Whether he is attending political meetings in crisp white kurta-pyjamas or hosting business delegations in smart pinstriped suits or, for that matter, visiting star-studded shows in impeccable tuxedos and bandhgalas, film-star-turned-politician K Chiranjeevi effortlessly switches between his roles. There is no denying that he has not only brought a certain star appeal to his new role as Union tourism minister but Chiranjeevi has also added a much-needed dash of glamour.
But that’s not all. To his credit, the 58-year-old minister has proved to be more than just a poster boy of the tourism industry. Chiranjeevi has surprised his detractors, who were ready to dismiss him as yet another star-turned-politician, by working hard and making a significant difference to his new job.
Unlike most other film stars who have forayed into politics, Chiranjeevi has never tried to steal the thunder — he kept a low profile, avoided the spotlight wherever possible and often ducked media glare. Instead, understanding both the enormity and complexity of the job at hand, the tourism minister has concentrated on delivering the goods. “I realised that though my ministry is charged with the job of promoting tourism, we actually needed the cooperation of 16 other ministries to deliver the goods,” he admits. “With so many rules and regulations, things are far from easy.”
So, for his part, Chiranjeevi has been visiting related ministries, holding discussions with politicians, bureaucrats and senior officials to set things in order. At the same time, he has also been engaging the industry and talking to business leaders and hoteliers to understand their problems and find solutions.
As Chiranjeevi is getting ready to complete one year in office this month, the tourism minister tells Hotelier India, he is proud of his achievements. “I am going to convene a big press conference to mark the completion of my first year in office and highlight what I have done in this time,” the normally reticent minister said with a glint in his eyes.
While handing over the tourism portfolio last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Chiranjeevi that he should take advantage of his star status to promote the country and become a brand ambassador for India. Well, to be honest, few expected him to do much else.
But much to everyone’s surprise, Chiranjeevi does have quite a lot to show for the little time he has spent in office. Of course, he makes no bones about the fact that, at every given opportunity, he uses his star status to get things done quicker than usual. “I have no doubt that my star appeal and huge fan following have helped me roll out a number of initiatives and set in motion a host of others in just one year in office,” said Chiranjeevi.
Faced with increasing international criticism about the lack of security for tourists, especially women, Chiranjeevi says one of his top priorities was to ensure the “safety and security of around six million foreign tourists who visit India every year”. And he took several steps in that direction.
To stem the alarming increase in incidents of crime against foreign tourists, Chiranjeevi took up the matter both with Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde and all chief ministers and urged them to institute an adequate mechanism for safety of tourists. To his credit, Chiranjeevi played a key role in the decision to set up tourism police, comprising officials on deputation from police, along with ex-servicemen and home guards, in all states and Union territories. “This was a historic decision and I was surprised by the overall support we received from all over the country,” he said.
It was decided that, in case of assault on any tourist, states would ensure immediate post-traumatic help to the victim, respecting their privacy. What’s more, Chiranjeevi also approved the setting up of a 24-hour toll-free multi-lingual helpline to provide general information and assistance to tourists and directed the Indian Association of Tour Operators, the apex body of the tourism industry, to make the helpline accessible from everywhere in India.
To send out all the right signals and inspire confidence among foreign visitors, Chiranjeevi has even been encouraging everyone involved in the tourism sector to wear badges with the slogan ‘I respect women’ — besides Hindi and English, the metal badges are now available in nine international languages, including Chinese, French, Korean, Japanese, Arabic and Russian. In fact, the tourism minister was among the first to proudly sport the badge at a meeting of state tourism ministers meeting in New Delhi.
Among various other measures to boost India’s image as a tourist-friendly country it was decided to improve overall tourist facilities and establish proper toilet facilities along roads leading to important destinations by utilising the existing infrastructure like petrol pumps, dhaabas and panchayat bhavans. In addition, state tourism departments were asked to rope in local bodies to step up the cleanliness drive and work towards making tourism destinations beggar-free.
“Cleanliness, sanitation and hygiene at tourist sites are major concerns,” said Chiranjeevi. “Besides, it is crucial to develop infrastructure for better connectivity to such sites. And we are working in that direction.”
To ensure that necessary funds are available to improve, manage and maintain heritage sites, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation has adopted Taj Mahal, Golconda Fort, Mahabalipuram, the Red Fort, the Elephanta caves and Ajanta and Ellora, informed Chiranjeevi.
“The Tourism Ministry has currently initiated 29 mega projects,” he added. “Besides, the government is focusing beyond traditional tourism avenues like medical tourism, wildlife, wellness tourism, and village tourism. This is evident from the fact that, in 2013-’14, Rs13 crore has been sanctioned to develop grapevine tourism and ecotourism.” In addition, the ministry is promoting cultural tourism, sports and adventure tourism, leisure tourism and more.
The Centre has also announced a Rs195-crore package for reconstruction of the ‘Char Dham’ pilgrimage circuit, which was badly affected by the Uttarakhand rain disaster earlier this year. Even though the Uttarakhand government is free to utilise the fund according to its requirements, Chiranjeevi said bulk of it would go toward renovating and reconstructing the pilgrimage sites of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri, and its surrounding areas and the roads connecting them.
There no doubt that all these measures have given a boost to domestic tourism and, to a large extent, restored the confidence of foreign tourists.
“I am happy to say that thanks to the efforts of all concerned, 20.27 lakh foreign tourists arrived in India from January to March 2013 compared to 19.81 lakh in the same period in 2012, showing an increase of 2.3 per cent,” informed Chiranjeevi.
As a logical corollary, the jump in the number of tourist arrivals has given a much-needed shot in the arm to the hotel industry. Not surprising then that, despite the economic slowdown, the hotel industry has done reasonably well and most hotels across the country have posted YoY profits.
Even though Chiranjeevi has done his fair bit to support the hotel industry, his biggest gift came in the form of a web-based Public Service Delivery System (PSDS) for hotel approval, classification and related services that he launched earlier this year. While others have only paid lip service to bringing in transparency in granting approvals for hotel projects and classification status to functioning hotels, this minister walked the talk and turned into a reality.
“This is my biggest contribution to the hotel industry,” he asserted. “With the help of PSDS, all applicants seeking hotel project approvals, hotel classification and approvals for other related services are now able to track the progress of their cases online on a real time basis. Even though the system has put pressure on ministry officials to deliver on time and increased accountability on their part, all applications are now examined within 15 working days from receipt for completeness. And, thereafter, all hotel inspections are scheduled within next 15 working days.”
The hotel industry, tired of running from pillar to post for these approvals, has welcomed the move. Now the recommendations of Hotel and Restaurants Approval & Classification Committee are communicated on the spot to the applicant and these recommendations are put on the web with final decision within 10 days of inspection.
Previously, applicants remained unaware of the status of their applications till the final decision was conveyed to them. But thanks to this initiative, that is a thing of the
past as hotel promoters and owners can now seek voluntary approval from the ministry for their projects and classification from one- to five-star deluxe by submitting applications. All information relating to such applications, indicating the latest status, are put on the ministry website. And all requests are processed for a final decision within 90 days from the receipt of applications. “This measure has brought in more transparency, made officials more accountable and enabled the applicants to access information and check status of their applications sitting wherever they are,” explained Chiranjeevi. “The response from the industry has been overwhelming.”
With the resounding success of this move, the Tourism Ministry is now looking at moving towards an e-regime and accepting e-applications and proposals and working on setting up such systems in other spheres of functioning also.
In a bid to make hotels more visitor-friendly and hospitable, the Tourism Ministry has also just approved the revision of guidelines for hotel after taking into consideration suggestions from the tourism and hospitality industries. “The revision of these guidelines is aimed at providing a higher level of services in hotels and making information about customer rights available to them on and before arrival,” said Chiranjeevi. According to the new guidelines, all categories of hotels will have to indicate on their websites the complimentary facilities and amenities provided to guests. Facilities provided only on request must also be included in the same category. Besides, guests must be informed of the same on arrival. Water-based facilities like sprays or bidets or washlets must be made available at all star hotels.
So, what’s next? “Hotel tariffs are very high in India, even in the five-star category, so the next thing on my agenda is to see how we can rationalise room tariff,” quipped Chiranjeevi. “Even in places like Las Vegas it is possible to get rooms at below $100 per day but not in India. And this is having a negative impact on the flow of inbound tourists, so we have to see how we can make rooms cheaper.”
The tourism minister admitted that the tax component is very high – while most countries charge 5-7 per cent taxes over the hotel tariff, hotels in India charge 20-30 per cent — and informed that he is speaking to the Finance Ministry to look into the matter. “I have already opened a dialogue with the Finance Ministry to rationalise central taxes and have urged state tourism ministers to take up the issue at the state level and rationalise these taxes,” he pointed out.
Further, with an eye on increasing inbound tourism and upping hotel occupancies, he has also urged the Union home minister to extend visa on arrival to more countries. “We have proposed Visa-on-Arrival (VoA) facility for 31 more countries including US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Russia, Spain, Italy and Korea,” Chiranjeevi said. “We have had two sets of discussions with the home minister and he has promised to consider our list. If the current proposal is approved, the number of countries with VoA facilities will increase to 40,” said the tourism minister.
Lauding the Home ministry’s recent initiative to introduce online visa application system, Chiranjeevi said it would go a long way in boosting tourism in the country. “The progress in standardisation of visa application forms and integrated online application system in 120 Indian Missions abroad is yet another milestone towards making the Indian visa application process tourist-friendly and giving a boost to Indian tourism,” Chiranjeevi explained, adding that easing of visa regime would further improve matters. While on the visa front, the 60-day restriction on tourists returning to India on two consecutive visits has been removed, resulting in an increase in inbound traffic from countries to which this facility has been extended.
Seeing the tourism boom in India, a lot of international brands have entered the Indian market and many more like Ritz-Carlton, W and Dusit are ready to open their doors. “We welcome all these international brands coming to India and will do whatever we can to see that they succeed,” said a visibly excited Chiranjeevi. “We encourage partnerships, especially in the budget hotel segment where I see tremendous demand and huge potential for growth. More so as India has over two lakh rooms in hotel and guesthouse category and there is shortage of about one lakh rooms, especially in the budget and mid-market segment. As such, there is a need for more hotels in non-metro cities. What’s more, the tourism industry has been witnessing an upswing and foreign tourist arrivals are expected to register over 8 per cent growth by 2020.”
However, Chiranjeevi was quick to dismiss reports that he is keen to foray into the hotel business saying he has interests in a lot of business, but “hotel is not one of them”. At least not for the time being.
Given the dismal performance of most of the India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) hotels, which is under the administrative control of tourism ministry, his apprehension to venture into the hotel business comes as no surprise. While Ashoka in New Delhi is running at a loss of Rs339.97 lakh in 2013-14 up to June, the Hotel Lalitha Mahal Palace in Mysore is running at a loss of Rs7.88 lakh in the current financial year and Jaipur Ashok, Hotel Jammu Ashok and Hotel Kalinga Ashok are running at a loss of Rs93.74 lakh, Rs15.73 lakh and Rs81.79 lakh respectively.
If other international brands are raking it in, how does Chiranjeevi explain the sad state of affairs at ITDC-run hotels? The minister is quick to say that he is concerned about how ITDC hotels are being run and is trying to sort things out and work on their drawbacks.
“We are reviewing everything one after another,” he explained. “Faced with stiff competition from both international and domestic hotels brands, we are trying to get ITDC-run hotels back on track by investing in human resource development and brand management, establishing customer relationship management system and aggressively marketing in India and abroad through participation in major travel marts and organising food festivals, etc.”
While we wait to see if the tourism minister can help ITDC hotels make a cinematic turnaround and prove first-hand what it takes to successfully run hotels, the hotel industry is only too willing to hitch their wagon to the star. They are hopeful the star that he is, Chiranjeevi will continue to do justice to his newest and most challenging role yet.