This is a question that often crops up in my mind whenever I see a celebrity endorsing a tourist destination. India being a vast country with diversified cultures that are astonishingly different even if the distance between two places is just a mere 100 kms or even less. One notices that the cuisine changes to serve the local palate as you see the people converse in different languages and dialects, all adding to the touristic experience. We are a nation that can shock a first timer setting foot here and yet capable of making them come back to us wanting for more. So, why do we need one magnanimous person as a representative to promote tourism in India?
Assuming that this popular icon who shoulders the massive responsibility by appearing as a face of India is indeed magnanimous enough to draw huge number of tourists to visit India, the question still remains. How much of India is this brand ambassador representing, us as a nation of myriad cultures? Why do we have to monopolise what our entire nation has to offer and send the message across through a single individual? As a tour operator I have seen enough campaigns by countries trying to woo tourists during high season and off-season with equal élan thus increasing their advertising budgets each year.
Some signage and campaigns do blend in iconic figures and superstars without much fuss. A few years ago while flying out of Geneva, I noticed the famous kissing scene of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, from the classic movie Casablanca, photographed frame by frame and hung at airport’s “Kiss and Fly drop off area”. This is the place where passengers are dropped off by their loved ones, leaving their cars idling so they have just enough time for a quick goodbye kiss. The place is aptly named as Kiss and Fly zone. Swiss definitely know how to do it subtly without paying the filmstars, yet using them perfectly to their advantage. There is no brand promotion. No text on the pictures. Nothing at all. But it definitely makes you feel like a star whether you are a passenger or seeing off someone.
I am not against using a superstars to attract tourists, but I am not really sure why we should monopolise a nation like India by showing one person as a representative. As a tour operator I do not think this is fair. Looking closer within our country, at the way we are trying to promote states to domestic and international tourists, I was amused by our Telugu speaking states both Andhra Pradesh and Telanagana resorting to signing up celebrities. Telangana picked Tennis star Sania Mirza who did not do much except taking a cool ride on a luxury catamaran which she inaugurated in exchange for a cool `1 crore. They maybe more work on board for Sania, but her effort to attract tourists to Telangana is miniscule. Andhra Pradesh government recently made a spectacle of themselves by announcing the famous Bollywood couple Kajol and Ajay Devgan as brand ambassadors, who by the way know nothing about the state or its culture. The celebrity couple was only interested in obtaining a sizeable chunk of land in the new capital of Amarvathi. The state administration and the tourism department did not obviously think this though when they announced the brand ambassadors.
We have earlier seen Amitabh Bachchan promoting Gujarat with the ‘Khushboo Gujarat Ki’ campaign. One of the leading business daily also claimed that this celebrity endorsed campaign has increased tourism in Gujarat by 4 per cent per annum, twice that of national growth rate. It is altogether another issue that the Gujarat tourism spends over `50 crores annually for marketing the destination.
Apart from this the state teams up with FICCI to host a couple of hundred reputed tour operators across the world as a part of tourism promotion every year. Added to that the increase in tourist receipts to India are largely due to Visa on arrival. So it leaves us a good question if there are other important factors that could increase our tourism exchange revenues, and celebrity endorsement is only a small part of the results and cannot be quantified in real numbers.
It is an altogether a different argument how our government counts the number of arrivals, without segregating VFR (Visiting Friends and Relatives), leisure tourists and business travelers clearly along with the Foreign Exchange Earnings (FEE) each of these segments contribute. This lack of information leaves a gaping hole when one tries to gauge the actual Foreign Exchange Earnings (FEE) from leisure tourists visiting India.
When one looks at the popular destinations like Kerala, which we all have to agree, that it took a giant leap in the last decade, by attracting several international tourists without having any brand ambassador at all. Yes, that is correct. Kerala never used any iconic figure in its campaigns to attract tourists.
They were smart enough to use noted Indian cinematographer and director Santosh Sivan to do a few promotional films that will entice the tourists to the place. The campaign is visually appealing featuring Kathakali, Mohiniattam dancers, the famous snake boat race, a coconut toddy tapper, an unknown tourist waving a straw hat at the camera standing on a houseboat on backwaters, waterfalls, a young woman getting an Ayurvedic massage, elephants and sprawling tea gardens with a lilting music in te background, that reverberates in your heart taking you to a different high.
The 90 second film entices you with everything Kerala has to over without keeping the focus on one person. The advertisements both print and audio visual, will only show what you get to see in Kerala. They even pulled off a big one asking the tourists to visit Kerala in monsoons with their print ad campaign suggesting the couples to ‘rekindle fire’. And it did work brilliantly.
And I must add Kerala Tourism know where to put their money. Another smart move they made three years ago is a campaign called ‘Kerala Blog Express2’ which is took selected travel bloggers, vloggers and photographers on a 14 day fully hosted road trip to explore Kerala to write about the places they see as they travel. Each edition called for bloggers, photographers and social media campaigners who had an active blog and subscribers to apply to be a part of the blog express and also request their followers to upvote them to be a part of the Kerala Blog Express. The selection panel and the votes are evaluated and the blogger gets selected to win a 14 day all expenses paid trip to Kerala. This is smart move as the bloggers start talking about Kerala even before they get qualified for the free trip. While on the trip, the bloggers set the social media on fire with their Instagram pictures, tweets, Facebook and blog posts and build a bigger and more enticing campaign for Kerala.
Coming back to tourism revenues, Foreign Tourist arrivals to Kerala during the year 2015 increased by 5.86 percent and domestic tourist arrivals by 6.69 percent over the previous year. Foreign exchange earnings for the year 2015 also saw an increase of 8.61 percent over the previous year. Total revenue (including direct & indirect) from Tourism during 2015 witnessed an increase of 7.25 percent.
If we shift focus towards Madhya Pradesh tourism department, too did not bother to get a brand ambassador to promote the state. They are happily attracting more domestic tourists to their state with the creative advertisement campaigns showcasing the destinations within the state.
As we see the numbers speak for the success of a campaign, what the tourism ministry should focus on smart campaigns as adopted by Kerala and Madhya Pradesh instead of putting a magnanimous person who will bill the state handsomely, each time they mouth ‘Incredible India’ amidst the fanfare.
(The writer is a tour operator and runs Concept Voyages in Hyderabad)