Letter from New Delhi
When overseas Indians land in India this winter, they can look forward to speedy immigration clearance with electronic visa system. This visa is essentially a paper-free visa that is not stamped or added into a passport.
It is identified electronically when checking-in by the airline and then checked by an Immigration Officer on arrival. So it is much quicker than the traditional paper visa inserted into passports without the rubber stamps.
The electronic visa is one of the announcements made by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in the Budget on 10 July 2014. He said this system will be implemented within the next six months for a number of countries that send the maximum number of tourists to India: UK, USA, Russia, France and Germany at nine airports.
Customs clearance will be easier as a free travel allowance of goods worth Rs. 45,000 has been announced. This is an increase of Rs. 10,000. So you can indulge in more duty free shopping or brings more gifts for your friends and relatives. This allowance does not include your personal effects including a laptop or a tablet, a mobile phone, a camera, a pair of binoculars and so on. When you travel in a Radio-cab for greater security and comfort, you will pay a trifle more with a new measures announced.
You can look forward to improved maintenance and conservation of the most visited pilgrimage venues in India in the near future because the budget announced a Rs 2 billion project for major upgrading of Amritsar and Mathura in North India; Kanchipuram and Vellakuram in South India, Ajmer in Rajasthan in addition to cleaning the Ganges. Cleaning Ganges is a national priority for the Modi government and high-level meetings have been held to start this massive cleanup at a cost of billions of Rupees.
Amritsar with its Golden Temple, the holiest place of worship for the Sikhs, needs cleaning and upgrading of its tourism facilities. So does Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna, revered by Hindu devotees. Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan with the shrine of the Sufi saint Khawaja Moinuddin Chisti is equally revered by both Muslims and Hindus. Just 14 kilometers away is Pushkar town, famous for its temples and the annual camel fair.
In Tamil Nadu, Kanchipuram is a spectacular temple city of one of the most sacred Hindu pilgrimage sites located just 70 kilometers from Chennai. This city presents the glorious traditions of South India with its temples and silk saris. Vellakulam is a typical village, 525 kilometers from Chennai, within easy distance from other noted tourist spots: Madurai, Sivakasi, Dindigul, Kodaikanal and Pariyar. The Buddhist circuit of Sarnath-Gaya-Varanasi will be developed with an investment of Rs One billion to provide world class facilities to pilgrims.
Five new tourist circuits with specific themes will be developed with an investment of Rs. 5 billion. This ambitious project will be complemented with a Rs. One billion programme called National Mission on Pilgrim Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive (PRASAD) for heritage and tourism cities.
Thus pilgrimages of the major religions in India have been covered. These pilgrim venues are visited by hundreds of thousands of Indian devotees and foreign tourists every year. The new government has clearly highlighted its priority to boost tourism not only to provide better facilities for all visitors but also to create more jobs and incomes for the people.
Indian tourism took a dip following the global financial crisis in 2009 but quickly rebounded in 2010. One of the reasons is the high number of overseas Indians who visit their motherland for pilgrimages and family reasons. Tourism contributed 6.6 per cent to the national income (GDP) as compared to 9 per cent for the global income and employed 39.5 million jobs and 6.58 million foreign tourist arrivals in 2012. India earned $17.74 billion from tourism in 2012 showing an annual growth of just over seven per cent.
With these initiatives, India hopes to attract many more tourists and increase tourism earnings in foreign exchange. The budget has made an impressive start to provide better facilities for all foreign arrivals.
Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi
* Published in print edition on 18 July 2014