Published on February 9, 2008
She was giving an interview during last months Asean Tourism Forum 2008 held in Bangkok. It was the first time an Indian tourism minister participated in the event, and Soni said Indian tourists to the region were projected at a million arrivals by 2010.
"As for Thailand, there were as many as 530,000 'big spending' Indian tourists last year. Indian outbound tourists are expected to number eight million, but I'm more proud that inbound tourists to India rose more than 13 per cent last year," she said.
She said while the US and the UK were the biggest inbound markets to India, there were new markets, such as Russia and the Middle East. New tourism offices in Shanghai and Beijing are also planned.
Soni said the budget for her country's "Incredible India" campaign had been increased 30 per cent.
India was a partner country at the ITB trade fair in Berlin last year. There was also a successful weeklong "India at 60" event in New York last September.
Among the new tourism programmes in India, the minister spoke of 15 destinations around the country being developed for the world market.
Four shopping festivals were also planned at four important zones in India, on the lines of Shilpagram, an artisans' village-cum-shopping outlet created in the information-technology city of Hyderabad.
Hyderabad will host the PATA conference in September, and this will show the importance of the meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions market in India's tourism plan.
"The potential for this market in the Asia-Pacific region has been estimated at US$8 billion (Bt263 billion)," she said.
Another concept is rural tourism, in which 120 villages around India will be promoted and for which funding has been given to each village for infrastructure development and capacity building.
With the importance of the Buddhist circuit, funding has been set aside for the development of roads and hotel rooms in the region. She mentioned that the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation was also contributing to development in this area.
Soni admitted that India desperately needed more hotel rooms, especially with the Commonwealth Games coming up in 2010.
With land prices being so high, the government is offering tax-free incentives for five years to developers of budget hotels.
Many bed-and-breakfasts are planned, especially in the Northeast, which is closest to Thailand.
"In fact, 10 per cent of the budget outlay in every ministry has been set aside for infrastructure development in this region, which has suffered from insurgency for so many years."
The Tourism and Culture Ministry is also promoting the development of seven railway lines in the country.
"The Railways Department wants the government to underwrite the expenses for two years till they become commercially viable, and Oberoi Hotels are helping us on this," she said.
The minister is proud of the open-skies aviation policy, which has allowed a big increase in connectivity, especially from Thailand.
She said four metropolitan airports would be upgraded by next year and that 30 non-metropolitan airports were also being developed.
Funding has been set aside for commemorations of the 300th anniversary of the death of the last Sikh saint, and the minister, a Sikh herself, expects nearly 1.7 million Sikhs from around the world, including from Thailand, to visit India for this big event in October.
Soni said she lived in Thailand in the 1950s with her diplomat husband and remained impressed today with Thais' strong culture of service.
"Incredible India could learn much from Amazing Thailand," she said.
Special to the Nation