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POLITICS: IBSA Banks on Trade, Tourism

Archna Devraj

KOCHI, India, Sep 26 2008 (IPS) - As the India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) grouping takes formal steps towards promoting tourism among the three countries, industry representatives say ‘real work’ needs to be done to pull together an initiative that must work across vast stretches of ocean.

The backwaters of Kochi city, which hosted the IBSA tourism meet.  Credit: Archna Devraj/IPS

The backwaters of Kochi city, which hosted the IBSA tourism meet. Credit: Archna Devraj/IPS

What the grouping has in its favour, say industry representatives, is political will, already being articulated through the IBSA Dialogue Forum, and the fact that the three countries can offer some of the world’s best tourist destinations.

Already the officials of the three countries are busy working to overcome procedural and infrastructural bottlenecks in the key areas identified – energy, mining and tourism.

At the start of the week, the IBSA joint working group on tourism, meeting in this scenic port city, signed a draft tripartite agreement on cooperation in tourism which is expected to be formally adopted by their leaders during the mid-October summit of the grouping in the Indian capital of New Delhi.

Senior government functionaries from the three countries were optimistic that tourism could further their stated goal of extending South-South cooperation, generating revenues and leading to greater people-to-people contacts.

For one, the agreement aims to establish exchange programmes between the students and faculties of leading professional training institutions in the tourism sector. Also, with their huge bio-diversities the three could also share best practices in eco-tourism.

Leena Nandan, joint secretary in the Indian tourism ministry, Carlos Rebiero, diplomatic officer, Brazil, and Zukiswa Nkherianya, deputy director of tourism in South Africa, were agreed that tourism held great potential for bringing the three partners closer.

Since its formation after the failed Cancun meet in 2003, IBSA has seen the combined value of trade reach over ten billion US dollars.

''This means that our target of 15 billion dollars by 2010 can be easily reached,'' Nandan said. According to her, the potential of the Indian market can be gauged from the fact that in 2007 nearly 8.34 million Indians went abroad, against the five million foreign visitors that this country received.

Quoting estimates by the World Tourism Organisation, the official said that the Indian outbound traffic was expected to touch a staggering 50 million by 2020 given the rapid rise in the Indian middle-class and its increased purchasing power. As high-spending tourists, Indians were attractive for any country to host, she added.

While India had signed separate tourism promotion agreements with Brazil and South Africa in recent years, the tripartite agreement was expected to synergise the efforts of all the three, she said.

Nkherianya suggested that South Africa, located at the centre of the triad, could act as a bridge between South Asia and South America.

Backing the idea, Kerala state’s finance minister Thomas Issac went a step further and suggested that tour operators could offer tri-continental packages, covering all three countries. ''There is not only the cultural diversity among the three countries but also a common experience of shaping our destinies as developing nations. Any cooperation cannot but enrich us,'' Issac said. While agreeing that the potential for cooperation is huge, industry representatives that IPS spoke with said all three countries will have to start from scratch because of minimal existing contact.

Indian Association of Tour Operators chief Vijay Thakur said during 2007, a total of 10,000 Brazilians visited India while the number of Indians visiting the Amazon major was a mere 1,700.

With South Africa, things have been on an upswing already with nearly 50,000 visitors flying across the Indian Ocean each way.

''Air connectivity is clearly the major problem. There are no direct flights between India and these countries. In the case of Brazil, distance is a clear deterrent,'' Brazilian tour operator Richard Taamy told IPS.

In fact, there is little awareness in Brazil about India and vice-versa. The Indian middle-class may have discovered the joys of 'salsa' in recent years, but Bollywood (India’s film industry) which has made inroads the world over has no takers in the Portuguese-speaking Brazil.

''For us, India is a distant country. There is not much information in Brazil about Indian culture,'' Taamy says.

Things are better vis-a-vis South Africa, especially since the launch of a weekly direct flight between the two South Atlantic rim countries, which is almost 80 percent full on most weeks, he says.

Ebrahim Vadachia, group managing director of the Durban-based Avoca Travels, is confident that South Africa could act as the link between Brazil and India.

While the proposed direct flight by the Indian private carrier Jet Airways to Johannesburg has been put on the hold following the rise in ATF prices, Vadachia is optimistic that tourism between the two countries is on a roll and could be extended to Brazil also. ''Regular air services at affordable costs will hold the key to making the tripartite agreement a reality,'' he said.

Easier visa rules could help, says Thakur. The Indian tourism industry's long-pending demand that the country introduce visa-on-arrival could lead to a 15 to 20 percent spurt in foreign tourist arrivals, he adds.

Stressing the need for regular interaction between the tour operators and officials of the three countries to identify areas of interest, Vadachia says the proposed agreement has focused on the key area of promoting exchanges between industry professionals.

There is hope that trade and tourism would help each other. '’People travelling on business already form a major chunk of Brazilians and South Africans visiting India,'' officials here say.

Suggesting that the 2010 FIFA World Cup across nine South African cities be used as a springboard, Vadachia hopes to ‘’get a lot of soccer crazy Brazilians and Indians over for the event’’.

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