End of an era for India Tourism Sydney

The office is winding up its operations after over 50 years, leaving many in the tourism industry shocked and saddened

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In a move that has left several members of the Australian tourist industry shocked, the India Tourism office in Sydney will wind up its operations on 31 March. The office had been functioning here for over 50 years.

The move comes as part of the Government of India’s larger rationalisation and restructuring of all 14 of India Tourism’s overseas offices.

Kanchan Kalia Kukreja, Assistant Director of India Tourism Sydney, refused to comment on the issue, saying that she was not authorised to do so.

 

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However, confirmation came from India’s Minister of Tourism Alphons Kannanthanam, who has been quoted in an official press release as saying that the Ministry has decided to close its foreign offices at Los Angeles, Toronto, Sydney, Amsterdam, Paris, Milan and Johannesburg ‘in the near future.’ The media release said that the ministry will open a new office at Moscow. Thus, the Ministry of Tourism will now have offices at New York, Dubai, Frankfurt, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Singapore and London.

Sources said that the India Tourism office in Singapore will look after the Australasia region as well. There is word that the winding up of the Sydney office could happen as early as 31 March, but there was no official confirmation in this regard.

India’s Tourism Secretary Rashi Verma has been quoted in industry publications as saying that India Tourism is creating some major hubs in the international market. India Tourism will have eight hubs and other countries will be served by India Tourism Marketing Representatives. The hubs will engage PR agencies who will work in some of these key and emerging markets.

Other reasons being talked about unofficially in travel circles are: lack of senior officials in key positions, inability of present staff to adapt to requirements of changing markets, and, most importantly, the very question on the viability of having physical tourist offices in the age of internet.

But many in the travel industry aren’t fully convinced. They say that the decision will derail the inbound foreign tourism traffic that has been experiencing tremendous growth in India in the last few years.

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The development is even more disappointing, coming as it does on the back of news that India has emerged as NSW’s fastest growing overseas tourism market with a record 147,000 Indian visitors coming to NSW in 2017, a 121 per cent increase compared with 2012. Expenditure by Indian visitors to the state has nearly doubled in that five year period to $337 million.

It’s a case of bad timing for Air India as well, which is adding another nonstop flight from Sydney to New Delhi from 31 March. Its officials here would be praying that this decision does not run counter to its goal of getting more and more non-Indians to make Air India the preferred airline to India.

Will it work? That’s something only time will tell.

May be in its absence, the office will prove how vital it is. After all, it provided ample evidence of how its presence helped drive up Australia’s tourism numbers to India. How? Let’s wind back the clock a little.

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Australia was one of the first markets where the Government of India opened a tourist office. Although exact dates are unavailable, it is believed that the office opened in Melbourne just before the city hosted the 1956 Olympics. After functioning there for a few years, the office relocated to Sydney and has been operating here since, becoming, during the pre-internet era at least, a one-stop shop for information about all things India.

Shanker Dhar recalls those days with fond nostalgia. Just as well, because the Sydney office saw its golden period under Dhar, who served as Regional Director here in three stints, aggregating about a decade, between 1987 and 2007. With his knack for innovative ideas and an easy affability, Dhar made quite a mark within Sydney’s Indian community as well. No wonder then, that after superannuating in 2007, he settled down here.

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Shanker Dhar winning an award at Holiday & Travel Show

Saying that he is ‘shocked and saddened’ by the decision, Dhar adds that he has many fond memories from his time with India Tourism, describing it as an icon of India here in Australia. “Our mandate may have been to drive up tourism numbers from Australia to India, but, more importantly, India Tourism helped change India’s perception from a land of snake charmers, or a place where one would get Delhi belly, to a place full of culture, history and natural wonders. Foreign tourists also realised it was easier to travel through India than other Asian countries because of the widespread knowledge of English,” he says.

That change of perception didn’t happen overnight. It was the result of sustained, and sometimes ingenious, campaigns. One campaign involved Tricolour-bearing girls riding jet skis around Darling Harbour on Australia Day and India’s Republic Day. But even more interesting were the big, fat Indian shaadis organised as part of promotion during travel shows.

That’s right. Who would have thought that a wedding would be used as a showcase of a country? Remember, this was way before the film Monsoon Wedding came out, which introduced Indian weddings, in all their garish glory, to Western audiences.

Once you think about it, it becomes immediately clear how the typical Indian wedding has all the ingredients the country is known for: colour, music, spirituality and vibrant celebration.

And how did India Tourism get mainstream Australians involved in the wedding? Not as guests, as you might have imagined, but as bride and groom!

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The wedding of Jonothan Naiman and Elvira Wayne in presence of Shanker Dhar and other India Tourism officials at the India Stand, Holiday & Travel Show at Darling Harbour in June 1997

“We would advertise in the paper, asking if anyone wanted to get married Indian style, in a proper, formal wedding,” Dhar recalls. The adverts said that the couple would be given a honeymoon in India. “We would get a lot of responses. A full-fledged committee would use select criteria to pick the candidates for the wedding,” he says. In Sydney, Jonothan Naiman and his then fiancée Elvira Wayne were selected.

On an auspicious day in June 1997, Jonothan was taken to the wedding venue on horse back. It was a grand event with all the bells and whistles: ladies sangeet, reception of the baraat, chanting of Vedic mantras etc. The event got a lot of support from the Indian community. “Mala Mehta from Indo-Australian Bal Bharti Vidyalaya and her school kids and ladies used to take part in ladies sangeet, Rajiv Maini would organise Indian props,” Dhar says, adding that the priest would chant mantras in Sanskrit and explain the meaning and significance of those mantras in English about the responsibilities of the bride and the groom towards each other. Hundreds of people would watch the extravaganza unfold. It would be covered extensively by mainstream media. “My wife Shhakuntala and I have performed something like 10-15 kanyadaans all over Australia,” Dhar laughs.

It was initiatives such as this one that helped India Tourism set benchmarks for other tourism organisations and win several awards, year after year, at travel shows. “Finally, our efforts won us a Hall Of Fame award,” Dhar adds.

But more than awards, the efforts generated a tremendous buzz about India. Dhar recalls a time when there would be ‘mind-boggling’ crowds at the office. “People would wait for an hour or hour-and-a-half just to get to the reception, even when we had three persons manning the front office. Each evening, we would post 250-300 brochures and letters about India,” he says.

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He also recalls how the India Tourism office, modelled on a fort and complete with arches and water features, was a tourist attraction in itself. “Almost each day, groups of tourists from Japan, New Zealand and various parts of Europe would visit the place and get their photos clicked in front of the majestic Indian backdrop,” he recalls with unmistakable pride.

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Dhar would be equally proud of the results that India Tourism’s Sydney office delivered. From around 60,000 Australian tourists to India in the late 1980s, the number rose steadily to 2,93,625 in 2016. In fact, Australia is now the seventh largest source market in terms of foreign tourists to India. Tourist numbers from Australia to India clocked an impressive growth of 9.8% and 11.6% in 2015 and 2016 as compared to previous years. “Inbound tourism from Australia to India has seen better growth than that from other countries in last five to six years,” Kanchan Kukreja, who heads India Tourism’s Australasia region, had told Indian Link during an earlier conversation. “Australia is a growing market and a prime one in terms of generating foreign tourists,” she had said.

Naturally, tourist revenues too have gone up during this time. Sandip Hor, Chairman of Australia India Travel and Tourism Council, says that while no official data is available, it is estimated that visitors from Australia contribute over $1.5 billion annually to the Indian economy.

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Sandip Hor, AITTC Chairman

Dhar says that during his time with India Tourism, a study showed that each Australian tourist spent approximately $2,500 on holiday in India, excluding airfare. The number, obviously, is much higher now. And, as many as 40-50% Australian tourists in India are repeat travellers, Dhar adds.

All that income comes with very little investment. “For every $100 earned through tourism, the expense was only $7 at the time. It’s such a high return on investment. Tell me which other industry can claim that,” Dhar says.

Tourism is also very favourable in terms of employment generation and has a multiplier effect on many sectors of economic activity. “Therefore, tourism helps the society, by and large, in a better, faster and more distributed way than most sectors,” he explains.

There have, of course, been financial benefits in Australia stemming from the increased interest about India. “Effective promotion of India in the Australian market has increased the number of tour operators, travel agents and Indian hoteliers specialising in tours to India,” Hor says. “Many of them have expressed concern that the closure of India Tourism office will impact their India business due to absence of day-to-day contact.”

Dhar also fears that the move could have an adverse impact, especially in the medium and long term. Tourism is an extremely competitive business now. Every country is vying for the tourist dollar because investments are low and returns are high. “Therefore, you have to be visible all the time in people’s perception. Someone also needs to be in touch with tour operators, persuading them, cajoling them, inviting them to seminars and travel shows so that the India product is on the top of their minds while they’re selling it. Now, if there is laxity on that front, in four-five years, we may see adverse effects of the closure of the tourist office,” he says.

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On the other hand, those who support the decision say that in today’s internet age, tourists have all the information they need at their fingertips. Sure enough, walk-in enquiries at tourism offices would have reduced. Dhar admits this as well. “The tricks of the trade have changed in the age of digital and social media,” he says, but adds that any country that’s serious about tourism has an office in Australia. Anybody who is serious about tourism understands that you need visibility overseas, he says.

Hor adds, “Most of the other South East Asian countries where Australians travel regularly – Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, Japan and China – have offices in Australia to cater to the local market. India as a tourist destination competes with them and the industry feels that closure of the office will push back India in the competition.”

Insiders say that while PM Narendra Modi has talked about the importance of tourism, there aren’t enough people to talk about tourism down the line. There are strong lobbies for exporters in Delhi, but since the tourism industry is so fragmented, it doesn’t have a big clout, so it can’t influence decisions, he adds.

“Inbound tourism has to be seen as an export because we earn in dollar terms. The tourist comes to your country, eats food, drinks tea and liquor, buys clothes, travels in taxis and airplanes, basically injecting money directly into your economy,” Dhar says.

While India Tourism’s presence in Sydney helped generate just such tourist revenue for India, it is not just about dollars and cents. Tourism doesn’t work in isolation. What India Tourism did was help change popular perception about India. This was brought about by the people-to-people contact that has been generated through tourism.

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And it was this perception that helped India Tourism’s Sydney office craft a memorable – or should we use the word ‘unforgettable’ – publicity campaign.

Dhar recalls that the precursor to the massively popular Incredible India ads was the ‘Unforgettable India’ campaign that was developed and launched for the Australia and New Zealand markets. “In the mid-1990s, we tried to find out what the impression of India was,” Dhar says. India Tourism spoke to the travel industry, regular tourists and conducted focus groups. At the end of the study, a couple of things became clear. The expectations of people were very low when they went to India and they experienced was a big culture shock. But gradually, they developed a love for India’s sights and sounds, its monuments, lakes, rivers and temples. They had never seen anything like it in Australia. “We asked what their final impression of India was. They said that most people love it, some hate it, but that it was definitely unforgettable. On the basis of that, we developed a campaign ‘Unforgettable India.’ It was very successful and turned out to be the mother campaign for the hugely popular ‘Incredible India’,” he says.

In fact, so successful was the ‘Unforgettable India’ campaign, that some time after it, an ad agency in Australia wanted to use word ‘unforgettable’ in the tag-line for a product. “But the client refused it, saying that it would be confused with Unforgettable India,” Dhar says.

And to think that all this never would have happened – or happened differently – if the Indian Government had had its way almost three decades ago.

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The year was 1990. It was the pre-liberalisation India economy. The country was facing a severe foreign exchange crunch. In a remedial measure, the then government decided to shut operations of all but one of the close to 25 Tea Board of India overseas offices and five India Tourism offices. Sydney was one of them.

There was a lot of buzz about India among Australian tourists at the time. Many on-the-ground initiatives of India Tourism were shaping up well and delivering results. Ending it abruptly would have meant seeing all that hard work go down the drain.

Dhar says he approached the Indian government authorities in New Delhi, explaining how the Indian government might save foreign exchange by closing the overseas offices, but also how the offices were also helping generate foreign exchange. “We gave them statistics to show how the Australian tourist spend was generating hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says.

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Shanker Dhar

Just like this time, there was a lot of outrage even in Australia among tour operators and travel agents. “Even the government of the day wrote to India, saying that they would love to see the India Tourism office stay back,” Dhar says.

All the efforts and lobbying resulted in the decision being reversed. Of the five India Tourism offices that were to shut, only Sydney remained. “Thankfully, the government realised the importance of having a presence here,” he says, adding that even this time, although the full office in winding up, he dearly hopes that there is some kind of representation of India Tourism outside of the consulate where they could perform some basic duties such as giving information, keeping stock of promotional literature and so on.

Asked if the Indian consulate would do anything in this regard, consul Chandru Appar says, “We have been encouraging and undertaking activities in this regard, individually as well as in collaboration with various organisations and institutions including India Tourism. Our efforts in this regard will continue.”