What makes for great tourism : remaking the Taj Mahal experience

(Guess whose photo this is! Answer at the bottom of this post)

Recently ran into an interesting check-list of items to be addressed to create great tourism experiences.

  1. Enrichment and authenticity
  2. Partner with community
  3. Invent the themes that will intrigue visitors
  4. Engage all the seasons
  5. Increase the value inside the tourism experience by including access to people, a unique activity, or combination of both. When you do this , you can increase the selling price
  6. Invent new forms of programs that incorporate new mixes of activities, people, traditions and places that showcase and celebrate the community. Invention is the key
  7. Personalize and customize your services
  8. Add interaction and hands-on activities
  9. Involve local community and mentor them
  10. Add specific local retail items into the experience or package.

Ok. So let us try to apply this check-list to something we know. How about India’s best known attraction, the Taj Mahal? (Given the very sterile and – sometime very hassling – experience that is visiting the Taj Mahal, I think some creative thought can help). Here is my take on how one could apply some of these principles to the tourism experience of the Taj Mahal.

Enrichment & Authenticity : An ‘immersion’ into the world of Shah Jahan – how about setting up a place where travellers can experience in at least a small way, the nature of life at the time of Shah Jahan. Maybe, this can be in the form of a bazaar recreated in authentic historical detail.

Partner with Community: An obvious area would be to bring in the community into this bazaar. There are other options to bring in local musicians, artisans & cooks into an authentic street scene.

Invent themes that will intrigue visitors: How about “Luxury in the time of the Mughal”, a theme of what it meant to indulge in luxury fit for a king in Shah Jahan’s time. This can cover so many aspects, it is almost endless. As a beginning, the theme can cover Jewelery, Perfumes, Clothing & Transportation (chariots, howdahs etc). The manifestation of the theme can be very multifaceted. It can cover exhibitions, shops, manufacturing, home-stays etc.

Engage all the seasons: This I think is one of the most under-applied principles in Indian tourism. The Indian summer is pretty hot, so we get no tourists at this time. But, think of how we can create a unique experience around this. To me, one of the most impressive features of Mughal architecture was the network of little waterways & fountains across the entire palace that enabled the central asian Mughals to brave the heat of the Indo-gangetic plain. How can we re-create this experience?

Include access to people: For 15 days in a year, the direct descendant of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor will be available at Agra. She will personally talk to a select audience everyday for these 15 days and give them a peek into the world of her ancestors. Extremely unique & authentic, this should be able to bump up the price of an upmarket Taj holiday package by about USD 250 to 500 per person.

Invent new forms of programs: Yup, I really like this. My earlier thought on the bazaar works great for this, especially if that can be clubbed with highly interactive stuff. How about setting aside an area in the bazaar as a street theatre area? In this place, locals as well as travellers are encouraged to come up and show their stuff. From juggling to karaoke, the idea being to mix the modern with the ancient, Indian with foreign and for everyone to have a good time at it. I saw something like this done in Ingos’ night market in Goa and I think that is the right direction.

….and so it can go on…

Wonder why nobody does such stuff in India – there is so much raw material to work on. Unfortunately I haven’t as yet found anybody who will pay me to put together such ideas.

Hulloooo, anybody there?

Now, about the photo at the top. The photo is of Begum Laila Umahani, direct descendant of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal ruler of Delhi. If history had not taken its inexorable course, she would have been sitting on the peacock throne in Delhi. But now, this last of the direct descendants of the Mughals who ruled India for 332 uninterrupted years, lives in a 3 room house in Hyderabad.

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7 thoughts on “What makes for great tourism : remaking the Taj Mahal experience

  1. Well, Rajasthan does this kind of things, and it is big. Fake villages like Choki Dhani, Placing katputhli players, snake charmers and ravan hatha musicians inside the palaces and forts,.. It really seems to charm the ‘package tour’ folks from abroad and I have known tourists from the west enjoying it immensely.

    I know people in tourism industry would just love this. But a personal take, can’t enjoy fake and ‘setup’ stuff. If I can’t go to places where things happen, I will just hope to go someday instead of preferring to have things brought to me.

  2. Arun – as you might have seen in many places across the world, the difference is in the level of authenticity, detail & interactivity. Bringing the nuances of a historical context alive is not an easy proposition. India has never done this so far and any comparisons with existing stuff in India is actually missing the point.

    “I know people in tourism industry would just love this’. You are right. They will, over time. Simply because, if well done, it will add a lot to the tourism experience and therefore their customers (especially the well educated & well-heeled ones) will love it.

    But one thing I have learned in India – we are initially more cynical than most people about break-through initiatives. For eg. when I first talked about creating an Indian travel community & getting traveller-generated content in India – in 2004 – a lot of people vehemently told me that Indians will never share information with one another. Over time, I was able to do just that for the first time in India & many of the earlier cynics gracefully admitted that they were wrong.

    I am sure we will get used to this idea too.

  3. Hari,
    Your thoughts are right on the money- who should take the lead and bring the capital?
    it seems to me, you are saying to be authentic, you need real people participate than create another Disney style theme park show.

  4. Hari, much as I agree with some of your suggestions I feel we’re failing at things that are taken for granted elsewhere.

    Tourists’ (Indian/Foreign) first contact with locals at the destination is with transport (rickshaws, taxis, tongas, camel carts etc.) and this is where, even before they’ve seen the destination, that many of them make up their mind never to visit India again, and pass on the word as well. Fleecing them on fares is the least of the experiences cab and auto drivers subject the tourists to.

    Then at the destination itself, what with “tourist guides” literally harrassing the visitors to an extent that some of them aggree to hire one just so they can rid of “guides” trailing them all the way and preventing them from enjoying the experience near totally.

    Add persistent vendors who will dog your every step until you buy an item or two or react out of exasperation, and the picture is complete.

    Poverty, dirt, filth is still tolerable if for nothing than for the fact that it does not follow you around as you go about seeing the place.

  5. Anil – good to see you here. Welcome.

    About your comment – I could not agree with you more. Given this reality, my concern is – how do we change this? How does one go about eradicating this persistence (pestilence?).

    Here is one thought. Does all this pestering happen because there is no better way for the local community to participate in the money flow from tourists? After all, almost all the money from tourists flows to airlines & hotels, very little of which goes down to the roots. Can a wider involvement of the local community, particulary its middle class, help us overcome this issue?

    If we can build a large group of people in the local community who have an economic interest in ensuring that tourists have a good experience, we would probably have built ourselves a counterweight to this sort of pestering.

    Look forward to views on this subject. This is obviously a critical subject for all of us keen on developing Indian tourism and in any case, too important to be left only to the Government.

  6. “If we can build a large group of people in the local community”

    That’s a bull’s eye, Hari. One of the best examples is seen in Kanchenjunga National Park, Sikkim. Have seen it myself, and have happened to meet an IFS officer who told me about the effort that has gone in to make eco-tourism and home-stays in Sikkim direct money to the locals, and was impressed with what is happening.

    It is a success story of locals getting together(actually brought together) and formalizing a cordial way to make homestays and park guide business bring money to the local population.

    It is eco-tourism in real sense and has delinked local population of their economic dependency on forest resources.

    It would be worth a detailed study. Though it would be hard to make it apply to the environments of a tourist city(Agra, Jaipur,..)

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