Tourism has emerged as an important economic activity in South Asia. From the so-called hippies of the 1960s, in search of mystic fulfilment, to the luxury package tourists of the 1980s, the subcontinent has come to exert a magnetic hold over people from many other parts of the world, the West in particular. The Taj Mahal, Rajasthani palaces, the imperial splendors of Delhi, Kashmir with its houseboats and waterlilies, and the palm-fringed beaches of Sri Lanka are among the main places on which tourists in their thousands now descend. The cooler part of the year from October to March is the favorite time for visiting much of the region, although altitude reduces temperatures in the mountains during the hotter months. Many wealthier South Asians living in the plains or on the coast migrate to hill stations to avoid the heat of the summer. Srinagar (Kashmir) and Murree (Pakistan) have become popular destinations for local honeymooning couples, as has Goa, another center much loved by overseas visitors.
The potential impact of tourism had already been recognized by the time of World War II. Hostilities, however, put a stop to its promotion until 1945 when the Sargent Committee was set up to survey ways of developing tourist traffic. The Committee reported in late 1946 that with so many beautiful places in India it was in India’s best interests to promote tourism, both external and internal. On the eve of Independence, a fairly large tourist infrastructure existed in the form of hotels and adequate transport and communications, but there was a need for some kind of centralized coordinating organization. Following independence, therefore, I ndia established a Tourist Traffle Branch within the Ministry of Transport in 1949. The country’s second Five Year Plan (1956—61) set aside separate funds for schemes to attract more tourists. From this point onwards, increasing amounts of expenditure were allocated to improving tourist facilities. During the 1950s, overseas tourist offices were opened: the first in New York in 1952 followed by others in London, Paris, Frankfurt and Melbourne. In 1967, a separate Department of Aviation and Tourism was created within the Transport Ministry. India now offers visitors a wide variety of different classes of hotel as well as reduced tickets on the railways and for internal air flights.
Other South Asian countries have encouraged tourism to varying degrees. Nepal, after setting up a Government Tourist Office, opened its doors to tourists in 1952. Since then, it has placed great stress on extending and expanding tourist facilities, laying down an infrastructure of hotels, travel and trekking agencies, international publicity and trained personnel. Sri Lanka has also built up a solid tourist industry although recent ethnic troubles have resulted in a marked decline in the number of overseas visitors. Pakistan has its Ministry of Tourism and Tourist Development Corporation which runs information centers and resthouses in places of interest. As in India, there are travel concessions available to tourists. On the whole, the viability of a tourist industry remains unrealized by the private sector which is reluctant to invest, while the Government, although aware of the importance of generating tourist traffic, has had other spending priorities. Over the past few years, however, greater effort has been made to stimulate tourism throughout the country and in the scenic mountainous region in the northwest in particular. Tourism in Bangladesh remains largely undeveloped, the majority of overseas visitors being Bangladeshis settled abroad. In contrast, the Maldives have actively promoted tourism since the early 1970s, with great emphasis placed on the fine scuba diving facilities offered by the islands’ resorts. Even Bhutan, which placed restrictions on tourism in 1974 to safeguard its way of life, now seeks to encourage tourism albeit of the selective, high-price variety: in 1986 the total number of visitors was just under 2500, while the target for the 1990s is only double this figure.
There are two points which should be remembered when assessing tourism as an earner of foreign exchange: first, information is always more readily available on people traveling by air, who are likely to be the wealthier visitors, and second, while it is easy to obtain figures on gross expenditure by tourists, these do not take into account the rather high import content of tourist consumption. So far, India has been the main beneficiary in absolute financial terms since India receives by far the largest number of tourists: in 1981, for instance India received 1.3 million visitors as compared with 370,000 who went to Sri Lanka, 290,000 to Pakistan, 162,000 to Nepal and 49,000 to Bangladesh. Similarly, recorded tourist expenditure in India in 1981 was USA$810 million as opposed to USA$132 in Sri Lanka, USA$128 million in Pakistan and USA$8 million in Bangladesh. In terms of relative impact, however, the economic significance of tourism is much greater in the smaller countries of Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives.
About 90 percent of recorded arrivals in India and Sri Lanka in the early 1980s were by air. For Pakistan, it was only 55 percent with as many as 45 percent coming by road or rail, possible poorer workers using the country as a bridgehead for seeking employment in the Gulf and the Middle East. For most South Asian countries, about a quarter of tourists came from Europe and about half from their South Asian neighbors. For Sri Lanka, European arrivals were nearly 70 percent of the total number of tourists, mostly from West.