from the industry, which will be deliberated at different levels of the government and will try to act up on them.

Q MoT has joined hands with Ministry of Road Transport & Highways to develop way-side amenities. How do you take this partnership forward to develop basic facilities at destinations?
We are beginning with five way-side amenities now in the Buddhist circuit in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. We are going to increase the number of such wayside amenities dramatically. Our endeavour is to create toilet facilities at all important destinations across the country. This is the process we want to take forward aggressively, depending upon the funds availability. We will also look at how we can involve the private sector in this endeavour, by making available land at places.

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