India‘s foray into border tourism confronts a spectrum of challenges despite the government’s proactive measures. The Vibrant Villages Programme, aimed at opening up northern border villages to tourists, and engagement with public representatives by the Ministry of Home Affairs are notable initiatives. However, the vast tourism potential in India’s border regions remains largely untapped, primarily due to the inherent remoteness and associated accessibility challenges of these locations.
Infrastructure deficiencies pose a significant hurdle. Despite efforts, remote border areas struggle with the provision of basic amenities and efficient transportation options for potential visitors. This infrastructure gap not only limits tourist footfall but also obstructs the growth of related commercial activities.
Security considerations loom large, as outlined in the 2022 White Paper on Border Tourism by PHDCCI. India shares its borders with multiple nations, some of which face security challenges, potentially dissuading tourists. The intricate task of balancing security measures without deterring potential visitors remains a critical aspect that demands nuanced solutions.
According to Yogesh Srivastav, Director General at WTC Business & Industry Association, the diverse cultural landscape of border areas is another challenge. Managing this diversity requires careful consideration to respect local traditions and prevent potential conflicts. Cultural sensitivity issues, therefore, form a substantial barrier to the seamless promotion and sustainability of tourism activities in these regions.
Regulatory hurdles further complicate the landscape. The need for permits and adherence to complex security procedures hampers the ease of doing business in border tourism.
In light of these multifaceted challenges, Srivastav said there is need for a comprehensive approach to address issues ranging from security concerns to cultural sensitivities, to foster sustainable and inclusive growth in these often-overlooked areas.
Strained geopolitical relations, particularly with China and Pakistan—countries sharing the majority of India’s international borders—present a formidable challenge to the nation’s border tourism, according to Tsering Namgyal, Chairman of IATO Ladakh Chapter. This geopolitical tension has resulted in adverse conditions and imposed various restrictions on opening borders for tourism. Namgyal points out, “Our strategic defense policies are also not soft when it comes to border tourism.”
Supporting this perspective, Nasir Shah, Chairman of IATO Jammu & Kashmir Chapter, underscores the importance of fostering positive relations with neighboring countries as a foundational step for advancing border tourism, particularly in Jammu & Kashmir. Shah cites the successful Suchetgarh Border Tourism in the Jammu region as an example. However, he notes setbacks following the 2016 Pulwama attack, leading to the suspension of initiatives due to strained relations between India and Pakistan.
On the brighter side, Namgyal said that India has immense opportunities to improve the conditions of economically marginalised and geographically isolated villages along the borders as many of our border villages in India and habitats have immense tourism potential.
In line with this, he urged the Government of India to reassess and take decisive steps to revise border policies, specifically by opening restricted border areas for tourism. Namgyal suggests that such a bold move would not only enhance border security but also revitalise the economy of border communities, creating new job opportunities.
Namgyal also draws attention to successful international case studies, such as the China-Vietnam border and cross-border tourism initiatives, as well as effective border tourism policies between South Africa-Botswana and Zimbabwe, offering valuable lessons for consideration for India.
Suresh Singh Budal, CEO of Pacific Asia Travel Association- Nepal Chapter, emphasised that India serves as the dominant source market for regional tourism, just as it is a major market for other international destinations. . Acknowledging India’s significant influence in both inbound and outbound tourism, Budal highlighted challenges hindering seamless travel.
The hurdles of travel formalities and permission limitations significantly impact tourists, especially those from Bangladesh and Nepal, says Budal, who face constraints like double-entry visa limitations for land entry into India. This constraint has inflated air travel costs, leading potential travelers to seek alternatives beyond regional borders. Post-pandemic, surging long-haul flight fares further discourage regional travel. Budal urges a reassessment of travel arrangements, emphasizing the government’s crucial role in simplifying formalities to encourage regional tourism.
Challenges for travel businesses, agents:
As mentioned in the PHDCCI White Paper, the travel agents and hospitality providers encounter a series of challenges when promoting Border Tourism packages.
Security concerns, often compounded by the need for permits, can deter potential tourists, making it crucial for travel agents to stay informed about the security situation and guide clients through permit procedures.
Infrastructure limitations, such as inadequate roads and accommodations, require collaboration with local authorities for improvement. Overcoming risk perceptions, complex documentation, and cultural sensitivity adds to the complexity travel agents face.
Moreover, the lack of information and limited marketing attention to border destinations, as mentioned by Srivastav, intensify challenges.
As a Ladakh-based operator, Namgyal highlights challenges faced by local tour operators, including inadequate infrastructure, poor mobile connectivity, and border permit hurdles for foreign travellers. The absence of primary health centers with proper oxygen facilities at key border tourist destinations like Pangong Lake, Hanle, and Tsomoriri Lake tourist circuits, compounds operational difficulties in Ladakh, he said.
From J&K perspective, Shah stated that currently, there are no existing challenges; potential difficulties may arise once Border Tourism activities commence. “Presently, Suchetgarh Border Tourism is the sole ongoing initiative from the industry perspective. The government should further focus on improving road infrastructure, establishing stadium stands resembling the model of Wagah Border, creating toilet blocks and the inclusion of multiple restaurant chains which would contribute to the overall development of Border Tourism facilities,” he suggested.
To enhance Border Tourism packages, Srivastav suggested strategic approaches for travel agents and hospitality providers. These include creating educational tours focusing on history and geopolitics, ensuring safety measures through collaborations with local security forces, and implementing robust emergency response plans.
Collaborating with local communities and promoting responsible tourism practices helps share benefits with locals. A strong online presence, effective use of social media showcase, providing specialised training to guides and staff will also contribute to the overall appeal of Border Tourism packages.
Border destinations in India, once secluded, now draw large numbers of travellers. Official data underscores the potential of Border Tourism to uplift local communities, especially in regions like the northeast and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The Line of Control, from Bangus Valley to Tangdhar, offers stunning landscapes and diverse opportunities for adventure and leisure tourism.
Sikkim leverages border tourism with attractions like Nathu La pass, stimulating the local economy and prioritising eco-tourism. Arunachal Pradesh embraces tourism, generating income through homestays and guiding services while showcasing its diverse tribal cultures. Nagaland’s Hornbill Festival, internationally acclaimed for tribal traditions, not only generates income but also promotes cultural preservation.
In Meghalaya, increased tourism has not only generated employment but also spurred infrastructure development in remote areas. Hanle, near the Chinese border in Ladakh, is a successful example of Border Tourism, renowned for its night observatory and the distinction of being India’s first “Dark Sky sanctuary.” Formerly restricted, plans are underway to allow foreign tourists to spend nights in Hanle.
Overall, Ladakh has also witnessed a massive tourism surge in the last few years, creating jobs and boosting local industries.
“Local villagers have embraced tourism by opening small homestays here, along with the restaurants, and engaging in guiding services, transforming the economic landscape. Similarly, Thang, a petite village near Turtuk in the Nubra Valley on the Pakistan border, has opened its doors to tourists, significantly boosting the economy, employment opportunities, and offering a glimpse of rich cultural traditions to the outside world,” noted Namgyal.
Meanwhile, the Wagah Border in Punjab, continues to draw in 25,000 daily visitors for its flag-lowering ceremony, embodying the shared history between India and Pakistan.
When asked how Punjab is making efforts to push border tourism, Rakhee Gupta Bhandari, Principal Secretary Tourism & Cultural Affairs, Govt of Punjab, shared, “In addition to Atari, we have other notable borders like Hussainiwala and Sadqi, and we have ambitious plans for their development. While work has already begun at Atari and Wagah, we’re planning for Sadqi as well. The current government is actively promoting these three borders in various ways.”
“We are fortunate to have these borders, and when I say ‘fortunate’, I’m referring to the immense tourism opportunities they offer,” she added.
Learning from the best; paving the way ahead
Taking a cue from initiatives like the Schengen Area in Europe, which enables passport-free travel across 26 countries, and the Nordic Passport Union allowing free movement, Budal sees them as valuable examples for India. He emphasises the need for neighboring countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Pakistan to facilitate easy travel within the region. Budal suggests introducing promotional packages, shifting focus from international destinations, and actively promoting the unique experiences India offers to specific target markets.
He emphasised the need for heightened collaboration among National Tourism Organisations (NTOs) at the private business level, advocating for partnerships and relationships between businesses. Stressing the importance of collaboration beyond government levels, he urged dialogue between the Nepalese government and India, India with Bangladesh, and other neighboring countries to revitalise the region’s products and services.
Srivastav emphasised that nations excelling in border tourism prioritize infrastructure, effective marketing, simplified visas, and cultural exchange. He suggests India should draw inspiration from these strategies, particularly investing in roads, airports, and accommodations for improved accessibility.
A significant portion of the population residing near J&K borders resides below the poverty line, shared Shah, stressing on the need to do a robust and enthusiastic promotion of tourism activities. “With this, the local communities surrounding these borders will undoubtedly experience benefits, leading to economic growth.”