Promoting Tourism in South Asia

South Asia is home to a solid one-third of the world’s population.Some of the best brains that run the world have South Asian roots or lineage. The region is home to the highest and the second highest mountain peaks of the world (Everest and K2). Most of the world’s qualitywater resources are in the region with the river systems originating from the Himalayas. Some of world’s best ocean resources (coral reefs of Maldives), beaches (Coxes Bazaar), and mangrove areas (Sunderbans) are located in the region. Its biodiversity is unmatched (Sinharaja, Chitwan).

Home to marvels such as the Taj Mahal, Ajanta, Sigiriya, Timpu, and Taxila, the heritage and cultures of the region date back thousands of years. For centuries, the region has been a hotspot for seafaring nations looking for spices and other riches. It was the playground of several colonial powers, and is now home to almost all of the world’s religions. The cuisine of the region is exquisite, and its people are friendly and warm. The South Asian region has the key ingredients to delight its visitors. Yet, with some 400 million people remaining below the poverty line and 71 million people affected by violence or its threat, most of South Asia remains conflict ridden. Poverty, health, child, and gender-related issues are pulling down the region’s image. In 2007, the South Asian region received less than 1.1 percent (9.7 million) of the 898 million visitors from around the world (UN World Tourism Organization 2008). In comparison, Europe received 53.5 percent of the global arrivals, and the Asian region, including East and Southeast Asia, received 19.3 percent. The volume of arrivals to the Asia Pacific region more than doubled between 2000 and 2007, from 85 million to 198 million (UNESCAP 2008). Within this growth scenario, regrettably, most of South Asia saw only marginal growth, with the exceptions of some signifi-cant growth to India and Maldives.

For several decades now, the region has promoted tourism. As far back as the early 1980s, the World Tourism Organization (now UNWTO) set up a Secretariat in Colombo for South Asian Tourism Promotion and attempted to promote the region. This initiative failed because of inadequat support and interest from the individual nations’ state tourism organizations. In the 1990s, the SAARC Chambers of Commerce and Industry (SCCI) began a Nepal-based initiative to promote tourism to the region. A special tourism committee was formed and several rounds of meetings were held. A promotional tagline “Magic That Is South Asia” was coined, and talk of a regional tourism year was initiated. It was thought that tourism would improve if private sector business and tourism stakeholders took the lead in moving regional tourism initiatives forward. Several South Asian tourism business and trade markets  have been held since the 1990s.

On the formal intergovernmental sphere, tourism occupies an important position. The official Web site of the SAARC Secretariat presents tourism  as follows:

The SAARC Leaders have always recognized the importance of tourism and emphasized the need to take measures for promoting tourism in the region. During the Second Summit, the Leaders underscored that concrete stepsshould be taken to facilitate tourism in the region. Tourism has been an important dimension of most of the subsequent Summits. At the Twelfth Summit held in Islamabad in January 2004, the Leaders were of the view that development of tourism within South Asia could bring economic,

social and cultural dividends. There is a need for increasing cooperation to jointly promote tourism with South Asia as well as to promote South Asiaas a tourism destination, inter alia, by improved air links, they stated in the Declaration. To achieve this and to commemorate the twentieth year of the establishment of SAARC, the year 2005 was designated by the Leaders as “South Asia Tourism Year.” Member States were required to individually and jointly organize special events to celebrate it.

On the formal action front, the site reports the following:

The Working Group on Tourism was established by the Council of Ministers during its Twenty-fourth Session held in Islamabad in January 2004. This was done after a comprehensive review of the SAARC Integrated Programme of Action by the Standing Committee at its Fourth Special Session held in Kathmandu in August 2003. This intergovernmental process will compliment the endeavors by SAARC Chambers of Commerce and Industry (SCCI) Tourism Council, thus ensuring public–private partnership for the promotion of tourism.

The First Meeting of the Working Group on Tourism was held in Colombo on 16–17 August 2004. In addition to the SAARC Member States and representatives of the SAARC Secretariat, representatives of the SCCI Tourism Council and the ASEAN Secretariat also attended the Meeting. Besides reviewing the implementation of programme of activities relevant to its mandate, the Working Group made a number of recommendations for promotion of tourism in the SAARC region, for example, printing of a SAARC Travel Guide, production of a documentary movie on tourism in SAARC, promotion of sustainable development of Eco-Tourism, Cultural Tourism and Nature Tourism, collaboration in HRD in tourism sector by having programmes for exchange of teachers, students, teaching modules and materials, Promoting Cooperation in the fi eld of tourism with other relevant regional and international tourism organizations. It also proposed a number of activities to celebrate the South Asia Tourism Year–2005 in a befitting manner. When comparing the progress made on the ground and by otherregional tourism initiatives that began much later than SAARC—such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Pacifi c Tourism Commission, European Union (EU) Tourism, and the Mekong Tourism Initiative—progress must be classified, at best, as wanting.

With the backdrop of the frustration of SAARC’s underperformance, in 1997, a separate initiative was undertaken by several governments of the South Asian region, titled the South Asian Growth Quadrangle, consisting of Bangladesh; Bhutan;  the north, east, and north-east states of India; and Nepal. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) supported the initiative under the South Asian Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) programme, which includes a tourism component. This is an ongoing program me within the South Asian development framework of the ADB.

In addition, also in 1997, another initiative was created to link some of SAARC’s countries with Myanmar and Thailand, as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation  (BIMSTEC), to take advantage of the historical link and turning them into economic opportunities. Named BIMSTEC to represent Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand Economic Cooperation, it set up a Tourism Working Group and has conducted several rounds of meetings, but to date, it has not achieved much progress. Since 2005, the ADB has supported this initiative as well.

South Asia can indeed be described as a dichotomy. Although it has not lived up to expectations as a regional grouping, at the individual country level, tourism development in SAARC presents several unique models, containing some successful best practices.

Bhutan has presented a model of tourism development, in which its operations are based on the model of a kinked demand curve (Sen 2004)to create a premium value for the destination. Bhutan limits access to a few tens of thousands of tourists each year at a premium charge, placing the per capita yield from one tourist at a high level. Bhutan has a business model aimed at conserving its heritage, culture, and natural resources. This model is in keeping with its unique development indicator of “Gross National Happiness,” in contrast to the conventional development measurement of gross national product.

Maldives, known today as one of the most successful island destinations in the world, works on a business model of establishing strong partnerships with foreign investors and tour operators. Beginning with investments from Sri Lankan conglomerates in the early 1980s (still accounting for about 20 percent of all hotel rooms), Maldives Tourism, offering the “sunny side of life” as its positioning platform is driven by some of the best international and regional brand names in the island tourism business.

Nepal is an example of a pioneering brand of unique community based tourism initiative. With its early model of the Annapurna Tourism Development Project8 and the Bhakthipur Conservation Project9 of the 1980s, Nepal introduced a good tourism operational model, offering its unique nature and heritage conservation, community benefit, and sustainable funding features.

Sri Lanka is addressing the challenge of global warming and climate change faced by all nations of the world. It has extended its conventional position as a tourist destination of a treasured island with a warm people offering nature, culture, and adventure to include an extensive green cover. Through its Tourism Earth Lung initiative it is working toward being a carbon-neutral destination by 2018.

Extract from the World Bank Report on Promoting Economic Cooperation in South Asia. – From Daily Mirror

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