ITALIAN Elsa Boccalene is drawn to India's monuments, palaces and wildlife reserves, but there is something she misses dearly - a clean toilet.
By Nirmala Ganapathy, India Correspondent
'India is incredible - chaotic, beautiful and spiritual,' said the 30-year-old software engineer as she bought postcards in a Delhi shop to send to friends and family back home. 'But it is also dirty. Toilets are a problem.'
Her sister Maria, 35, an architect, agreed. She said: 'India is an incredible country but you need to prepare yourself (for the lack of cleanliness).'
BEAUTIFUL BUT DIRTY
'India is incredible - chaotic, beautiful and spiritual. But it is also dirty. Toilets are a problem.'
Italian Elsa Boccalene
Such complaints from foreign tourists like Elsa and Maria have moved India's Tourism Ministry - which is behind the successful 'Incredible India' publicity campaign - to launch a new campaign, Clean India.
Tourism has been growing in the country. The number of foreign visitors rose 24 per cent and domestic tourism grew 11 per cent in 2010 over the previous year.
In 2010, 5.6 million foreigners visited, a modest figure compared with 56 million in China. In 2009, 5.2 million tourists came to the land of the Taj Mahal.
But the ministry wants to boost these numbers to at least six to 10 million every year - and believes that improved hygiene can help.
'A lack of... environmental cleanliness has a pull-down impact on India's image. The worst-hit is tourism,' said Tourism Minister Subodh Kant Sahay at a recent workshop.
His ministry hopes to turn things around in the next five years at tourist sites, railway platforms, beaches and other areas frequented by tourists, with the help of the state governments, Railway Ministry and private sector.
Plans to be rolled out over that period include an awareness campaign headed by celebrities like southern star Chiranjeevi, advertisements and tie-ups with private partners to clean and maintain attractions. The tourism ministry aims to get large corporate houses to look after heritage sites, building up basic amenities such as public toilets.
By April 1, the ministry, which is still working out the finances for the campaign, will start to mop up the dirty spots in and around top tourist spots.
'This is the first time the ministry has taken such an initiative,' said Indian Association of Tour Operators president Subhash Goyal, who is involved in the campaign.
'There are a lot of ideas but the unique thing is that it is a public-private partnership.'
Mr Robinder Sachdev, founder of the Imagindia Institute, a non-governmental organisation, has been organising cleaning drives, in which people simply take brooms and clean up chosen spots.
'This is something the country totally needs,' he said.
But not everyone is convinced that the tourism ministry can pull off such an ambitious campaign, which basically banks on changing mindsets. For instance, fines for littering in India are as little as 100 rupees (S$2.50) but are rarely enforced.
'It's a great country with a lot of potential but you get off the plane in Mumbai and you see Dharavi, the biggest slum in the country. You go to Agra and you see filth on the road when approaching the Taj Mahal. In many places, there are no washrooms. These are constraints that have to be addressed if you want five to 10 million tourists coming into the country,' said Mr Rajinder Rai, an advisory board member of the Travel Agents Association of India.
He added: 'I essentially think that cleanliness is the single most important issue for India, not just for tourism but economically as well. The idea is good but I don't see how it can actually get enacted or how they will enforce it.'
Roads with potholes, garbage piled up on roadsides and litter on railway tracks are not uncommon sights in India, a country where infrastructure is bursting at the seams to accommodate 1.2 billion people.
Varanasi, called the city of temples, is among the top five tourist destinations in India on any list. But the breathtaking and holy city is equally known for its poor hygiene and sanitation.
Garbage piles up at street corners, roads leading in and out of temples and shops are full of muck, and plastic wrappers and bottles float along the sides of the ghats (platforms for bathing) next to the Ganges River, which flows through the city also known as Benares.
Ms Sunali, a Canadian citizen of Indian descent who is in education training, was warned many times by friends about the lack of cleanliness in Varanasi. So she was prepared for the worst.
'It was bad even outside the main temple,' the 40-year-old said. 'There could be better management. I don't expect this in a city like this.'
But she admitted that she still found the city breathtaking.
A 2009 survey in five tourist areas, including the hill cities of Kullu and Manali, world heritage site Kaziranga park and Pattadakal, the site of ancient temples and monuments, found that tourists, particularly foreign ones, rated cleanliness as a top priority.
Some 634 foreign tourists and 1,953 Indian tourists were surveyed. They ranked hygiene, sanitation and solid waste management around the monuments as ranking low in satisfaction in all five sites. Disappointment over a lack of signs and the quality of wayside amenities followed. Indian tourists also ranked traffic and crowd management among top concerns.
Mr Bobby Rekhi, 62, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur of Indian descent, comes to India every year but is still disturbed that things are not as clean as in the United States. During the last four to five times that he visited, he actually picked up a broom and joined a cleanup operation by Imagindia.
'People keep their houses clean but don't care much about the outside areas,' he said. 'Cleanliness is one thing which bothers you when you land in Delhi. It takes very little maintenance. I wanted to create more awareness.'
Even then, India remains a country of contrasts. In Delhi, the metro rises above buildings before plunging into the depths of the city. Every day, millions travel to their destinations, but the metro has also come to be known for its cleanliness. At the Connaught Place station, the heart of operations, floors are litter-free, platforms are sparkling clean and walls are pristine and white.
But 20 minutes from the metro station, the New Delhi railway station is a shocking contrast. Plastic and paper litter the platforms and railway tracks.
'If you go to the metro stations, it is very clean, but then you go to the railway station and it is very dirty. We have to make railways on a par with the metro,' said Mr Tsering Wange, 42, the president of Arunachal Mountaineering and Adventure Sports Association. His wife Anshu Jamsenpa, 32, the only woman to scale Mount Everest twice in 10 days, is set to be one of the faces of the cleanup campaign.
'I think it is long overdue for the tourism ministry to take this initiative,' he added.