As someone who’s traveled around Europe frequently over the past few years, I have often been amazed by how well marketed tourism here is, how the most insignificant relic of the past is so beautifully romanticized and presented to evoke a sense of nostalgia for the traveler. The Manneken Pis in Brussels, Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam or Stonehenge in England for instance – who would have thought these rather unspectacular remnants of the past would one day attract millions of tourists from around the globe simply because of the stories behind them? Hats off to the gimmicks of marketing for the moolah that they are raking in today.
But it isn’t all gimmickry either. I hugely admire the effort that has gone into restoring and lovingly preserving the rich heritage and history this rather magnificent continent has on offer. Nowhere in the world is the past so ubiquitous and yet so seamless in its co-existence with the present. Every European city has a character of its own. Some like Rome and Prague are open museums, while others such as London continue to evolve, audaciously confident in their adoption of the modern yet so strongly protective of their past. Across the continent, town squares and sometimes entire cities have been restored post the bombings of the Second World War and this really is testimony to Europe’s dedication in nurturing its architectural glory, its rich traditions.
In India, though, as we brazenly embrace the ‘plan as you go’ model of development, our heritage is pretty much an apology for what could have been. Nowhere is there evidence of planning, of shaping or enhancing the character of a place where the sensitivities of our legacy are kept in mind while going ahead with development. The usual case is that of a glorious B.C. temple or colonial monument buried under the outline of a plethora of nondescript high rises and shining new shopping malls; forgotten and done with. Not one Indian city has managed to retain an individual character, an idiosyncrasy of its own.
The Taj Mahal, for instance, is almost like an antidote to the town of Agra with its open sewers, dusty roads and mind-umbing noise pollution. You really do wonder what inspired Shah Jahan to erect his labour of love in this grimy little place. Barring the few monuments remaining, if you are looking for any evidence of the moguls having ruled India, Agra successfully manages to erase every remaining trace of them. The same goes for most other places too – Jaipur, Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Hyderabad – places that have so much to offer architecturally but are so beyond repair today.
Surprising, though, that this should be the case given that year after year we have had a steady rise in the number of foreign tourists coming in to the country. At a time when our monuments and temples (far older and far more mysterious than many of their popular European counterparts) could have been leveraged to boost this trend, a mind-boggling 100,000 of them lie in a serious state of dereliction. The government, instead of building the requisite paraphernalia around them, has left them rotting so that one fine day, they cease to exist altogether. Our annual GDP spend on tourism today is just 2.5%. Experts believe even if it is doubled, along with putting relevant marketing strategies in place, tourism could contribute to as much as 20% of our GDP, and only through these revenues could we protect what is left of our heritage.
Of course Western tourists, enamored as they are with India, might argue that the real character of the country lies in its chaos, its disrepair, its colour and its people; that trying to bring order would ruin the quintessentially Indian experience. Would it really? What do you think?