Touted as the big-ticket offering for those seeking adventure on high altitudes, the government opened for foreigners 137 Himalayan peaks, including the mighty Kanchenjunga located at a height of 8,589 m, for mountaineering expeditions and trekking.
The list of peaks includes Dunagiri (7,066 m) and Hardeol (7,151 m) in Uttarakhand; Kabru South and North in Sikkim, both of which are at a height of over 7,000 m; Mount Kailash (6400 m) in Jammu and Kashmir; and Mulkila (6,571 m) in Himachal Pradesh.
At present, foreigners have to seek permission from the ministries of defence and home to climb these peaks. With the government opening them up, foreigners can now directly apply to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation for permits.
Tourism Minister Prahlad Patel, who had pushed for the move, labelled it as a historic step that will give a big boost to tourism.
"The aim is to ensure that more and more tourists visit the country. In order to do that we need to give them a range of experiences and also cater to all kinds of tourists. This is the reason why we are now illuminating ASI monuments and keeping them open at night, displaying signages in foreign languages, ensuring infrastructure around monuments, building amenities. The goal is to draw as many tourists as possible," Patel told PTI.
The government has introduced a new five-year e-tourist visa with USD 80 fee and a one-year e-tourist visa with USD 40 fee and is also offering the option of a short-term as well as long-term tourist e-visa.
Agreeing to a proposal of the Tourism Ministry a short duration e-visa for tourists with one-month validity at a charge of USD 25 has been introduced.
However, this will be applicable during the peak tourism season between July and March. To attract more tourists during the lean period, the visa fee is proposed to be reduced to as low as USD 10 between April and June.
Growth in foreign tourist arrivals was muted in the first two quarters of 2019. Their numbers from January to July were 60,84,353, compared to 59,57,816 a year earlier, a marginal growth of 2.1 per cent, according to data released by the tourism ministry.
Bangladesh led the list of top 15 countries of origin for India-bound tourists between January and July, with a 23.67 per cent share, followed by the US (16.02 per cent), the UK (10.12 per cent), Malaysia (3.15 per cent), China (2.78 per cent) and Sri Lanka (2.75 per cent).
India is revamping its tourism strategy in China, including the opening of a full-fledged regional tourist office headed by a top bureaucrat, as it pitches for attracting a good chunk of the country's tourists.
While 50 lakh Chinese tourists travel globally, India's share currently is only 3.5 lakh, officials said.
The ministry put up signages in Mandarin all across the Buddhist Circuit which includes sites related to Gautam Buddha.
Five sites in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi's Qutub Minar have already got such signages. As part of the plan, the ministry installed signboards in Sinhala, the language spoken by a majority of Sri Lankans, at Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh.
The signboards in Sinhala have been put up after a survey indicated that over 30 lakh Sri Lankans visit the site. They are followed by about 3 lakh tourists from South Korea.
While Chinese is the top priority, the ministry is also planning to put up signboards in Sinhala, Japanese and Korean at places like Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh and Bodh Gaya in Bihar, which are frequented by a large number of tourists from Sri Lanka, Japan and South Korea.
In another boost to the sector, the government reduced the GST rate for room tariffs of Rs 7,500 and above to 18 per cent from 28 per cent, while for those between Rs 1,000 and Rs 7,500, 12 per cent will be charged. Hotels with tariffs of less than Rs 1,000 do not attract tax as per an earlier decision. Earlier, the slab of Rs 2,500-7,500 attracted 18 per cent tax.
Patel also announced that single-use plastics will not be allowed on the premises of historical monuments or within 100 metres of them, in line with the call made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging people to shun them.
To round off a year that opened up new vistas for tourists, the ministry is now developing lesser-known destinations so that visitors have more alternatives to consider when they think of travelling to India.