Delta Air Lines Inc.’s revived nonstop flight to India Dec. 22 may not be taking off from Atlanta, but it is helping spur some hopeful conversation about the future of travel and tourism between India and Georgia.
The hometown airline ruffled feathers locally after choosing New York for its revived flight to Mumbai, leaving Atlanta without a direct link to the world’s second largest country and one of its fastest-growing air travel markets.
That hasn’t deterred tour operators or government officials, who spoke in unflinchingly positive terms about the economic promise of increasing travel between the two countries at a Dec. 6 “Let’s Talk Tourism” event organized by the Consulate General of India in Atlanta, Tours Ltd. and the Georgia Indo-American Chamber of Commerce.
For Georgia, the potential is tremendous, given a diaspora population that numbers in the hundreds of thousands and has been vocal over the past few years about their perceived lack of options to get to India.
Wooing their relatives, friends and acquaintances is a main objective of the state, which sees India as one of its top-10 inbound markets. And the focus is not just on visitors — the Explore Georgia program is looking to reintroduce residents, including those of south Asian descent, to what their home state has to offer.
That’s also a target market for Robert Long, vice president of economic development for the Cumming-Forsyth Chamber of Commerce. Forsyth County will see it South Asian population grow from about 10 percent to a quarter of its residents in the next few decades, he said.
Mr. Long pointed to the positive spillover effects of sports tourism and plugged the county’s planned Atlanta Cricket Fields development, but also noted how well-educated Indian workers have been vital to its growing technology workforce. That has led to more investment, including the Patel Brothers grocery store and shopping center that recently opened in the county.
At a national level, the U.S. Department of Commerce sees inbound travel as a massive services export that brings billions into the United States every year, said Brian Beall, deputy director of policy and planning at the department’s National Travel and Tourism Office. By one measure, travel and tourism account for one-third of all U.S. services exports and 9 percent of overall exports.
India is now on par with Japan in terms of visitor spending in the U.S., with some 1.4 million Indian visitors pumping $15 billion into the U.S. economy in 2018 on sightseeing, dining out, shopping, national parks, art galleries and more, Mr. Beall said.
Recent high-level discussions and a series of roundtables with tour operators on the state of air travel between the countries has only underscored the need to deepen the connections, he added.
“These visits have reinforced my belief that we have barely scratched the surface of India’s opportunity to expand spending,” Mr. Beall said during the event at the Sandy Springs City Hall.
Indian visitor numbers are expected to swell by more than a third to 1.9 million visitors by 2024. About a quarter of them will come to what the department calls the South Atlantic region, which includes Georgia as well as Florida.
The event featured a variety of posters showcasing Indian destinations, while local women volunteered to wear traditional attire to showcase the diverse colors and cultures of their Indian states. One lucky winner took home two roundtrip tickets to Mumbai from Delta, which helped sponsor the event.
Consul General Swati Kulkarni gave a keynote speech that focused on India’s charms, pointing out luxury options for the well-heeled traveler.
“You have a palace on wheels; you can be a maharaja,” she said, showing train tours that wend their way across India’s vast rail network to regal destinations.
But for the medical doctor-turned-diplomat, it was equally vital also to point out again India’s promise as a medical tourism hub — with international trained doctors performing complex procedures at a fraction of what they would cost in the West.
For those seeking an expert hand to guide them to India, Atlanta-based Tours Ltd., which backed the Sandy Springs event, is planning soon to launch fixed tours to the country. CEO Prabha “Pabs” Raghava said the packages will take advantage of growing American interest in the country. Last year, India saw 1.25 American visitors, up 13 percent from 2017.