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Rural tourism: A driver of the rural economy in India

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India is a country that possesses an abundance of riches, including wealth, power, and beauty bestowed by nature. It is a place where some regions are considered a paradise on earth. If one were to search the entire world for such a place, India would be the country they should look to.

A country whose geographical journey begins from the snow-covered Himalayan mountains in the northern region, passes through the desert landscapes of Rajasthan, and then crosses the lush forests of Madhya Pradesh. Next, it sails through the extensive backwaters of Kerala before culminating in the crystal-clear waters of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

This journey offers a thrilling experience through high-altitude terrains and peaceful lowlands. Tourism is a vital industry that has become the fastest growing service sector in India. It has a positive impact on various aspects of development, including social, economic, cultural, educational, and political. The industry employs both skilled and unskilled professionals, and its potential for expansion and diversification is vast.

Apart from generating economic benefits, tourism plays a crucial role in enhancing India’s soft power by facilitating cultural interactions between Indian citizens and people from other countries. Such interactions foster regional cooperation and contribute to political stability in the region. The travel and tourism industry is a rapidly growing sector globally, outpacing the global economic growth rate with a growth rate of 3.5 percent in 2019.

This sector contributed a significant 10.4 percent to global GDP, providing employment opportunities for around 330 million individuals and accounting for 27.4 percent of global service exports. However, the COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on the industry, causing the economy to come to a standstill and resulting in a decline in the sector’s contribution to global GDP and employment by 49 percent and 19 percent, respectively. In the domestic context, the sector played a significant role in the Indian economy, accounting for 6.9 percent of GDP, 5.8 percent of total exports, and 8.8 percent of employment in 2019.

India’s rich heritage and culture have not translated into significant success in the international tourism market, as the country holds only a marginal 1.2 percent share. This is due to limited tourism development in traditional cities and towns with historical, architectural, and cultural significance. Additionally, poor infrastructure and communication have contributed to the under-exploration of many magnificent tourist attractions, hindering sustainable growth in the industry. To address this issue, India requires a comprehensive approach to developing rural tourism, which holds the potential to drive the sector forward in the future.

Journey of partial success

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), “rural tourism” is a type of tourism activity in which the visitor’s experience is related to a wide range of products generally linked to nature-based activities, rural culture, and sightseeing. Rural tourism offers an alternative to busy urban tourist destinations, allowing visitors to enjoy a healthier and more culturally enriching experience. It can also serve as a buffer during times of overcrowding in popular tourist destinations by absorbing some of the tourist influx.

In India, the rural economy currently makes up 46 percent of the national income, with 68 percent of the population, 64 percent of total expenditure, and 33 percent of savings. This indicates the potential for rural tourism in the Indian market, particularly among millennials who are drawn to new cultures and unconventional, adventurous experiences. The Ministry of Tourism has identified rural tourism as a niche area for the development of rural India. To promote local products and services through tourism, a national strategy framework has been drafted that aims to create employment opportunities and empower women.

In 2014, the Government of India launched the Swadesh Darshan Scheme to position rural tourism as a major driver of socio-economic sustainability and social integration in rural India. Historically, pilgrimage and rural tourism have been interlinked and complement each other in generating employment and developing peripheral infrastructure.

To develop selected rural areas and provide hassle-free services to tourists, the Ministry of Rural Development launched the Shyama Prasad Mukherji Rurban mission in 2016. NITI Aayog has identified certain islands, including four islands of Andaman and Nicobar and five islands of Lakshadweep, for holistic development. The development of the Lakshadweep model of sustainable tourism could make India a role model for the world without jeopardising the region’s fragile and sensitive biodiversity.

The Indian government has also allocated a significant amount of funds towards the flagship Swadesh Darshan scheme, with Rs 1,412 crore being set aside in comparison to Rs 600 crore in the previous financial year. As part of the revamped Swadesh Darshan scheme, 50 destinations spread across 15 states will be identified and promoted under India’s new tourism policy, which is primarily focused on destination tourism.

Additionally, the Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Heritage Augmentation Drive (PRASHAD) scheme will also receive almost the same amount of funds as the previous year, with Rs 250 crore being allocated towards it. To boost tourism in border villages, the government will facilitate tourism infrastructure and amenities through the Vibrant Villages Program.

Furthermore, the approach towards tourism will be integrated with the art and craft sector. The Unity Mall will be established in state capitals or the most prominent tourism centres to promote and sell each state’s unique “one district, one product” (ODOPs), “geographical indication” (GI), and other handicraft products. Despite various developmental efforts undertaken by the government, rural destinations have been unsuccessful in attracting tourists.

Face of Adversity

Compared to urban populations, rural populations are not only impoverished but also less familiar with the concept of cultural and rural tourism. Additionally, they lack knowledge about how to market their cultural, artistic, and craft-related services to tourists. Poor transportation, insufficient infrastructure, and inadequate lodging further prevent these areas from being recognised as tourist destinations. In rural areas, the main problem is that most people rely on agriculture or traditional artisanal businesses that do not provide sufficient income. This results in families struggling to make ends meet, with few earning members and high expenses.

Due to cultural taboos and low literacy rates, many people are not able to explore other economic opportunities. As a result, rural migration has become a major issue in India. One solution to this problem is to develop rural tourism, which can create new economic activities and increase demand for services. However, this can also bring challenges such as increased competition and crime. Therefore, it is important to carefully plan rural tourism development to ensure that local communities benefit and the environment and natural resources are protected.

To achieve this, education and proper understanding of both tourists and local people are essential. There also needs to be a democratic movement that allows people at all levels to participate in tourism development and decision-making. Overall, rural tourism has the potential to provide economic opportunities for rural communities, but it must be carefully managed to ensure that it benefits everyone involved. Major challenges faced in rural tourism development in India are the lack of digital literacy, marketing, and proper tourism infrastructure.

While technology can increase travellers’ confidence to travel, the low level of digital literacy in rural areas hinders the adoption of technology-based solutions. Despite having a higher number of internet users in rural areas than urban areas, almost 60 percent of the rural population does not actively use the internet.

To address this issue, Indian tourism startups can provide digital literacy and simplified digital solutions to improve the livelihoods of local communities. Moreover, extensive advertising through all media, especially social media, should be an integral part of rural tourism development. Advertising should be segmented, with each segment treating a different target group.

Additionally, the quality and capacity of transportation and basic tourist infrastructure, such as toilets, parking, and lodging, are often substandard and unreliable in many rural areas. Therefore, developing community-based tourism infrastructure and attracting public-private partnerships can be a solution to this issue. Also, multi-modal connectivity in line with Gati Shakti should be launched to provide seamless connectivity to rural tourism sites. Infrastructure development is necessary for a rural destination to develop and sustain.

Navigating the future

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has launched a new initiative called “The Best Tourism Villages,” which aims to recognise villages with exceptional cultural and heritage assets. In 2021, Pochampally village, located in Telangana, was selected as one of the best tourism villages by UNWTO. This recognition has the potential to serve as a source of inspiration and encouragement for other villages that rely on tourism for economic development.

It is recommended that the government focus on the North Eastern States, which have significant potential for instant growth in tourism. For example, Sualkuchi village, known as the “Manchester of the East,” is famous for muga, an exclusive golden silk yarn only available in Assam.

Additionally, Mawlynnong village, inhabited by the Khasi tribe, is referred to as “God’s Own Garden” and is located in Meghalaya. Rural tourism can play a crucial role in promoting local economic growth and bringing about social transformation. Therefore, it is essential for the government to recognise its significance and create a sustainable environment to support stakeholders.

To facilitate rural tourism, the government should provide both financial and infrastructure support. A potential measure that could be implemented is the implementation of a unified tax system for tourist vehicles in India, which would simplify transportation logistics.

Furthermore, a collaborative approach involving multiple stakeholders and actions is necessary to bridge the gap between urban and rural development. This would require the convergence of various schemes from different ministries focusing on rural development, with the aim of promoting sustainable rural tourism.

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