Why Does India Have So Few Tourists?

Pragati: India has tremendous advantages as a producer of tourism, but its tourism sector is far too small. India is underperforming and in the process giving up tens of billions of dollars in foreign exchange revenue that could lift millions out of poverty.


Nearly nine million tourists visited India in 2016 generating foreign exchange revenues of about $23 billion USD annually. At first glance, the figures are impressive. Tourism is one of India’s largest export sectors, beating out such leading sectors as apparel ($17.4 billion, 2014) and medicinals and pharmaceuticals ($13.9 billion, 2014). A more careful examination, however, reveals that India’s tourism sector is small compared to its potential.

The table below shows the top ten countries by international visitors. France leads the list with 84.5 million visitors a year, about ten times the number of visitors to India. The European countries, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the UK benefit by being close to one another which generates significant mutual tourism. Mexico, Russia and Turkey, however, all have approximately three to five times as many tourists as does India. China has more than six times as many tourists as does India.

Although India underperforms on the number of visitors it does very well on earnings per visitor…Remarkably, India earns more per visitor than does China and almost as much as does the United States, a whopping $2,610. In fact, despite the small number of tourists, India’s revenues per tourist make it 9th in the world for total tourism revenues, just above Mexico. Visitors to India spend a lot of money which makes it all the more remarkable that India has so few visitors.

That’s me writing in Pragati, an Indian journal of ideas. India could increase its earnings from tourism by tens of billions of dollars with just a few simple reforms–see how at the link and some additional ideas for increasing tourism are in a podcast that I did with Amit Varma.

And, of course, even without reforms on the supply side there should still be more tourists in India as there are a great number of things to see!

Temple at Chittorgarh Fort.

Chittorgarh Temple
Udaipur (Sahelion Ki Bari) with early 18th century fountains that work entirely by gravity.
Udaipur Alex
Ajanta caves.


Two reasons, this from someone who travels plenty and was very open to a positive experience; it smells like shit and they were treated like shit.

There are lots of other places where that doesn't happen, so they chose elsewhere next time.

Agreed. It smelled foul everywhere I went.

So what? Just came back from India and had a great time there, despite the open sewers and pigs / cows / goats / horses / oxen / boar / donkeys / monkeys etc feeding on the garbage that graces every road.

That's just me though; I love backpacking and accept that underdeveloped countries are like that.

So what really surprises me about the statistics is how anyone can manage to spend so much in India. My average day there cost about 20usd, cheap hotel and transportation included. For 40 bucks one can live like royalty over there.

Imo India is indeed perfect for more tourists, and that is because the people are so nice there. Except at agra and the red fort, no one tried to rip me off. Sellers aren't pushy even then, and i and my female traveling companion felt safe everywhere even at night.

Imo India just needs to work on its global PR a bit to draw more tourists. Oh and get rid of all that food wrapper trash. How hard can it be to just burn it for power? Maybe install some public trash cans too, even i was forced to litter on occasion. And clean public toilets, i imagine not everyone is as lucky as me who could use the hotel facilities in the morning, then manage the day so that need struck only at night.

Once that's done, Indias tourism will bloom. Go now to beat the rush

Just wave your magic wand and transmogrify the Indians into Germans. I'm sure they'll have the place cleaned up in no time flat.

Alternatively, genetic engineering. That one's probably more likely.

they are Aryans after all.

The less Aryan South India is cleaner and better behaved than the North.


Other Third World brown skinned countries manage to keep things cleaner than India. It's not a racial thing.

The offensive effluvium is what everyone mentions. Then the Delhi belly.

I was surprised recently to hear strong words of praise for Rwanda: organised, safe, clean, pleasant people. (Don't mention the genocide, though.)

dalits. there is nothing like dalits in America, unless you count nerdy middle-schoolers, and who wants to revisit that

Rwanda is in fact a beautiful country. Africa is large and there are huge variations - both on the time coordinate and the latitude/longitude coordinates - with respect to organization and pleasantness. Similarly, Cambridge is not exactly an unvisited corner of heaven,just as Rwanda is not, but I would love to spend a few days just messing around up and down the Cam, watching the dragonflies and relaxing in whatever bad imitation of a real boat I might find myself in, keeping me and my friend or friends afloat. Perhaps there is a Cam or Cam-like river in Rwanda or someone near there: Africa is large and contains many rivers. Well I have never seen the Cam so I will go there first, if I am lucky enough...

'Delhi belly': urban myth

[I've been 4X, never even a hint of indigestion]*

Indonesia, otoh..

* excellent food, another reason to visit

Can confirm on Rwanda: one of the safer places I've been, very clean (lots of new construction going on), and extremely pleasant/friendly people. Hiked up to see the mountain gorillas - one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Rwanda has jaw dropping beauty!! And its super clean. Ive been to India and even though indian infrastructure is better than rwanda's I just dont think India is as beautiful but thats also because of how dirty alot of areas in india are. I think if India was to clean up the filth on their streets then it could be comparable to Rwanda's beauty but still not as beautiful. East Africa in general is amazingly scenic and really really clean. An experience of a lifetime!

The infrastructure is very poor -- so, for example, to reach the Ajanta caves, photographed, one will have to fly to an obscure airport and then drive a long distance on a two lane road with heavy traffic often traveling head on until the last few seconds. It is a world class site but under the current circumstances few people will make the effort or brave the risks to get there.

It wouldn't be India without the suffocating bureaucracy. Have lots of Indian friends for whom the visa system is a total pain in the ass when they try to visit friends and family in India, simply because they married a Pakistani or one of their parents is a Pakistani. Couple that with a reputation for a typical tourist being guaranteed to get a fair amount of gastrointestinal distress and it's one of those places where only people who really want to go go.

Very unlikely that they married a Pakistani...unless they are Muslim. You can't be Indian if one of your parents is Pakistani.

I'm not sure I buy the suggestion via the link that removing visa requirements would significantly increase tourism to India.

Certainly, visa free travel would affect some forms of tourism. Visas cost, and more importantly there is more delay and hassle. So people might well prefer to go to a destination that doesn't require a visa.

But, I'm in Western Europe right now. If I were to fly to New Delhi travel time would be over 12 hours each way, and a return air ticket would cost 800-1000 dollars. So a holiday in India would be a major excursion (in contrast to, say, visiting Denmark which would involve minimal cost and travel time). Which is why spend per tourist is so high - if I were to go to India I'd probably stay there for a few weeks and want to see as much as possible of the enormous country as I wouldn't be able to go back quickly.

I can apply online for a tourist visa to India and get the stamp in my passport on arrival, which will cost me $60. https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/tvoa.html

So for a trip from Western Europe to the cost and hassle of getting a visa would be minimal compared to the entire trip. I really can't see it making much of a difference.

But, depending on your citizenship, there are plenty of countries in Asia where you don't need any advance visa.
Same costs for the flight, same length, same continent, but one thing less to worry about.

The earnings per visitor number might be related to the costs per visitor in finding suitable accommodations along with finding places to eat with sufficient health safety controls to prevent intestinal problems. Unlike Europe, where you can live close to the locals, because the locals are protected as well by FOOD AND SANITARY REGULATIONS, not so in Libertarian India where everyone must fend for themselves or stick to McDonalds.

" Libertarian India" Thanks for the reminder Orwell is still alive and well with American liberals.

TMC, Your comment is part of the Orwellian universe where white is black and black is white. When you can't dispute that India has poor or no food or sanitary regulations, you divert attention.

Did you attend Trump University?

India is rife with bribery, corruption and a large, lethargic bureaucracy. Calling it "Libertarian India" is the height of mood affiliation.

Germany is full of regulation too. They have a good civil service. Regulation means effective regulation, not laws on the books. Laws that aren't enforced, or enforced by persons who are corrupt, are not effective regulations.

I would buy a wurst at a German food stand anytime. Because of the effective regulation by which I mean laws that are enforced.

"I would buy a wurst at a German food stand anytime."

And yet, Germany is not immune to food-borne illness outbreaks. I'd buy a burger and fries at a McDonalds anywhere in the world, regardless of the local local regulatory regime, because I know how much the company values their reputation and how much they fear a Chipoltle-style disaster. But I have also happily eaten fresh-caught fish cooked on oil-drum grills on the beach in the Caribbean -- 'restaurants' that I'm sure were not subject to any health department inspection. Now those were memorable and delicious meals (some of my all time favorites). Now *that's* eating like libertarian! Was there some risk? Oh, I suppose, but I saw the fish being brought in, cleaned and cooked and *I* got to decide if the risk (if any) was worth it.

How does this apply in the developed world? Well, if this took off, it would be awesome. Unfortunately, this startup is probably not going to get to far because its business model is illegal almost everywhere. You can legally cook for guests in your home, but not for payment. I'd love if there was a thriving cottage industry of chefs cooking me meals in their homes, and I'd happily take the risk of not having their kitchens meet all the health department regulations (especially with reviews by other guests). But government denies me that choice. Liberals believe in giving people control of their bodies when it comes to abortion, but not when it comes to much of anything else.

"bribery, corruption" are terms used to describe free market governance. Libertarian governance. You buy the public services and justice you can afford.

Bribery and corruption cannot exist without government monopoly. Payment for a service in a market is not corruption.

"“bribery, corruption” are terms used to describe free market governance. Libertarian governance. You buy the public services and justice you can afford."

Intrusive, regulation-heavy, bureaucracy-heavy governments are the opposite of 'libertarian' -- regardless of the level of corruption.

If you want food poisoning a government cantina in a poor country is the best bet.

Do you honestly think that food and sanitary regulations in India would improve the situation?

Libertarian!? Are you nuts? India lived under the 'License Raj' for most of its independent history and still has the worst bureaucracy in Asia:


And let's not forget this very recent, anti-libertarian disaster imposed by 'top men' in India:


No visa on arrival for rich countries accustomed to easy visas (and relatively expensive visas) doesn't help. I know people turned off by reputation for food sickness, petty crime, and misogyny, but, personally, India just seems too massive and I don't have the luxury of long vacations to do it right. Ditto for China.

Looking at 'revenues per visitor' I think a lot of people are in my boat. Don't go to China or India unless you're going to do it right. Ditto for USA given that most visitors are traveling far to get there (and things are more expensive).

Yes, geography is a big issue. Even from the developed parts of Asia a flight to India is 8-9 hours from Tokyo and 5-6 hours from Singapore. Then there is the amount of travel time needed within India to see all the incredible places. So people from developed countries aren't going to visit for a long weekend.

My parents-in-law went to India on holiday. But they are retired and spent a month. They'd saved for years, and it was literally the trip of a lifetime.

Distance alone can't be blamed: Thailand gets way more tourists and the tiny island of Bali got a whopping 4+ million last year.

Well those are places where travel is rather eay, and a hefty chunk of Bali tourists are Australians who are used to traveling ridiculous distances to go anywhere.

About 70% of visits to Thailand come from Asia though, almost all of which are from East or South East Asia, with the greatest number of visitors coming from China.

There's about 3.9 million from Europe though. So maybe Goa could capture more of that market.

22-24 million, a 1/3 of tourists that visit Spain go specifically to the Balearic or the Canary Islands. All those direct flights Manchester-Mallorca, Frankfurt-Gran Canaria, etc. It seems location matters, the Canary Islands 4 are hours away by plane from Central Europe. The Balearic islands are even closer.

Also, India may need a bit of public relations couching. It's hard to get more tourists when the Tourism Ministry scares them away https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/29/india-female-tourists-skirts-safety-advice

It seems very strange to me that Alex, who knows what India is like, could write a post asking why India has so few tourists without actually addressing the obvious answers.
-it's filthy, to the degree that it is upsetting. Pools of human waste in the street, people crapping in the gutter.
-the poverty is also upsetting. I have been to other poor countries, they did not compare to India in this respect.
-quality of food is low. I love Indian food when it's done well, but most of the restaurants I ate at were not good. Only one memorable meal in two weeks in India- well, only one that was memorable for being good. Some others were memorable for other reasons.
-traveler's diarrhea, India's reputation in this regard is entirely deserved.
-Any area where tourists might be found will be full of pests, touts, and perhaps some swindlers. This gets really tiresome.

I don't understand their focus on toilet per capita numbers when they don't have anything in place to treat the sewage and at that stage more holes in the ground hooked up to some form of sewage processing would make more sense.

Sounds like you've spend all your time in a shanty town. I know people from many different Western countries that count India as the best trip they've ever had including females travelling alone. Depending on tastes, I generally found it easy to find amazing indian food by going to any random restaurant. Maybe it's what you are used to as 'indian food?'

They could start by treating foreign women like humans... I would never ask my gf to go there...

+1 I've met someone that was gang raped their.

Silly. On purely statistical grounds, your gf was probably more likely raped as a child in the U.S. (or many other countries), than being gang-raped in India. You should not treat newspaper stories as data.

If you're a typical reader of this blog, by going to India you're dropping from a leafy green suburb into the most putrid environment known to man. "Statistically" in the US includes blacks, mestizos, and SEAsians, which populations collectively make up between one-third and one-half of the people living within the borders of the US, which populations are not exactly known for their civilized standards of sexual conduct.

See Pence. He will not even have meals with women. This is how great white people are when it comes to avoiding being a rapist. But blacks, browns and yellows still do not know the secret to white rectitude.

I know many women who have travelled solo through india and no problems to report

I think the main obstacle is the $3,000 airline ticket.

Yes, this and the 20+ hours of travel time it takes to get there, which means no less than 2 of my 10 PTO days are spent merely in transit. More, if there is a lengthy layover.

Thinking about the quality of water supplies in India, and then thinking about 20+ hours in an airplane with a bad case of tourist-gut, just might dampen one's enthusiasm to visit India?

Of course, there really are a huge number of interesting things to see and do in India (although many are probably more enjoyable because there are few tourists there).

The link doesn't really say, but what's behind India's visa requirements seems to be concern that some visitors might cost India money, and so they really, really want to be sure foreigners will be fully self-supporting when visiting India?

Self-supporting? There is no safety net to fall into. If you fall sick, and you can't pay, you will end up at a government "hospital", which is little better than no hospital. If you can't find place to stay, you will sleep on the street, or in the local jail-which will make you want to sleep on the streets. Are you going to work illegally? In a country with massive underemployment and low wages? Teach English? In a country where English is practically the lingua franca, at least among the educated classes? Work on a farm? Be a waiter? Get real. There is no self-supporting worry.

It is simply 'how it has always been done'. Government is sclerotic, and run by 'babu' thinking.

Emirates round trips from US to India (except in peak seasons) are running $800-$1,000.

Huh? Mine was 720usd from America, and that's a 23hr flight.

You flying first class, Ted?

Can get to and back in $1500 or less, any time of the year.

Also btw, everyone doesn't live in the US.

Looking at the table I see that revenues per tourist for India are very high. Comparable to those for the US. Given how much effort it would take -- especially in terms of improved infrastructure, safety, and of course less red tape to make India more tourist friendly while raising total revenue -- I doubt the state has much incentive to improve things substantially. My guess is also that an all out push to make even one largish region of the country more tourist friendly would lead to nationalist attacks about catering too much to foreigners. And nice areas are already subject to visuals of wealthy whites lording it over servile poor Indians. Developing very tourist friendly areas as some countries have done will ruffle quite a few feathers.

"Visitors to India spend a lot of money which makes it all the more remarkable that India has so few visitors."

Well, I guess they can increase the quantity of tourists by doubling the cost of visiting India??

Tyler, ever the clod, forgets that women exist. And women don't want to travel someplace where they will be gang raped. Ironically it was Tyler who posted links to research showing decriminalization of porn lead to less rape and violence against women. In India, of course, porn is illegal.

My apologies to Tyler I should have known Alex would write something so useless.

Once again, Tyler is blamed for Alex's post.

To avoid further confusion, I think they should each have a distinctive typeface or colored typeface for their writing. Tyler red, Alex blue or New Times Roman.

"Alex blue or New Times Roman"

NFW. Comic Sans

Are you thinking at the margin?

In India, of course, porn is illegal.


And women don’t want to travel someplace where they will be gang raped.

The probability of that happening, even in India, is vanishingly low. Though given the news coming out of India in recent years (I live there, by the way), I really wouldn't blame women for giving the country a pass. Lot of other good places to visit, and life is short.

A 5 second Google search shows you are lying porn is illegal in India:

To be fair, that is exceedingly rare.

Expect to be groped very often though. They're trying to deal with it, but apparently it's just kind of like that.

The main comparison must be with China. Both are big countries with enormous populations, and geographically far from the west. I'm surprised China has over 6 times as many tourists. How many of them are from Japan?

Not only does China have historical attractions to rival India. China has been adding value to the tourist experience over the past forty or so years. Visiting India is no more exciting than it was in 1870.

China doesn't have such good historical attractions to be honest. I've visited and the Chinese have done a pretty solid job tearing down most of their own history.

They put a lot of it back up after.

It all has the same colour of paint this time around.

Fair point, re: Japanese tourists in China, given that they have visa-free entry for stays of up to 15 days, if I recall correctly.

Business tourists?

Yeah, you'rein Beijing for business, but you brought the fam?

The tourists to France from outside western europe is only ~15 million a year. I think Alex's point still stands, but it's really striking what a difference that makes how you split up countries (the number of domestic tourist visits in india is around 1.4 billion, but I can't find interstate numbers).

This seems like an excellent way to totally obscure the issue. Yea a country with a billion people in it most of them dirt poor and unable to afford foreign travel is going to have a lot of internal travel.

Domestic tourism in India is the enthusiastic province of the lower middle to middle class, of which there are many.

And for the typical upper middle class person (small businessman, doctor or a lawyer) a significant portion of your income is also not known to the tax authorities. Coupled with a low cost of living, it leaves a lot of disposable income (some of it black) requiring an outlet for spending. Travel to Thailand, Singapore is very popular as a result.

In addition to all the points made above, India makes it very difficult for foreigners who are traveling independently to arrange anything in advance. Last time I visited, it was not possible for people with foreign credit cards to book train tickets online and even plane tickets were a hassle.

India could theoretically try to entice Singaporeans and well-off Malaysians, Chinese and Thais to take extended weekend trips there but the government and tourism sector simply don't seem to care about making things easy for foreigners.

Where is the evidence that Northern Asians or even southeast Asians find India compelling? India seems fascinating to a certain highly signaling segment of the Anglo professional middle class.

Considering the number of Buddhists and the rapt attention I have seen North Asians, especially better off North Asians, give to those returning from India, I would suspect a few million more if it wasn't so unpleasant.

Many Japanese like to visit Bodh Gaya, the place where the Buddha is supposed to have attained nirvana. That place also happens to lie smack-bang in the middle of probably the most run-down and dysfunctional part of India, a place that would give parts of sub-Saharan Africa a run for their money. If Bodh Gaya were in a more salubrious location, it would see an exponentially larger number of Japanese (and probably other East Asian) tourists.

In the West Buddhism is perceived as an East Asian thing even though it originated in India.

True, but at this point that's probably an accurate perception. Just like we associate Christianity with Europe even though it originated in the Middle-East, which is almost synonymous with Islam today.

Buddhism has been referred to below. While there are not many practicing Buddhists in India, Buddha remains widely known historical figure in India. Most nationalist historians will refer to ahimsa in Buddhism and Jainism, to find historical precedents for Gandhi's non-violence.
As far as spread of Hinduism to South East Asia and is concerned, check out (there are many other books) https://www.amazon.com/Indianized-States-Southeast-East-West-Center/dp/0824800710/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490919900&sr=1-2

Alex, you should check more carefully figures on number of visitors and spend per visitor. They are not very accurate and should be taken wit a pinch of salt.

If you trust the figures, this is actually not so bad for India. Te low number of international visitors comes from the fact there is no large developed country close to India. British can come easily for a week-end in France but hey will spend two weeks in India if they want to visit it. Eventually, what matters is the total revenue you extract from tourism. India is never going to attract western visitors just for a week-end. Moreover, the numbers for India are not so bad. With $23B India is not so far away from the cumulative numbers of all sub-Saharan African countries ($33B http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/ST.INT.RCPT.CD) , which is probably a better comparison for India than France, the US or even China.

Ummm, Alex makes all those points in his piece.

The European countries, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the UK benefit by being close to one another which generates significant mutual tourism. Mexico, Russia and Turkey, however, all have approximately three to five times as many tourists as does India. China has more than six times as many tourists as does India.

... Internal tourism among the European economies tends to be short-term—many tourists are simply driving over the border for a day or two–and so revenues per visitor are low. France, with a world-leading 84.5 million visitors annually, earns just $543 per visitor. In contrast, tourists who visit China or the United States are more likely to fly and to stay for longer periods of time. As a result, China earns $2005 and the United States $2,639 per visitor.

This was my experience visiting India.

There is no public space. Everywhere you are, someone is hassling you to buy their crap, and they don't take no for an answer.

The food is extremely treacherous. I was traveling with my wife's family, and they are all Indian and have experience traveling there, and we all got very sick. I lost 8 pounds and had to go on antibiotics.

The transportation options are all very high stress.

The temples are great, but aside from the temples there isn't much to do.

I got the impression that a lot of India is a highly functional country, but not for outsiders.

So basically what you're saying is this Seinfeld clip remains relevant 20 years later:


+1 for the Seinfeld reference.

Yeah, living in India requires a high tolerance for crowds, a high degree of flexibility and a willingness to adjust to situations. A craving for order and irritation at things not happening according to template will keep you permanently depressed; unless you have the luxury (and probably wealth) of carving out your own space. People who want to try to change things soon discover that it's a fool's errand; they either make their peace with how things are or try to emigrate.

Well said.

If the chart above counts inter-EU travel as "International Visitors" it's going to bias the European numbers pretty high. Perhaps the numbers to India aren't really low, but the numbers to the EU members is high.

This is dumb. France and Italy just like India are both differnt countries. Stop putting the thumb on the scale to make India seem like a place non-signaling people want to visit.

No, there's a pretty substantial difference. France and Italy are part of the EU, and citizens of each don't need Visas and permission to visit each other. A citizen of France visiting Italy is closer to someone in Illinois visiting Michigan, than normal inter-country tourism.

Yes, visa visa visa. That is the number one issue (no one expects India to be like movie-Paris -- I feel like most people know it's dirty and smelly and desperately poor and petty bureaucrats are terrible). They don't even have to have a visa-waiver program. Just improve e-Visa or whatever it is, so there's fast, efficient visa processing on arrival. They have something like that in Indonesia and -- although I found it a little worrisome how the man took my passport away for a bit before ushering me into the country through a side door -- that seemed to work fine.

On the other hand, the fact that China beats India isn't down to the requirement of a visa: as an American you still need to get a visa anyhow, and I don't think the Chinese consulates in the US are notably better about visas than the Indian consulates. China is just closer and more attractive in a lot of ways. Nowadays at least.

Instead of toilet training your kids just sign them up for Global Entry status.

That's the argument you are making.

I'm not sure how your jest (?) follows . . . Global Entry only gets me easy access to the United States. Do you mean India should set up something like Global Entry? Because that won't work either -- tourists are unlikely to travel there *so much* that it makes sense for them to go through the hassle.

My point is that lots of India is an open sewer. That's the issue not visas.

What percent of tourism is successful ethnic Indians returning to visit family? That may skew the spending figures. Tyler, what did the passengers on the plane out there look like?

Of course, the same may be true for other countries.

It's unlikely visiting Indians (expats or foreign citizens) will end up spending much. They'll have no need to stay in hotels or eat out much, as they'll be living with family. Transport is also mostly taken care of. They do contribute a lot to the GDP of India, but mainly through remittances.

Some examples of foreigners in India who don't fit the typical profile: I have seen a number of students from Africa and the Middle East in rather obscure colleges in India (on the outskirts of Bangalore, for example). Perhaps they are being counted as tourists? Also, the West Coast of India is a separate beast; though I've never been to either place, I hear Goa and Kerala are very popular with foreign tourists. Lots of Israelis (after completing their mandatory military service) seem to like to tour India, Goa in particular. And I've also heard that there is a heavy Russian presence in Goa, so much so that there are signs in Russian in many parts of the state.

If they buy gold its not cheap.

Indeed, isn't it still relatively common for Indian expats to return there to meet and marry a spouse?

So I've heard (I'm a bit of a lone wolf and not much in tune with my home country's society, so I wouldn't really know), but I'm not sure what that has to do with tourism and spending. Indians abroad tend to visit their old parents once a year (or once every couple of years) as the parents generally have no wish to spend many lonely months in America in a culture they find mystifying and uncomfortable. A visit for the purpose of an arranged marriage would be (hopefully) a once-in-a-lifetime event, so it can't have much of a commercial impact on the host country.

Weddings aren't cheap.

I went to India last year. I hired a private driver to drive me around the country for a week: I don't think I could afford to do that in very many countries but I could in India. And I'm glad I did: he was very good at chasing away touts and beggars. Wherever I went I was immediately surrounded by people trying to scam me or sell me trinkets, and the more touristy the area the worse this problem was.

I didn't find eVisa all that onerous...but I wish I could apply more than 35 days in advance. I'm the kind of compulsive planner that would have applied for a visa a year in advance if I could.

The infrastructure was truly atrocious but I'm not sure its any worse than many third world countries that still attract lots of tourists.

I found it amusing that the Visa application asks you like 5 different times if you have any ties to Pakistan. There's also a drop-down menu asking for your religion, and I assume the "correct answer" is anything except Muslim. I wonder what kind of anal probe you get if you answer yes to any of the Pakistan questions...

Also, Russia's visa requirements are FAR more onerous than India's, and Russian bureaucrats may be even more annoying and narrow minded than Indian bureaucrats. Yet Russia outdraws India according to Alex's own screenshot.

Here's a suggestion...perhaps India suffers because of being further away from the USA and Western Europe than almost all of the countries above it.

Yes your kid doesn't have friends because his house is too far from school- not because he is still pooping his pants in high school.

Why are all your comments so rude?

His comment is, however, accurate

Because clearly as the posts from Indians on this board make clear India has deep deep misperceptions about itself that causes it to make excuses rather than think introspectively.

Additionally I've encountered a bunch of people who clearly wasted a lot of money and vacation days on disastrous trips to India because they just assumed people were exaggerating the poverty and open sewer nature of India.

Indians have some very shameful habits and even Indian immigrants to the US take years to overcome these habits. Case in point I had a professor from Indian for my College linear algebra class. This guy would simply just shit, during the class, in front of everyone. He didn't even stop the class for a beat while he was shitting. He wore pants that had ass-flaps and the shit would just fall out as he was lecturing, he acted like nothing was even happening. I see this a lot with Indians in the US. Most corporate IT departments smell awful because of this very problem - all the H1B visa holds taking dumps everywhere.

So, from the comments above, it looks like a major reason why India doesn't get more tourists is "Westerners prefer Western amenities when travelling."

We must accept the inherent limitations of a particular place. My European friends who come to North America complain that all the cities look the same. If you want charming cities, you have to go where the charming cities are. North American tourism offers other things (like national parks). I don't expect Michelin-rated food in Dhaka, and if that's what I want in my vacation experience, I go elsewhere.

Interestingly enough, people who go on train or bicycle tours of South Asia always report having very good experiences. Tourism is whatever you make of it, but it relies on the tourist being able to make an informed decision about what she wants. For those who want a trip to India, more of them would actually go if some of the advice Tabarrok offers were followed.

On the margins. Get it? If you still wouldn't go to India after that, then you're already not in the group of people who would go if barriers were reduced at the margins.

It's not a matter of needing western amenities. I have enjoyed travel in Thailand and China, including staying in the cheapest and most primitive accomodations, eating street food. I happily lived in a rented room in Japan with an outhouse and an outdoor cold water tap. India is qualitatively different.

I did not expect Michelin restaurants in India, I just wanted Indian food that tasted good and didn't make me sick.

I traveled by train in South Asia and could not say I had a 'very good experience'.

Don't mischaracterize people in order to make them sound worse. I have been to 55 countries. I agree that North American cities often look too similar (though that sells out NYC, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Quebec, etc.) and I also agree that culture requires things to be less perfect.

But, with that said, I am still leery of India

That's what the message chain consists of a bunch of people like me pointing out that to a Western sensibilities India is a disaster zone. A middle-class vaccation to India is going to involve striking exposures to food borne disease poverty and misogyny. Whereas a middle class vacation to Paris is going to involve beatiful sites wonderful food excellent shopping and at worst some petty nastiness from service staff.

Not only to those with western sensibilities. I am American, my wife is Chinese and she found India much harder to take than I did.

I know Taiwanese women who were accosted in India. They were very unhappy that first class train passengers would grope them mercilessly.

Folks, you're all still missing the point. Consider an analogy:

ALEX: "Why don't more people buy Big Macs? If the price of Big Macs were lower, more people would buy Big Macs."

COMMENTARIAT: "You fool, Alex, I have no interest in Big Macs. I much prefer tacos! That's why more people don't want Big Macs. Because Big Macs don't taste good!"


This is a dozen years old but a good explanation why tourists are appalled by India

Having worked on my own sewer lines, I am definitely avoiding traveling to a country where open defecation is the norm - not my idea of a pleasant time. Lousy police & criminal justice system, awful infrastructure, abject poverty, woeful ignorance, tremendous misogyny ...what's not to love? Crowding, ponderous socialistic bureaucracy, ridiculous transportation, abysmal sanitation, ...

India is great for coprophiliacs, for the rest of us, not so much:


Answer: The Indian regime is savage and the natives are too primitive to handle modern tourism.


It is a lie, it is Fascist Anri-Brazilian propaganda. In fact, the Brazilian people is kind and generous and hospitable. Unlike India, the country is mostly well-run.

It is the truth. That movie is a fact-based documentary, and everything in it happened exactly as portrayed. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Documentary (feature length).

Let's do the cost-benefit analysis. It needs just one more ingredient, which is the sales tax received by the federal government, estimated at 10% for simplicity.

With visas, India gets 9 million visitors spending $23 billion, so the federal government gets 2.3 billion in sales taxes and 1.5 billion in visa fees, totalling $3.8 billion.

Without visas, and extrapolating as in the article, India would get 30 million visitors spending $78 billion, so the federal government would get 7.8 billion in sales taxes.

On this analysis the Indian federal government can double its income from tourists by eliminating visas.

I tend to agree and think that this would apply to most countries.
But is there some research about countries that abolished visas and how tourism developed?

India has a Thailand/SE Asia problem. You can travel in Thailand/SE Asia and have a more pleasant exotic experience at similar cost.

Bingo. There are very few non-signaling reasons to go to India except for religious pilgrimage.

I see a lot of India-phobia here.

Anyway, I must say a lot of this is reciprocated when Indian tourists visit the West. Where they are often hard-pressed by a byzantine healthcare system (unlike in India where you just walk into a clinic and get treated), poor vegetarian food options, among other things.

I forgot to mention the total absence of heathcare in the US during the weekends where no doctor wants to work. Where you get charged $5000 for a simple EKG check up at Emergency Room. Where you don't get to pay the bill at the doctor's and have to fill up a dozen papers pertaining to insurance, and you often learn about the cost weeks later.'

America isn't such a nice place, you know.

How about this let's stop the movement of people between the two countries and see which side caterwauls louder.

I would welcome cutting to zero the number of times I have to smile warmly but condescendingly as someone tries to convince me their trip to India wasn't a disaster just because they were physically sick the whole time.

Well, I moved from India to the US a couple of years ago. And the frequency at which I get sick has neither decreased nor increased since this movement.

Getting sick is influenced greatly by what you eat. When you visit India and try eating pork-chops or beef steak, you are likelier to fall ill, because these are not commonly eaten in India. The more uncommon the food you eat, the lower its quality. If you eat traditional Indian food in traditional restaurants frequented by locals, you are less likely to get sick.

And you do get healthcare in India, 24X7 unlike in US. In the city of New York there is NO healthcare (except for the ridiculously costly ER) on weekends! No doctor works on weekends! My view is that Hadrian's Rome or Chandragupta Maurya's Pataliputra offered better healthcare on weekends than De Blasio's New York city!

Come on, don't be a germ theory denier. It is pretty well-established that foreign visitors are more susceptible to illness in a given area than native-born residents. If you spend enough uninterrupted time in the U.S., you may well develop an "American" immune system and be more prone to sickness in India on your next visit. I have heard stories like this from long-term Indian residents in the U.S.

I don't know, Shrikant. I spent a decade in the US before moving back to India, and I recall falling sick during every visit to India (being sick in the US was a pretty rare event for me.) And I was born and raised in this country!

Sure, personal choices of food and activity are often to blame for one falling sick, but it can't be denied that that atmospheric and sanitary conditions in India leave every one of us far more susceptible to illness than in many other countries. One example: I spent a few years in Delhi, and the air there is un-breathable; jogging outside sometimes made me sick.

I visit India roughly annually, and I can't remember the last time I had any digestive trouble. You drink bottled water (from a reliable vendor) and you eat at decent restaurants. If you seek it out, there is really good food.

If you go somewhere and don't like it, that is not a phobia. And I wouldn't even say I didn't like India- there is plenty to like. But the question we are addressing is why more tourists don't go there, and I think the reasons are pretty clear.

I visited India recently. It was a good experience, but independent travel is wearing -- tuk-tuk drivers who won't take you to your destination unless you first visit this market, airline staff who won't admit that your flight has been cancelled, signage only in Devanagari, constant uncertainty about food and drink hygiene. I will go again, but not everybody wants to put up with this.

"airline staff who won’t admit that your flight has been cancelled"

Oh the airport staff in Delhi airport are awful. They made the little goblins at Newark look good. Absolutely the worst I've ever dealt with.

Alex, what a fun post and what a bunch of complacent tourists that have responded to it. Perhaps at some margin, one may substitute pretty Vienna, without shit, for exotic India with shit. You've shown real spunk stepping over all the shit and getting to the Ajanta (and Ellora) caves. From the pictures, looks like you did find it paid off. Hopefully, it will inspire more to hold their noses and visit Ajanta. Or, perhaps they really are content sticking to shit-less Vienna. And yes, easing visa entries can only help, at the margin. Keep posting more on your visit, onions and all!

In the data section, you mentioned China having only 56.9 million tourists in 2015, but when I checked the UNWTO report the inbound tourist in China is the largest globally at 133.8 million. Are we looking two different tables?
There are two tables in the report and for some countries they have different numbers, but not for China. For example, at Table 1.1 which includes all sort of visitors (overnight, same day visit etc), the number is largest for France (203 million), followed by US (156 million) and China (133 million). But if you look at Table 1.5 which is again "inbound tourism: total arrivals" China is the lead with the same 133 million, followed by France (84.4 million) and the US (77.4 million). You report the numbers that matches with Table 1.5 for France and US but not for China. And for India, you data seems to be correct.
So, I could not find explanation of what is the difference is between Table 1.1 and 1.5 and why numbers for France and US differs in two tables and not for China. But in any case, the China number seems to be wrong in the table that you provided.

I know nothing about visiting India but maybe the delta in overall visitors is due to the high revenue per visitor number. Meaning maybe tourists don't want to spend $2,600 per person to visit India.

Have been three times most recently in 2015. Infrastructure and corruption a huge issue. As much as I want love India, the high volume of traffic, deafening noise, smell of shit and low health standards precludes a return visit. A fascinating place but with an incredible level of frustration and hassle to get the simplest things done. Maybe in 20 years....

Visas are inconvenient to get.

Flights are very long, making it unsuitable for trips of a week or two.

Also related to not being suitable for trips of a week or two, is that sanitary standards are such that many people will spend much time on the toilet within the first days of their visit, beyond that which can be explained by adjustment to different food.

It is notorious for a diversity of cheats and scams, in particular that there is some adjustment required in order to not so regularly find out that you paid a much higher price for something, and to avoid various inconveniences which might be associated with such stuff.

So, plan to spend more than a week or two. Which pretty much excludes anyone who works 50 weeks a year.

Scratch the first one. As mentioned above, there is a quite easy process for this now.

I'm surprised so many tourists go to France when Italy offers so much more.He co, even Germany is a better destination.

One issue, there seem to be no non-stops between LAX and Delhi (unlike LAX/Tokyo, LAX/Shanghai, etc.) Either top in Abu Dhabi or Seoul.

If I'm going to spend 2 weeks and several thousands of dollars on a vacation, I sure as heck am not going to a country that's worse than the one my parents worked so hard to get me out of. There is sooooo much to explore in the good ole USA. Unfortunately, visiting an outhouse in West Virginia doesn't have the same cultural cahce/signaling as visiting the Ganges. Spending time with no-tooth Louisiana Cajuns doesn't get you the nice cocktail stories that sitting with some villagers in Thailand does (sooo Instagram-worthy). This is all about going somewhere the plebs don't/can't afford to go to, so you can say you did. If India wants more tourists, the visa thing is the least of their concern.

Plus, forget about going as a woman. My wife, her sister, and their mom went (I refused to go, see above), and they were harassed everywhere they went in the north (the southerners are nicer). It's like paying to go on vacation to a construction site from the 50s, complete with cat-calling (and occasionally rapey) natives.

Plus the diarrhea. I had a friend who dreaded going there to visit the grandparents every year because of the GI issues. Is this the 21st century? We've solved that problem. It's called chlorine.

But, yeah. Visas.

I refused to go to India for almost ten years despite my many Indian business contacts inviting me. My reasons, which I kept to myself, were that I believed that the country is corrupt and that one is likely to catch a nasty Indian disease and die. Eventually last summer I went. I was cheated out of several hundred thousand dollars by a dishonest businessman in the deal that took me there, and I caught dengue fever and very nearly died. I write this from India, to which I have returned. But anyone who avoids India out of a concern for catching a nasty disease or for suffering dishonesty is being sensible. And it's a bit limp wristed to blame the British for either of these problems, in case anyone is thinking of doing so.

It's funny how bad feelings and intuitions have a way of becoming true. Sorry to hear about your horrible experiences btw.

A similar thing happened to me in costa rica: i was dreading getting some tropical disease there and got two: tick borne typhus that gave me a wonderful rash a week after comeing home, and zika, which resulted in a 3 month continuous headache.

But i expected nothing but fun with my recent India trip and got it. Just goes to show how powerfully the mental state can affect immune function and our ability to act smartly (see your regrettable investment losses).

People looking to spend their money on exotic vacations can go to a number of other places that aren't full of people who constantly lie, cheat, and steal from foreigners. There's also the staring. And the horrible treatment of women. Oh, and if you're a westerner, you're probably pretty offended by the way that they treat servants over there, like human chattle.

It's a backward country with pretenses to civilization. The ones who are western educated and rich wall themselves off from the rest which might as well be living in the 13th century.

The comment section is cancer.
There is a difference between constructive criticism and abuse. Most of the users are low IQ white supremacist who seem to hold a myopic view about India.

I'm not denying that India has problems but india is much safer than other developing countries. India's homicide rates are much lower than that of America. India is more culturally rich than european nations but lacks funding for heritage sites. It would be better if people were more open minded and less prejudiced.

Get the cow shit out of everywhere (i.e., it's everywhere - get it out of at least some of those places) and maybe more tourists will come. (Probably not the white supremacists, but you know you can't get the brown out of India so don't even worry about it.)

Also, learn to take criticism as something other than insult.

Instead of recognizing that most people do not want to travel where there is literally the risk of stepping in mounds of shit nearly everywhere they go (possibly related to pathogens getting into all the food, possibly by flies landing on cow shit in a thousand locations per minute with 20m of where your dinner is prepared?) ... you will more likely make some arguments about the cultural value of shit on every road.

At least if you stay longer than a week or two, you get used to dodging the shit everywhere, and can have better appreciation of all the good stuff, most of which is not mentioned here.

Im sorry but you have to accept the truth, there is a reason why not many people are coming to your country and the reason is very good. Indian cultural heritage is defeintely something but its just not well maintained like places in Africa, South-East Asia, etc. I travel ALOT and I have noticed that India, Pakistand and Bangladesh are the dirtiest countries I hav been to. Its a tough place for most foreigners to go and thats why you'll never see foreinger having family vacations and stuff there because its not a place to bring kids even though its very safe. Just because kids have very low tolerance and when you step into a country with noise everywehere (loud horns, etc), filthy streets, polluted air...it becomes hard for an adult so imagine the impact on a kid!! You guys need to clean your country, its honestly really dirty. I dont wanna offend, i just wana tell you the truith. Go to Africa and see how clean their countries are, funny how you people call them monkeys but those monkeys live in much more civilized countries. I always tell my friends if you want to witness a war zone first hand without ever being in war or any kind of danger then go to india. Its safe but super chaotic!!!

The casual white, Western, American supremacy from the self-professed American 'liberals' in this comments section does more to harm the West than India itself. The US has effectively isolated Russia and China, and is now in the process of turning these two countries into its most nefarious enemies, and a third strike - India - will make the isolation of the West come full circle. Who are you going to turn to? The UK? It is a third rate power that will break up by or before 2020. The European Union? If Le Pen wins, you'll have your Frexit and you can bid the EU goodbye. Brazil? Pff. It's almost as if you guys have a death wish. I'm actually appalled to see people on here attributing certain behavioural characteristics to Indians, as if Whites themselves did not invade, fleece, loot, rob, and slaughter entire generations of not just Indians, but Africans, Native Americans, and Aboriginals. If there is any race that is fit of standing on the moral pedestal, it isn't you - far from it.

You white American liberals, in your perception of India, have unmasked yourselves for what you truly are - good old imperialists. India has been independent for just 69 years - a blip in its millennial history. For 67 out of those 69 years, it was ruled by the corrupt, nepotistic, Western-backed Congress party. An India in 1947, completely impoverished after centuries of British exploitation and ripped into two during the Partition, needed strong, Dharmic-based governance to deliver itself out if its misery - and yet we only got that in 2014 with the election of our first Prime Minster who has a shred of integrity in him - Narendra Modi. 69 years, let alone the 3 years since Modi got elected, are far from being enough to deliver the world's second largest country in terms of population out of poverty and into prosperity. And yet, against all odds, India has managed to pull itself together and forge ahead. It is an immense feat, considering its geographical extent, its population size, its demographic diversity, and the nuclear-armed enemies surrounding it. Consider that it took pint-sized Britain centuries to stop being a bubonic plague-infested swamp with open sewers running all over the streets of London, but India, orders of magnitude larger than Britain, has set a target for ensuring sanitation for all before its 100th anniversary of independence.

There are so many incredibly positive things about India that stand out amidst the mist of the misery epidemic that the West's Indophobes and Hinduphobes love bandying about to feel better about themselves. India, even during corrupt Congress rule, brought down poverty from numbers as high as 70% - again, entirely the fault of the British and their nefarious deindustrialisation campaign that saw Indian industries decimated - to 40%, and then to 30%, and today it hovers a little above 20% and continues to go down. This was a massive logistical and societal triumph that not even the brainiest. mouthiest white liberal would be able to replicate. India, wrecked by 1,500 years of Islamist invasions, has managed to scrape itself together and ensure civilisational continuity - something the Persians utterly failed at. India has exported so much to the world - Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoga, the very numbers we use today, much of humanity's foundational basis for mathematics, much of humanity's philosophy through our ancient schools, the first instance of a society being tolerant towards atheism, democracy, and homosexuality before Ancient Greece even caught on - but you white supremacists have reduced India to a pathetic narrative that was borne out of your innate racism and contempt for anyone who doesn't share your skin colour.

The United States, for example, is generally regarded as being a land of opportunity and relative freedom, but on the other side of the coin, it is viewed as a genocidal, imperialistic, slave-owning, violently racist nation - and yet the latter narrative does not carry precedence over the former in the minds of foreigners, because we're sensible and know better than to attribute America to its worst characteristics Americans are truly the most pathetic species of modern mankind if they view other nations from the dark side of the coin without acknowledging their good traits. I've never stepped out of Asia and have generally viewed the US from a positive standpoint, but the comments I've seen on this blog today have started to foster the seeds of anti-Western sentiment in my mind, and ultimately, you are going to pay for it if this becomes the major sentiment in the world. Have fun with Trump - you truly deserve him, for you are both one and the same. Ultimately, India does not need tourism from white supremacists. Your economies and societies are in decline. We can only rise, and rise is what we will do. Have fun saving the crumbling remnants of what was once Western civilisation from the onslaught of the religion of peace and your own dogma.

Butthurt Indian nationalists really are the funniest butthurt nationalists.

I didn't know defending my nation from unwarranted slander from the most racist, sub-human, and barbaric, Neanderthal race to have ever blighted the face of Mother Earth counted as nationalism. White people and their traits provide me with a great source of comedic relief. They will stop at nothing to denigrate and belittle the various races of the world, but any one of these races stands up against the albino sub-race and that person instantly gets branded as a 'nationalist' or a 'racist'.
Even if I were nationalistic, so? Gandhi was nationalistic. Indian nationalism stays within its borders and works towards the betterment of the nation. Nationalism is a pre-requisite for development. White nationalism, on the other hand, resulted in the Nazis, the Soviets, and the most atrocious genocides ever witnessed in human history. Your hypocritical race, as per usual, keeps lamenting about the relative lack of development in India, but god forbid Indians actually take pride in their nation and work towards its betterment.

But of course, I wouldn't expect an inbred, trailer piece of trash with no history, culture, or tact to understand how cultural relativism works. Your race is truly worthless. You've even lost the basic ability that makes a race remotely worthy of human civilisation: The ability to defend itself. You. my friend, are a laughing stock, and Europe in 2016 and 2017 is proof of it. Pray for Paris - ha. I'll send you my prayers.

A general question about these statistics:

How would France or Spain even know that I visited them as a German? It's all in Schengen, I just hop on a train and cross the border. There ain't nobody to check no passport or nothing. They can't count tickets because I get the same ticket as a commuter or a student visiting his parents. Also, I could just walk across the border to France.

Because of this, I wouldn't be surprised if tourism within Schengen countries is under-counted.

I'm a white woman who lives in Australia. I've been to India seven times and love it. I have travelled in the north, south, east and west of the country and have experienced no significant harrassment, certainly no more than I do at home.

As a tourist I am sometimes aware that I am being ripped off, but again, no more than in tourist traps all over the world (I've travelled in Europe and the USA).

India is beautiful, colourful, ancient and fascinating. It is also often smelly and dirty. The poverty can be confronting and the caste system, not immediately obvious as an outsider, is deeply challenging.

Of the seven times I've been to India I've been ill four times, none serious. The worst diahorrea I've had as a traveller was in Italy.

Some people like to go to a pristine beach or snowfield for a holiday. When I travel I like to go somewhere different from home. India is profoundly life affirming in a way that is hard to pin point. I like to say it's like mainlining a life force!

For some reason people hesitate to travel perceiving that it's more 'difficult' there. But the train network is extensive, and if you speak English, it's spoken there widely. It's often crowded, but rarely do the crowds feel bigger than New York or London.

I now escort small groups of people to and round India. They are nervous on arrival but by the end of one week are confident, no longer needing their 'hands held'.

Perhaps a widespread campaign would be helpful, emphasising the ease of travel, showing that the practicalities are not substantially different than most other places.

Show that it's not that hard to visit most of the stunning sites that India has to offer, that the reward for the minimal effort is overwhelming. And show that there's more to see than the Taj Mahal!

And also, THE SHOPPING. I had NO idea that it is a shopper's PARADISE. India should promote THAT! You can get exquisite, unique items for a fraction of the cost that you'd pay in the west, yet no one knows this. I sometimes have 'shopping days' on my itineraries and people love them. Handmade, bespoke, tailored, designed... all the things we appear to be craving at home.

I find India addictive and as long as I'm able, I'll be back.

Its only designed for a certain type of tourists. Its not for everyone. Its not a place you can go for a family vacation or your honeymoon. Its for hardcore adventurers. Also its really dirty and smelly. The traffic is crazy and very noisy, you cant find any peace during the day. I found people in Delhi very aggressive and impatient. These are just negative things. I know not all of india is dirty but 90% definetely is. With that being said, there is some positivity like the food

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