Visitors to India have increased dramatically this year. // © 2015 iStock
From sandy beaches and snow-capped peaks to countless historical sites, India has long been a destination rich in culture and natural beauty. However, despite its many delightful attributes, the country has remained relatively inaccessible to the American market.
But that’s now changing — and fast. India is in the midst of a tourism overhaul. Several luxury and boutique hotels have opened this year, such as Starwood Hotels and Resorts’ W Retreat & Spa Goa and Jalakara in the Andaman Islands. Earlier this month, Singapore’s government announced a collaboration with the Indian state of Rajasthan to create The Centre of Excellence for Tourism Training, opening September 2016 in Udaipur.
Perhaps the country’s largest and most widely successful initiative came last November, when the Ministry of Tourism launched an online visa-processing system that allowed prospective travelers from 43 countries — the U.S. included — to apply for a single-entry visa entirely online.
Now, 77 countries are eligible to apply for the Tourist Visa on Arrival enabled with Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA), and India is seeing significant results. In July alone, 21,476 tourists arrived in the country, compared to 2,462 visitors in July 2014, a staggering 772.3 percent increase. And in the first six months of this year, the country saw a growth of 924.6 percent over the same period in 2014.
Sandhya Haridas, assistant director for the Los Angeles office of India Tourism, says the increase is not due to a sudden interest in the country — the allure was always there. Rather, the tourism gain stems from solving India’s accessibility problem.
“The visa process is very streamlined now,” she said. “This is the best thing to promote to travel agents, and it’s already showing results.”
Visitors can apply for a visa online, pay a $60 fee with a credit or debit card and receive the ETA via email, which clients present upon arrival. This can be done up to four days before travel to the country.
Opening the Gates for Niche Travel
The boost in international arrivals is benefiting the country in other ways, too. Americans make up the largest number of repeat visitors to India, and Haridas says she is promoting some of the country’s lesser-known regions to West Coast clients who want to expand their itineraries beyond historic sites such as the Taj Mahal.
“India is a long-haul destination,” she said. “If visitors have two to three weeks, they can definitely go south or west or to any of the other regions they would like to explore.”
Haridas says she is also actively promoting the northeastern part of the country and under-the-radar states such as Gujarat.
“Gujarat is unique,” she said. “For example, it has Gujarat State Lion Conservation Society. People normally think of tigers in India, but not many associate India with lions.”
Haridas also mentioned wellness, adventure and medical tourism as draws for the American market.
“Everyone loves yoga but, more than that, we have this traditional system of medicine called Ayurveda,” she said. “The European market is already familiar with it, but it is emerging in the U.S., especially on the West Coast.”
Haridas also believes the destination has the potential to become a hot spot for the meetings and conventions sector.
“There are so many cities in India where you can host conventions and activities,” she said. “Along with that, you have a host of things you can do pre- or post-tour. No matter what the interest is, there is something for everyone.”