Taxi hygiene blitz puts Indian tourism on road to riches
International flight arrivals at New Delhi airport used to be like walking into a bad day at a lunatic asylum. Massed taxi drivers, desperate for a fare, lunged at bewildered foreigners, jostling and clamouring to take them to their hotel.
Not knowing who was trustworthy and who was not, foreigners struggled to make a choice. Finally, the chosen driver would escort them to a decrepit car with seats lined with fake leopard fur and filled with the aroma of armpits and unwashed socks - because the driver had usually slept in it all night.
Before reaching this stage, tourists would have waited in long queues at the immigration desk where surly officials unfamiliar with phrases such as 'please' and 'thank you' insisted that they fill up pointless forms full of pointless questions.
But all this is set to change as India works hard to revamp its image in the world. The objective of the makeover is to attract more foreign tourists.
Tourism Minister Renuka Chowdhury says the aim is to attract 15 million visitors a year by 2010, instead of the current 3.4 million - and in doing so make India more tourist-friendly.
Dynamic and glamorous, Ms Chowdhury has launched what she calls a 'national movement' to clean up India's tourist sites and improve the service that foreigners receive.
It might be getting a tad personal, but she has even told taxi drivers at the airport to bathe, shave and change their chaddis (underpants) every day, comb their hair, and avoid sleeping in their taxis at night, so that passengers are not assaulted by fug or body odour.
Nor will scruffy drivers take tourists by the longest route to their hotel and overcharge them by 500 times.
Instead, she wants drivers to hail visitors with a polite 'Namaste' (greetings) and escort them to a fragrant vehicle equipped with mineral water, tissues and a prominently displayed 'charter of customer rights'.
Their behaviour will be in accordance with an ancient Sanskrit phrase that the Tourism Ministry has chosen as a symbol of the new India: 'Guest is God.'
'They told me that by providing a better service, I would get better tips and people coming back,' said a neat-looking Ishwar Singh, 50, who has undergone the training. 'I've already had passengers taking my number and then calling me from their hotel later.'
So far, 26,000 taxi drivers in seven cities have been trained in personal hygiene and courtesy. By the end of this year, about 128,000 people - porters, immigration staff, tour guides, souvenir-shop assistants and restaurant waiters - will have been taught an important lesson: treat tourists as precious generators of income who must be given such a wonderful time that they return, rather than as gullible victims to be fleeced.
At the end, they get a badge, a certificate and T-shirts and stickers with the 'Guest is God' logo.
'Eventually, this logo will become something that tourists can look for in hotels, restaurants and taxi stands as a guarantee of quality,' said Amitabh Kant, a joint secretary with the Tourism Ministry. It's an idea popular in other parts of Asia, including in Hong Kong.
For the first time in more than half a century, India looks as though it's serious about an industry that earns the third-largest amount of foreign exchange for the economy.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the Indian travel and tourism industry is the third-fastest growing in the world. Industry analysts expect it to generate US$121.4 billion in economic activity and 26 million jobs by 2015.
'We need to wake up,' said Ms Chowdhury. 'If we want to be regarded as future superpower, we can't have all this filth, people spitting and defecating and beggars shoving their diseased limbs in your face. If I have to be school 'marmish', I will be, but we must clean our cities up.'
The government is euphoric over last year's record 3.4 million visitors to India, with most coming from Britain and Europe. It's the highest number so far, and marks a 26 per cent increase over 2003, but compared with much smaller countries in Southeast Asia, it is chicken feed.
Malaysia attracted 15 million tourists last year, and Thailand had in excess of 12 million. An even better comparison is with China, which received more than 40 million tourists last year.
If India fares poorly despite its mountains, beaches, monuments, palaces, wildlife, heritage and culture, the main reason is poor service and infrastructure.
The government is building more roads and airports, laying on more international flights and building the estimated 100,000 more rooms needed by 2010 to cope with the expected surge in visitors. Most of these will be in budget hotels, so that tourists have more of a choice than the current toss-up between a five-star hotel or a scruffy dive.
Internationally, it is projecting India's charms in a slick promotional campaign called 'Incredible India' that features fabulously exotic landscapes in an attempt to dispel the image of a dirty, disease-ridden country.
Ms Chowdhury is one of the most energetic ministers in the cabinet. Insiders say she has grabbed the ministry by the scruff of the neck and shaken it violently out of its previous torpor. To make good her vision, she has managed to get the tourism budget raised from 4.87 billion rupees (HK$870 million) in 2004 to 7.65 billion rupees this year.
New kinds of tourism are also being explored to encourages tourists to travel beyond the familiar 'triangle' of Delhi, the Taj Mahal and Jaipur into other parts of the country. 'There's rural tourism, yoga breaks, ayurvedic tourism, spiritual tourism, and even the new idea of monsoon tourism,' says industry expert Rabindra Seth. 'There's so much India has to offer, but it has to give foreign visitors quality service.'
It will be a long haul. The days when foreigners were kept away by an outbreak of bubonic plague - such as in 1994 - are probably gone. But pot-holed roads, poorly maintained public places, and the impossibility of finding a clean toilet are unlikely to disappear in a hurry.
The government seems to mean business. It's so concerned, for example, at how the alarming disappearance of the tiger will affect tourism that it is considering introducing the death penalty for poachers.