I was quite busy last week. You may have noticed, as I did, that the British Prime Minister came to India, bringing with him the largest delegation ever to travel with a British Prime Minister. His mission: to build a stronger, wider, deeper partnership between Britain and India..
How does tourism fit into this partnership? It’s central. It matters economically: tourism is a major contributor to the UK economy (9% of UK GDP and employment) and an increasingly large contributor to the Indian economy. And it matters because tourism is about people, and ultimately the strongest ties between our two countries will not be those between governments but between our people. And people who have visited each other’s countries understand each other better, like each other better, and want to do more together.
The UK tourism sector is doing well. In 2012 we attracted just over 31 million visitors, our best year since 2008. But we want to do even better: by 2020 we aim to attract 40 million visitors a year.
Indian tourists are central to that ambition. As India’s prosperity grows and its middle class expands, more and more Indians are looking to travel abroad. When they get on that aircraft, we are very clear where we want them to come: to the United Kingdom.
But we never forget that everyone has a choice. There are 193 countries in the world: all of them have something to recommend them – except possibly a couple I have visited who shall be nameless. So why should an Indian thinking about a trip abroad choose the UK over our other 192 competitors?
Here are my Top Ten reasons for Indians to come to Britain. Some will be familiar to you travel professionals. But not, I hope, all of them.
Reason 1: The Countryside
Indians love natural beauty. India itself is blessed with so much of it. So is Britain.
From rugged mountains, deep forests and tranquil waterways to stunning beaches, cliffs and coastal paths, we have something to delight every visitor. If peace and relaxation is what you want, you will find it the British countryside. You will find something green and beautiful everywhere in the UK, from the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland to the mountains of Snowdonia in Wales, from Land’s End at southern tip of England, to John O’Groats at the northern extremity of Scotland.
If you prefer your heartbeat fast and your adrenaline pumping, you can go surfing off the Welsh coast or try the UK’s highest bungee jump in Manchester.
Or if you’d rather just sit on the beach and eat ice cream or hunt for fish in rock pools, Britain is where you want to be. Nowhere is more than two hours’ drive from the sea. Our stunning coastline is longer than that of Spain and France combined.
Reason 2. The Heritage
Britain is packed with historic treasures.
Indians understand royalty, and so do we. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is the world’s longest serving Queen. Our royal heritage is on display everywhere. Everyone knows the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace. Everyone knows Windsor Castle too, though some tourists – hearing the jets roar overhead from Heathrow - often ask why the castle was built so close to the airport. But there are plenty of other royal sites around the UK: from the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh to Caernarfon Castle in Wales; to Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace. And we now have a new royal tourist site: improbably, a car park in Leicester, the site of the recently discovered remains of King Richard III.
Like India, we have an ancient heritage too. Stonehenge is the most famous of all prehistoric monuments in Britain, but is just one of hundreds of ancient sites waiting to be stumbled upon. Thousands of years after Stonehenge was built, the Romans came to Britain. The World Heritage City of Bath is a stunning example of their architecture, with its magnificent temple and bathing complex.
And just as India juxtaposes the ancient with the modern, so does the UK. For every Stonehenge, there is a jawdropping modern counterpoint: the Shard in London (now Europe’s tallest building), or the Eden Project in Cornwall, its geodesic domes containing the largest rainforest in captivity.
Reason 3: The Culture
Indian culture is thousands of years old. When the ancestors of today’s Indians were composing the Vedas and inventing mathematics, my ancestors were running around hitting each other with sticks and covered in nothing but blue paint. We have caught up a bit since then. Britain is now one of the most exciting cultural destinations in the world.
We have three of the five most visited museums in the world. You can spend hours lost in the British Museum’s collection of antiquities and mummies, before heading to the National Gallery to soak up masterpieces such as Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, then cross the Thames to experience Tate Modern’s Warhols, Pollocks and Hockneys.
Britain is renowned for its world class theatre, which sets the stage alight in London’s West End seven days a week. This year the capital’s theatres are packed with famous faces, including Judi Dench (M in Skyfall) and Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), both performing at the Noel Coward Theatre.
I mentioned the Vedas. Indians are great lovers of literature – and, I’ve discovered, rather better versed than me in the classics of English literature. So come and see the places which inspired some of our greatest works, like Wordsworth’s Lake District where he wrote the poem that every Indian learns at school, “Daffodils”. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice celebrates its 200th anniversary this year: come and explore the houses and countryside in which her novels are set. All Indians love PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie: come and find the stately homes and London clubland that inspired them. Or see Shakespeare’s plays performed at their original home, the Globe Theatre in London on the banks of the Thames.
And if you prefer movies to books, the UK is the place too. Some of the most successful Bollywood films were shot in the UK: come and see where. And visit Madame Tussauds, home to statues of stars like Salman Khan and Amitabh Bachchan. If you like British cinema, fans of Harry Potter can visit Alnwick Castle (Hogwarts) and Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station. Fans of James Bond can relive Skyfall by visiting Whitehall in London or Glencoe in Scotland.
Reason 4: The Sport
2012 was an outstanding year for British sport. The London Olympic Games showed that we can organise complicated events with efficiency, flair and enthusiasm.
Football is increasingly popular in India, and the Premier League is one of the most closely followed sporting tournaments in the world. So come and experience the unique atmosphere of a match at Wembley Stadium in London. Or Old Trafford, if you are one of Manchester United’s one billion followers.
The Wimbledon lawn tennis tournament, watched the world over, is synonymous with the British summer and attracts both tennis fans and anyone looking for a taste of the social season. Come and join us for Pimms and strawberries.
We in Britain also play a game which we invented but which India has become rather good at, called cricket. If you are a cricket fan, you have to visit Lord’s in London, the ‘Home of Cricket’.
Indians are also getting dangerously good at golf. Next year the Ryder Cup will take place at Gleneagles, drawing fans to the home of golf in Scotland. Britain has some magnificent golf courses, with 550 in Scotland alone.
Finally, any Indian keen to find out what makes the British so eccentric should seek out one of our many quirky sporting events. These include bog-snorkelling (where you snorkel through a bog), wife-carrying (work it out), cheese-rolling, and Scotland’s hotly contested Stone Skimming World Championships.
Reason 5: The Variety.
One of the great things about India is that everywhere is different from everywhere else. That’s true of the UK too, which means we have something for everyone. If you liked Kate Winslet and Leonardo de Caprio’s watery adventure, then you can visit the world’s biggest and newest Titanic Museum in Belfast. If you are a regular at the Jaipur literary festival, visit its cousin at Hay on Wye. If you are a romantic, steal away to the Scottish border town of Gretna Green, famous for runaway weddings. If robbing the rich to give to the poor is your thing, you can find Robin Hood’s hiding place in Sherwood Forest near Nottingham. And if you like mysteries, come to Loch Ness up in Scotland to try and spot its most famous inhabitant.
No one visiting Khan Market here in Delhi, or indeed any part of any Indian city at almost any time, would doubt that Indians like shopping. And if you want to do it in style, the UK is the place. We are the home of luxury brands like Burberry, Mulberry, Paul Smith, Stella McCartney; of Harrods, good old Marks and Spencers, and Boots; and we have some of the best shopping malls in the world, like Westfield in London.
Reason 7: The Food (and Drink)
Indians are known for their discerning palates. So some of you may be surprised that I include this in my Top Ten list.
It is true that we British do have food with odd names: spotted dick, toad in the hole, bangers and mash. They all taste better than they sound. It is true that we also have some odd tastes: Exhibit one - Marmite.
But British food is great. Our chefs are world class: we have 198 Michelin starred restaurants. Our organic produce is the envy of the world.
And our food is wonderfully varied: we produce 700 regional cheeses - more than France.
And for Indians who are homesick and want to eat something as good as their mother’s food, Britain is the place too. We have the widest and best range of South Asian food outside South Asia. So if you have a sudden craving for Railway Mutton Curry or Hyderabadi biryani, you’ll find it - and it may be even better than your mother’s. Camellia Punjabi, who introduced regional Indian cuisine to the UK, said recently that the best Indian food in the world is now served in London.
Did I mention the drinks? Scotch is every Indian’s favourite tipple. Come to the Scottish Highlands and taste the real thing at its place of birth. Beer – and our pubs – are part of the British experience. Come and join us at the bar.
Reason 8: The Welcome
One of the great things about India is that Brits feel welcome here. And Indians can be sure of an equally warm welcome in the UK. The London Olympics showed the world that the British love foreign guests and treat them right. And the presence of some 1.5 million people of Indian origin in the UK means that almost any visitor from India will have family, friends and a whole community to welcome them.
Reason 9. The Family Friendliness.
Family is at the heart of Indian culture. And visiting the UK with a family is easy. Children are welcome everywhere. The UK has some of the world’s best children’s venues, such as Alton Towers, Whipsnade Zoo, Legoland, and the Natural History Museum’s dinosaur exhibition, which no child and few adults can resist.
Reason 10. The Visas
I thought this one might surprise you. There is a myth that it’s difficult to get a visa to visit Britain. Wrong: nine out of ten Indians who apply for a visa get one. We make it easy: we have the UK’s biggest visa operation in the world here, with 12 application centres, more than any other country. We do it quickly: most Indians get their visa within a few working days. And we are committed to constant improvement: hence the Prime Minister’s announcement here last week of a new same day visa service for businesspeople.
So that’s my list. I could give you a lot more reasons why Indians should come to the UK. But then that’s my job: I’m the UK High Commissioner. So don’t take my word for it. Take instead the word of Indians themselves. Well over 300,000 Indians come to the UK each year. If you don’t believe me, believe them.
So my message to every Indian thinking about overseas travel is simple. Come to the UK. You’ll be welcome. You’ll have a great time. And we hope to see you soon.