India's tourist industry is booming due to a rush of foreign tourists and increased travel by Indians to domestic and overseas destinations.
Nearly three million foreign tourists visited India in 2003, a 15 percent increase over the previous year. Prospects look even better this year, with tourist arrivals already up nearly 20 percent.
The visitors are pouring in from all over the world: Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia and Australia. At the same time, the number of Indians traveling abroad last year increased by 30 percent, to 4.5 million.
The boom has come even as global tourism has dropped, due to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in East Asia, and the Iraq war.
Tourism professionals cite several reasons for the buoyancy in the Indian industry. The recent surge in the Indian economy has raised middle class incomes, prompting more people to spend money on vacations abroad or at home.
At the same time, India's emergence as a global information technology hub and an aggressive advertising campaign by the government are credited with changing India's image from that of a land of snake-charmers, and sparking new interest among overseas travelers.
Subhash Goyal, president of the Confederation of Tourism Professionals, says the world's leading travel publication, the Lonely Planet, last year listed India as one of the five top "must-see" destinations for global leisure travelers.
"It was a winter industry, now the season should have been over, but now it is June, and June is supposed to be a very lean season, but still the tourists are coming, they are pouring in," he said.
Some of them, says Mr. Goyal, are from Middle East countries. They come to witness the drenching monsoon rains in India, a phenomenon never seen in desert climates.
Domestic tourists are also fueling the industry's revival. Many of them escape from the summer heat on the plains to resorts in the Himalayan Mountains. One of the major beneficiaries this year is Kashmir, where a cease-fire between India and Pakistan has reduced violence, if not completely, at least enough to help revive the state's sagging tourism industry.
Still, industry experts say that in order to attract more visitors, India needs to upgrade its airports, roads and other infrastructure to global standards. Even with the recent boom, tourist arrivals are still just a fraction of those in such popular Asian destinations as Bangkok.
Meanwhile, the growing number of overseas Indian travelers has prompted nations as far apart as China, Ireland and Brazil to set up foreign tourism boards in India to grab a larger slice of the Indian market.