In February 2020, the government announced the Union Budget for FY 2020-21 which included several measures to enhance India’s stature as a tourism and cultural destination. These included the development of iconic tourist sites, setting up new museums and better infrastructure for connectivity with a special focus on heritage sites. Additionally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also called upon Indians to reshape India by going ‘Vocal for Local’. For FY 2020-21, the government allocated Rs 2,500 crore to the Ministry of Tourism and Rs 3,150 crore to the Ministry of Culture to help further its decisions related to tourism. Heritage Tourism has always been about local culture, traditions, festivals, cuisine, art, handicrafts, dance and music. The newly-announced steps by the government and the push for ‘local’ will certainly help revive and restore heritage tourism in the post-COVID world.
When the deadly COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, the biggest of nations and the most robust of economies fell to their knees in trying to control the spread of the virus. India, despite her astronomical population, took the outbreak by the horns and till date has managed well to maintain the lowest fatality rate in the world. The credit goes to the hardworking corona warriors and the quick-thinking government updating policies swiftly to keep pace with the fast-evolving virus.
Heritage tourism vastly unexplored
A few decades ago, when heritage tourism started garnering attention and popularity especially in countries like India, the main draw for foreign tourists was the local art and culture. Heritage tourism is still popular in some states in the country that are promoting it well such as Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala to name a few. India’s heritage potential is unlimited and vastly unexplored. There are thousands of indigenous groups, communities in far flung states where the heritage tourism potential has not been tapped completely, if at all.
Travellers, especially from the Americas and Europe have a keen interest in experiencing local culture and they often stay back for several months travelling through the country to destinations offering a chance to intermingle with locals and live like them. Such destinations are concentrated in the tourist hotspots in India where separate packages are developed for such tourists in same locations. Newer zones have not been explored and developed fully so far.
“I first visited India during the 90’s when I was still in college and decided to make a month-long trip with my batch mates. All of us wanted to see how people live in villages as that was something completely alien to all of us,” reminisces Houston-based advertising professional Emily Hart.
“We had a great time living with the villagers in the outskirts of Udaipur. We tried our hand at traditional cooking including dal-bati, pottery, colouring dupattas in vibrant Rajasthani colours, even participating in the local temple congregations (aarti) every evening. It was a magical experience!”
Emily’s close friend Brenda, who had accompanied her for the trip to India says, “That trip was memorable and completely unadulterated with no touts, tour guides or agents involved. I visited Rajasthan again five years ago but things are not the same. Even the ‘local heritage’ is completely commercialised now,” Brenda maintains.
Varanasi-based travel consultant Upendra Singh organises heritage tours for foreign tourists interested in experiencing local culture. He says, “The tourists who come today are very well read but they want everything ‘short and sweet’. No one has time to stay longer and get the full experience. So, ‘instant local experiences’ are created for such tourists. Also, there is a lot of competition in the local market, so agents and touts have crept in all tourism-related operations and activities.”
He adds, “To keep up with the demand, somewhere the ‘quality’ has suffered. I am sure after the COVID-19 crisis is over, if enough attention is given in promoting local art, culture and heritage, there will be many ‘serious’ takers – both foreign and domestic.”
Preserving local traditions and customs
The Union Ministry of Culture plays a vital role in not just promoting but preserving of art, culture and handicrafts of indigenous groups across the country. It also works towards developing ways through which the basic cultural and traditional values remain active among the group. “It’s important to preserve local traditions and customs as they are vanishing, and rather swiftly. The younger generation does not wish to stay in traditional settlements or continue with traditional occupations and vocations. When they move out or migrate to towns and cities, they leave their culture behind with no one to inherit those values,” comments Delhi-based anthropologist Kusum Pandit.
The ministry also undertakes programmes for the promotion of contemporary art. A scheme titled ‘Scheme for Safeguarding the Intangible Heritage and Diverse Cultural Traditions of India’ initiated by the Ministry of Culture works towards ‘reinvigorating and revitalising various institutions, groups, individuals, identified non-MOC institutions, non-government organisations, researchers and scholars so that they may engage in activities/projects for strengthening, protecting, preserving and promoting the rich Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of India’.
The Scheme covers several important domains of ICH: Oral traditions, customs, expressions, including language as a vehicle of our intangible cultural heritage, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festivals, folklore, cuisine, traditional knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, totems, traditional craftsmanship, handicrafts, art forms, music and dance, legends, etc.
In a world where everything is available on the internet and most travellers, young and old, Indian or foreign, ‘look up’ everything on the internet before visiting a place, authenticity often takes a backseat. Mumbai-based tourism graduate Hiral Shah feels, “It’s all about how well you can market yourself. Today, in most heritage zones with reasonable internet penetration and connectivity, locals are listing their properties on the millions of portals available at a click. It’s a democratising platform but often the authenticity of such listings and key aspects such as safety, hygiene, etc. cannot be verified. Everyone knows even the reviews are often rigged.”
Russian traveller Anastasia Yahontov visits Goa every year, without fail, in the Russian charters that start floating in from September onwards. “I often rent out a Portuguese-style bungalow and live by myself to get the full Goan experience.” Most Russian travellers rent out houses and apartments in Goa, mostly along the beach line for the three-six month of their stay in the sun-soaked state. “Most of my friends stay in groups but I prefer staying alone. I have had my fair share of bad experiences since I started visiting Goa ten years ago where either a listing did not exist or the reviews were fake and the place was really bad.” But like all free-spirited travellers, Anastasia believes “it’s an integral part of exploration and only makes you wiser.”
In India, like everywhere in the world, there has also been a tsunami of travel blogs where the credibility of the writers if more often than not ignored. “Most of these portals are only interested in uploading content and very often information verification is bypassed. So while going local is good one must be smart and aware as a tourist,” maintains Hiral.
According to estimates, more than 50 million Indian tourists will call off their international travel plans this year. Experts believe it will give a great boost to the local tourism industry. If the local heritage tourism is nurtured properly, it will boost domestic tourism and help preserve the cultural heritage of the country: a win-win situation!