They call them the resort complexes, but they make culture simple, not complex. Do you know those sprawling hotel towns that dot the southern coast of Turkey or abound in countries like Egypt? Mammoth hotel buildings built around swimming pools, even when there is a sea just a stone’s throw away? These are the zones of comfort for those that would like to travel, but without leaving their own comfort zone.
They aren’t called “tourist traps” for nothing. It seems you can do everything there: sleep in the hotel room, eat in the hotel restaurant, have a drink at the hotel bar, party, swim, and even shop in the hotel boutique stores. You do not have to leave the boundaries of the resort until you are bound for the airport to go home.
But can you actually know a country and its culture ensconced in a place like that? Something that pretends to be culture will be presented to you in the musical performance of an “ethnic” band or a dance group that will be brought to the hotel. The boutique shop will offer jewelry in an array of “ethnic” designs. Worse than this, not only will you keep yourself away from the country you came to, but the country will be kept away from you (in countries like Egypt, many local citizens cannot enter the hotel towns in their own state). All you will get is a chopped up, filtered and bland version, just like the food in the hotel restaurant will be a mild version of real local cuisine. It will be served to you the way it is believed you will like it, not the way it really looks or tastes like.
As far as I know, India does not really have many large hotel complexes like those described above, certainly not in the number and size of veritable towns that we can find around the Mediterranean. Yes, of course, there are many expensive and luxurious hotels, and there are large hotels with boutique shops and swimming pools, but in most places they are not designed to keep the visitor locked in a zone of comfort throughout his entire stay in the country.
India has huge potential for foreign tourism and, contrary to what many may think, this potential is partially untapped, given the size, the heritage, and the geographical diversity of the country. Ten million foreign tourists came to India in 2017. Does this sound a lot? Paris alone recorded 33 million tourists in 2017. The Polish city of Kraków was visited by 13 million tourists the same year. The question is – and in fact it has been raised for years – which forms of tourism and of tourism reforms and investments should India and Indians focus on to boost their arrival numbers.
One could argue that investing in hotel resorts could have be a way to attract more tourists. Safety and comfort are, admittedly, one of the challenges faced by travelers in India, both domestic and foreign. I am not writing this after a half-hour bout of Internet research. Having worked as a tour leader with Polish groups coming to India and Nepal for nine years, I could give countless instances of why the issues of safety and comfort keep many potential visitors away from India. And yet, I still believe that Indian tourism should chart a different path: one that cannot compromise on safety, obviously, but that can showcase one of the country’s biggest assets – its culture – rather than resort to large resorts.
Most of the stereotypical hotel complexes described above around the globe are located by the sea in countries that enjoy hot or warm weather throughout the year. Such conditions can be offered in countless locations on the long Indian coast (Goa is so far the only place that is going in this direction when it comes to attracting foreign visitors). And if there are people who need just that – warm weather, the sea, a swimming pool and layers of comfort – it is a choice which they are free to make. Private investors are equally free to tap this need. But focusing on this sector – for example through preferential government policies – would make little sense. This would not only create islands of economic benefits that will not spread into the interior, but would fail to advertise the very element where India has an edge: its diversity of people, culture, heritage, and climate.
The tourist trap paradox largely comes from safety issues. Most people would not pick a remote, gated hotel complex when they are going to a place like Paris, New York and London. They rather want to be in a building closer to downtown in order to explore the heart of the city. But what they will find outside is much closer to what they will find inside the hotel – when it comes to the generally understood “culture.” You do not really go to London to take photos of people dressed in “ethnic” dresses, do you? Paradoxically, the countries where you can experience a not-yet-globalized, local culture by walking around cities are often exactly those countries where safety may be an issue, and where many tourists prefer to stay in a hotel town instead.
In India, even if one restricts his journey to visiting Delhi only – a terrible idea, if you ask me – one can still experience a host of aspects of local culture: visit a temple or a mosque, eat snacks from a street vendor and lunch at a restaurant with really good cuisine, witness a ritual or a procession, and so on. There are places that will offer you that filtered “culture” – the middle-class market of Delhi Haat or the large stores with luxurious goods aimed at foreign tourists – but there are many other options you can pick from. And that’s only a tip of the iceberg. Move just a little bit, and you will be sure to experience something you did not plan. Out of countless examples, I witnessed tourists being invited to weddings, taking part in Hindu rituals in a temple, or going around villages in jeeps (because the national park was closed and they were taken around its nearby rural areas instead). And that was still while realizing rather routine, pre-planned itineraries for groups. On the other side of the spectrum from the resort complexes (where the country adapts to the tourist), there are homestay options in the remote region of the Northeast, where you can live with local families provided that you live by their rules (this is when the tourists adapt to the country).
What Indian tourism should focus on is ensuring safety and comfort of those tourists that are keen explorers, and applying new ways that try to balance the urge to attract foreign capital with the need to preserve local culture as much as it is possible.