Buoyed by a noticeable rise in bilateral footfalls, Richard Verma, US Ambassador to India, believed that tourism held an unexplored promise for both nations. With the recently inked MoU to facilitate India’s participation into the Global Entry Program, besides become tourism partners in 2017, India and the USA were beginning to converge on tourism –which remained crucial for generating economic growth and employment for both nations. Excerpts of his speech at the IACC conference:
Ambassador Richard Verma began on a sombre note, paying homage to the victims of the dastardly terrorist attack on Ataturk International airport in Istanbul, stressing that the attack was yet again a reminder of the importance of airport and aviation security in today’s inter-connected world – where challenges such as terrorism crossed borders. “As the White House has said that airports are symbols of international connection and ties that bind us together, I think that is exactly right. The global bond between citizens is more powerful than guns or bombs, or any terrorists. And we will continue to work with our partners, including India, to confront these challenges,” he said in his opening remark.
Describing his understanding of India, he called it a destination for American explorers, traders and intellectuals. Sharing an interesting anecdote, he said “This goes back to early 19th century when American sea captain transported ice from New England, over 16,000 miles, to Kolkata. This makes it one of the longest journeys ever taken for ice!”
He evoked Mark Twain, mentioning that the great American writer marvelled at India’s culture and history during his travels to Varanasi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Looking back at his stint as the top diplomat in the country, he noted that the last couple of years had been a journey of self-discovery. “I had the privilege to go to Punjab to visit the villages of my mother, grandmother and grandfather. I travelled to Mysuru to visit the family of my brother-in-law. I travelled to some 21 different states and 55 different cities, from the northeast to south, from beaches to mountains, and it is just a magnificent country. The national heritage is so special. The people are amazingly diverse and this is the place to highlight travel and tourism,” he passionately added.
Mentioning one of his predecessors, Ambassador Chester Bowles, Ambassador Verma said that he had written extensively on Indian tourism in his memoir, and argued that foreign tourists needed to see the promise of the Indian future, as well as India’s ancient heritage to understand its offerings.
Taking stock of tourism ties in the current milieu, the envoy expressed satisfaction over bilateral growth in tourist numbers, adding to mutual economic growth and development. “In 2015, the USA was India’s largest source of foreign tourists while over 1.2 million US tourists came to India,” Ambassador Verma said. He informed that tourism from India had contributed to over USD 11 billion. “The number of Indians visiting the United States, annually, has doubled since 2009. And last year, we had the highest number of Indian students,” he added.
Attributing tourist e-visa program for an increased tourism exchange, he called it an immense success, pointing out that US citizens were the biggest beneficiaries of the e-visa scheme.
Ambassador Verma minced no words when he termed tourism ‘critical’ for both India and the USA, re-iterating US government’s commitment to improving tourism. He mentioned that the US President recognized the importance of travel and tourism in the growth of the American economy, prompting the administration to set an ambitious goal of catering to 100 million international visitors by 2021.
“Tourism is equally critical to the Indian economy and PM Modi’s vision of creating jobs in India. According to WTTC (World Travel and Tourism Council), tourism contributed 120 billion USD or six per cent of India’s GDP. It is supporting 37 million jobs. If right investments are made, tourism has the potential to support 46 million jobs in India by 2025,” he detailed by drawing parallels between the two countries and tourism’s importance in national growth.
He mentioned that given the high stakes, tourism and travel had figured prominently in the recent summit talks between President Obama and PM Modi. One of the key outcomes of this deliberation had been the agreement between the US and India to become ‘travel and tourism partner’ countries for 2017. “This is a partnership that will further support tourism and people-to-people exchanges,” said the envoy. “During the visit, we have also signed an MoU to facilitate India’s participation in the Global Entry Program, marking a significant milestone for travel and tourism. Any of you travelling to the USA would have seen signs from Global Entry Visitors; it helps in expedited entry into the USA. We are currently working on technical arrangements to bring that into permission,” he supplemented.
He attributed the success and growth of Indian tourism to campaigns, such as ‘Incredible India’, pitching for an augmented air-connectivity. “It is good to see Air India and United Airlines in attendance. United Airlines recently celebrated ten years of operations in India and has carried over three million passengers, over 14,000 flights, between the USA and India. It is a phenomenal job and I congratulate their team,” he said.
He quipped that he may have had a small role in those numbers, given the quantum of travel he undertook between India and the US.
Commenting on the recently launched Civil Aviation Policy, Ambassador Verma remarked that it could make travel more affordable and accessible. He also welcomed the announcement of opening the civil aviation sector to full foreign investment, saying “it was a step in the right direction.”
Outlining areas of mutual engagement, he said that infrastructural development, including public transits, restaurants and hotel space were areas where both nations had much to contribute. He noted that from a front-attendant to the tour guide, a modern-day traveller wanted his travel experiences to be safe, comfortable and hassle-free, submitting that once these elements were in place, tourists were going to flock to India in droves. The US, too, had done its bit in enhancing ‘ease of travel’, said the envoy. “In 2015, for the first time, the USA mission in India – our embassy and four consulates – processed more than one million non-immigrant visa applications in a single year. That is the highest ever number of tourists in the USA from here, and we are already 25-30 per cent higher in 2016. We are proud of the milestone and the message it sends is that the US is open for business and tourism, and is committed to a fair and transparent visa process,” Ambassador Verma said.
Conceding that the growth in numbers of visa applications had set in place some logistical challenges, the envoy, however, praised the consular staff in Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata for “rising to the challenge.” “They are doing a lot to process the great demand and having an adequate number of consular staff is an issue we regularly engage in,” he said.
To ensure faster processing of visa applications, the US administration was mulling a new consulate in India. Interestingly, India, too, had recently announced a new consulate in Seattle. “We are going to be building a new consulate in Hyderabad. The administration has allowed an additional consulate in India. Its location is yet to be decided and we welcome your input on where that consulate should be,” revealed the envoy.
Calling the USA a nation with great attractions, much like India, the Ambassador highlighted the ‘ease of connectivity’ with which one could travel within the US. “You could fly to Arizona, rent a car, and visit picturesque Sedona on the way to see the majestic Grand Canyon. From there, it is less than an hour’s drive to Las Vegas, before crossing the desert to visit Los Angeles in California and then to Hollywood. That is just one sample from thousands of possible itineraries that one can undertake in America,” he said. Excited by increasing footfalls from India, the envoy said in a lighter vein that it was amazing to meet so many Indians who had been to more states in the USA than he had been to. “That is a good start. They are experiencing the wonders of our National Parks, visiting fascinating cities; they take their children to many of our family-friendly destinations,” he said.
In his concluding words, Ambassador Richard Verma quoted PM Modi’s historic speech in his recent address to the US Congress at the Capitol. “PM Modi fondly remembered his travels across the US, covering 25 states. In his words, the real strength of the US is in the dreams of its people, and I think the same can be said about India and its people,” said the ambassador. “The ties between our people and countries have come a long way, but there remains a lot more to explore. Let us continue that journey together,” he concluded.