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What Can Nepal’s Pokhara Teach India’s Tourism Industry?

Developing “tourist streets” could go a long way in boosting India’s tourism industry.

Krzysztof Iwanek
What Can Nepal’s Pokhara Teach India’s Tourism Industry?
Credit: Unsplash

While the numbers of foreign tourist arrivals keep growing in India, they are still far below the country’s potential, in both diversity and size. In 2018, the Polish city of Kraków alone saw more foreign tourists (over 13 million) than all of India (above 10 million), as I pointed out in a previous article for The Diplomat. Many people that have worked in India’s tourism industry would certainly agree that there is a range of things that the country should correct or introduce to attract much more tourists – and with this, the income they generate. When looking for good solutions, India could look not only west and east, but also north – toward its comparatively smaller and poorer neighbor, Nepal.

I am often weary to write and read such pieces: India – and Asia in general – has had enough of the West preaching to it what it should do. And while it is always good to look for examples to follow, those taken from Europe or the United States are often not so easy to transplant into Indian reality  without modification to local conditions. Then again, having worked for nine years as a tour leader coming to India with Polish tourists, I assume I am entitled to have my say. More importantly, the idea is that in this case India could follow solutions from a country much closer to it in terms of development and culture.

One of the many paradoxes of an average tourist’s attitude is that they would like to travel and yet not travel; experience “adventure” and yet remain comfortable. Many travelers are, on one hand, ready to journey far but would be happy to have everything packed into one place once they arrive. It is sometimes stunning that somebody could fly thousands of kilometers and then complain that a monument, a restaurant, a shop and a hotel are not located within a range of half a kilometer to each other. Let’s just face it: Many tourists do not really like the traveling aspect and would be happy with being teleported to a site and back from it.

Similarly, an average tourist would like to experience something “exotic” but usually only in a degree acceptable to them. One would like to try this famous spicy food of country A or B but the cook should make it a bit more bland, so that we don’t get sick; and if we want to try the real thing, then maybe just a little bit, just to get a taste. Is it still exotic if we get to choose what is “exotic”? 

Those that want their tourist industry to grow must recognize these needs, as paradoxical as they are. To be sure – the keyword of this text is an “average” tourist; I am not referring to backpackers or high-end travelers.

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In my previous text on a similar subject, linked at the beginning of this piece, I argued that it is better not to replicate the idea of resort complexes in India. What could be adapted, however, is a solution we could call a tourist street. It would seem that a hotel resort and a tourist street have much in common – they both offer (1) everything in one place, in (2) safe and (3) comfortable surroundings (the last two apply to the resorts more than a street). There are three important differences, however. A tourist street (1) may allow easy access to nearby monuments or other places of interest, (2) offers at least a feeling of authenticity and (3) freedom of choice and movement. A hotel resort, by comparison, is most commonly a tourist trap – far from the main sites of attraction (unless it’s the sea), offering a superficial and fake authenticity and not really offering that much choice.

A tourist street, ideally, is somehow interwoven with local architecture and should give at least a semblance, if not a real feeling, of local culture. It is a compromise and a combination of what an average tourist needs: It has shops and restaurants, and therefore is inadvertently commercialized and in that sense not so similar to other areas of the city. At the same time, it ticks many boxes: You can have a pleasant walk, enjoy the scenery, have a good meal (and you get to choose between local and international), buy souvenirs, take a selfie with a nice background and post it on Instagram the same same evening.

Now, does India have a tourist street that fulfills all of those conditions? Not to my knowledge. Delhi’s Chandni Chowk? It is close to an important monument (the Red Fort), is itself a historic street with old buildings, but the commute there is not easy (although this is being changed now in a significant way), there are not many souvenirs and most of the shops are not really aimed at tourists. What about the backpackers’ area, Main Bazaar of Paharganj? Tourist shops and restaurants are there, but there is nothing historic or scenic on it as such, it not a pleasant walk either. Delhi’s Dilli Haat? While offering pieces of India’s different cultures (cuisine and commodities) in one place, like a mosaic, it is neither close to main sites nor does it offer a feeling of authenticity; it is a compromise between a bazaar and a shopping mall. Delhi’s Khan Market? While booming and offering a growing number of restaurants and shops, it too is removed from main tourist attraction and not really meant for walking; it’s an entertainment for the local middle classes, not a tourist zone. 

The same can be said of other main megacities: Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai. The vicinity of Mumbai’s Gateway of India works perfectly as a scenic spot but does not offer that perfect combination of services an average tourist craves for. Kolkata’s Park Street, however, could come close to fulfilling all the conditions, being both a scenic historical site and a place of entertainment.

It has been often my experience that an average foreign tourist in an Indian city chooses comfort over freedom of choice because he or she is does not feel safe and confident enough to travel between various places alone (or lacks time to do everything). It would have been great to have an authentic Indian restaurant, nice souvenir shops, a pleasant street to walk and a beautiful view or in one place, but usually it is not possible and travelling between those places is challenging and time-consuming. Many a traveler – including those coming in groups on tour packages – would therefore often stick to the itinerary and reduce their “free time” to a bit of roaming around the main monument after the sightseeing and before sitting back on the tour bus. This is one of the main challenges of places like Delhi: The foreigners that come on organized tours with travel agencies often finish their day of roaming around India’s capital with the end of the official tour. In the evening many will not venture out from the hotel on their own, because there is no tourist street: a place that would be safe, scenic, authentic and with many services at the same time; you can only choose some of those but not all.

In my experience during tours of north India and Nepal, one spot that meets all these criteria is Pokhara’s Lakeside. Located over 200 kilometers west of Kathmandu, Pokhara is charming because of the spectacular view of the Annapurna Massif it offers, reflected in the lake by which a part of the city is located. Kathmandu’s Thamel area offers similar array of shops, restaurants and hotels as Pokhara’s Lakeside but without the scenery and pleasant walking.

Pokhara’s charm, as usual in this industry, now comes at a price of a heavy tourist traffic, with all its downsides. On Lakeside, it is easier to see English writing than the Nepali one, and it is not uncommon to see more foreign than local faces. And yet this overdose of Lakeside’s sites aimed particularly at tourists – shops, restaurants, bars, clubs and hotels – suits many travelers more than their shortage in the Indian cities.

So what does Pokhara offer that other cities could not? First of all, a scenery that is hard to beat. Secondly, it fulfills the basic needs of travelling-but-not-travelling. In Pokhara, you can watch the sunset over the Himalayas while sipping your mojito on the rooftop of a restaurant, not having taken a single step on a mountain path, not having even worn a backpack. One can argue that this would be difficult for Indian cities to follow because Pokhara is simply blessed by geography the way most Indian cities are not — but it’s not entirely true. India has a range of hill stations — touristy mountain towns –to choose from, some with excellent views of high mountains.

The rest is about fashion and marketing, as well as supply and demand. Pokhara used to be very hard to access just a few decades ago. Nowadays, it’s not only the trekkers that go there, but tour groups too – they either come by buses or by air. Another Pokhara in the mountains of India is plausible. Pokhara is not close to an international airport; its own airport is small, and it takes 6 to 8 hours to reach the city by bus from Kathmandu, on breathtaking but poor and dangerous roads. Yet tourists do go there. In case of a rising foreign interest in one of the Indian hill stations, investing in infrastructure to make it more accessible would therefore be crucial.

It does not have to be about the mountains, either. The point is that a tourist street must combine all of the already-mentioned aspects. The trouble with many Indian cities is that urban planning is often haphazard and many historical buildings are not well preserved. It is therefore difficult to find that perfect, Instagram-bound scenery one can easily walk through, an urban version of a view of the mountains from Pokhara. But even this is not completely missing in India. Apart from Kolkata’s Park Street, Jaipur’s Old City has a particular charm with its coherent architecture and authentic markets, while containing some of the city’s main historical sites. Of course, had its bazaars become as popular as its tourist sites, a part of Jaipur’s old town would have to become McDonaldized: some of the clothes’, jewelry or spice shops would perhaps have to make way to souvenir shops and half-Indian restaurants. 

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This is the controversial paradox of tourism: Tourists seek authenticity but when this urge reaches a mass level, this authenticity is often transformed or destroyed. A degree of government planning and control is therefore necessary. Jaipur’s Old City is an easy target as the element of urban planning is already there and chaotic construction of new buildings is not quite possible. I could easily see some part of it develop into a modern tourist street.

One problem with Jaipur, however, is its traffic — a challenge common to much of India. Congested arteries cross through the old town, while hawkers crowd the pavements, turning a potentially pleasant walk into a hassle. That is another advantage of Pokhara: Its serenity partially comes from the surrounding nature but partially simply from the size of the town. Lakeside is not completely car-free, but as the city is not large it does not impose its crowds on its tourist zones. Moreover, many good hotels are nearby the district, allowing a tourist to simply walk to the shopping zone, a possibility unavailable in many Indian cities.

Seen from this perspective, some opportunities lay in investing in smaller Indian cities. Located in India’s interior, Orchha is a particularly pleasant city, for instance, with no crowds to wade through. It has the monuments, even if partially rundown, it has the charm and the authenticity – but it would have to be much more in demand and heavily advertised to attract private investment in expensive shops and restaurants, which are next to non-existent in the center of the city.

Pokhara focuses on its tourists and works to accommodate them because they are one of the main sources of its income, a fact broadly true for Nepal. This is why a certain approach is more possible in smaller towns – like India’s Orchha or some of the country’s hill stations – for which a wave of tourism initiates a sea change in the life of inhabitants. In some ways, a complete change of a city to adjust to tourists would be more difficult in large cities, as they are do not perceive tourism as so crucial to their economy. The above-mentioned shopping areas of Delhi, for instance, cater mostly to the city’s own middle classes and would have arguably existed even without any foreigners.

But good planning, investing in infrastructure and creating more pedestrian-friendly rules may massively help in the big cities, too. The idea of vehicle-free streets and zones is taking off in India. A part of Delhi’s Karol Bagh, an area known for its shops and hotels, has become accessible only to pedestrians and the already mentioned Chandni Chowk, which is undergoing a massive beautification at the moment, will also be a pedestrian-friendly area once the reconstruction is complete. Perhaps some solution of that sort would have worked in Jaipur as well.

The mention of hawkers, however, brings us to a crucial aspect of safety. Even the most beautiful and well-arranged street will not attract tourists if they do not feel safe there. In Fatehpur Sikri, once a capital of the powerful Mughal empire and now mostly a deserted ruin (apart from the main palace and the mosque), an ambitious project is underway is to revive a part of the historical town by creating a shopping zone that would partially look like a centuries-old bazaar. But one needs to add that the experience with hawkers is particularly bad in Fatehpur Sikri, even worse than in Jaipur. 

This is a delicate matter: On one hand the poorer people should be given a chance to earn their living from the tourists, but on the other hand street vendors cannot be allowed to be too aggressive and imposing. In the vicinity of the Taj Mahal in Agra is a row of shops with souvenirs, but one will not see crowds of tourists thronging them. One reason, I assume, is that the number and the aggressiveness of the hawkers scares many travelers away, making them chase through the zone as fast as possible right to the entrance to the monument. 

On Lakeside, for some reason or the other, hawkers are very few and usually not imposing. In India’s Khajuraho, for instance, tourism as is important as in Pokhara or perhaps even more. Without tourists, Khajuraho would still have been a remote village. And yet the hawkers make it very difficult to just walk through its center with a relaxed mind. Khajuraho’s large hotels are typical tourist traps, removed from the center, located in the middle of nowhere, as if keeping the tourists away from the rest of the city. Pokhara’s hotels, at least many of them, are as close to the other attractions as possible. Pokhara is small, dependent on tourists and serene; Khajuraho is small, dependent on tourists and yet not serene; a comparison worth pondering. Perhaps investing in a much more visible and effective tourist police would solve the problem at least to some degree.

All in all, if a zone like Pokhara’s Lakeside grew in Nepal, I do not see a reason why an Indian Pokhara would not be possible. And, given the country’s potential, with the right will, effort, planning and advertisement, India could as well have 10 Pokharas of its own.