US travelers may no longer believe in Incredible India


Bookings were down even before the Mumbai terror attacks, thanks to the recession in the West. Now travel agents and airlines in the US are reporting a wave of cancellations, as swine flu threatens to put India out of bounds.

Fire-engine red Gray Line New York sightseeing buses sporting Incredible India! ads get more than their share of admiring glances from curious Americans, but they can’t sweep away the swine flu scare and alarmist headlines coming out of India. One thing is clear. The cancellations have started.

“A small group of Indian Americans were travelling to New Delhi but they just cancelled their trip,” Pradip Kothari, president of Quick Travel Inc in New Jersey, which has tours to several cities in India, told DNA. “They said they didn’t want to take any chances. I couldn’t talk them out of cancelling. I did explain that the death toll is very small in the context of India’s large billion-plus population,” added Kothari, whose travel agency is one of the biggest in New Jersey. “Indian tourism will take a big hit if there are more flu deaths,” he warned.

The flu scare has wrecked whatever is left of the summer travel season. US schools remain closed for summer holidays till September 9. Indian American families typically use the school holidays to take their children to India to visit relatives. “A lot of NRIs have scuttled their annual summer yatra to India. It is peak US-India travel season from July to the first week in September,” said airlines industry executive Gauri Srivastava. “It could be a lost season.”

The Indian tourism ministry is trying to get across the message that India is “open for business” — but visitors are staying away.Jim Carney and his wife Amanda Burrow, a primary school teacher in Washington, were planning to leave this weekend for India. Burrow was scheduled to run training workshops in Mumbai and Bangalore later this month. But the couple cancelled their trip last Friday. “We got cold feet. We were going to do a lot of travelling and just got nervous about falling sick while being on the road,” said Burrow. In the past decade, India has gone from a place that relatively few Americans visited to one of the top international destinations for US travellers, ahead of locales like Brazil, Switzerland and Greece.

An Indian diplomat in Washington who didn’t want to be named predicted that more US tourists will start cancelling reservations unless India quickly controls the death toll. So what can be done to steady travellers’ nerves?”There is a feeling of a siege mentality at the moment. We have to make sure there is a balanced media picture given, making clear that India is open for business,” said the diplomat.

Kothari says, “India has to combat the effect of the scare. It has to message to the West that the situation is under control.”

The US was the No 1 source of foreign tourists arriving in India in 2007, according to the Government of India’s Bureau of Immigration, followed by visitors from Britain, Bangladesh, Canada and France.