All this week, I have been soaking up the Christmas spirit at Oxford going to concerts at cathedrals, buying Matt Haig’s bestselling Christmas trilogy at the cavernous Blackwell’s bookshop, and reading newspapers over baklava at Opera—the hidden secret café in this town of countless cafes. And it is at this last venue, where I read about how an almost drab, road-to-nowhere town in Finnish Lapland called Rovaniemi, which was almost destroyed during World War II, reinvented itself as ‘the home of Santa Claus’. On its website (santaclausvillage.info), it offers a Santa Claus office, a Santa Claus post office and a ‘SantaPark’. The town draws nearly 600,000 visitors a year— all on the strength of clever marketing.
Can you even imagine the potential of hundreds of sites in India which with cleaning up, safety, and marketing could be raking in millions of tourist dollars? Take Hampi, the old home of the Vijayanagara Empire, one of the most breath-taking sites in the world, which is still managed in the most ridiculously shameful manner. If the ludicrously tiny Monalisa could fetch the Louvre countless millions, imagine the potential of that astounding stone-cut gigantic statue in the middle of a forest, the awe-inspiring Ugra Narasimha. If you want to estimate this in numbers think of this: A proposed three-month national tour of the Monalisa was cancelled earlier this year when it was estimated that keeping it away from the Louvre in Paris would mean a loss of around $35 million to the museum.
Imagine the economic potential of perhaps India’s biggest cultural treasure—the river Ganga. For thousands of years, the Ganga was not only a source of sustenance but also stories. Like all great rivers, the Ganga is both a trajectory and a destination. Since independence, the criminal neglect of this river had turned into a national shame. How can you tell stories about a river which is so poisoned by pollution that barely any marine life survives in it for large stretches?
The two main sources of pollution in the Ganga are effluents from industries, especially the tanneries on the banks of the river in Uttar Pradesh; and the sewage from the notorious Sisamau drain in Kanpur that had been pouring around 140 million litres of sewage—yes, you read the number right—every day.
However, efforts to clean the Ganga might finally be showing some results. Tests conducted by researchers from the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board, and the Chhatrapati Shahu Ji Maharaj University in Kanpur, show that there is improvement on two crucial counts—pH levels and dissolved oxygen.
If a grand revival of the Ganga happens, it could be one of the greatest tourism and branding opportunities for India in decades. In a world of apocalyptic environmental worry, the cleansing transition of one of the greatest rivers in the world in one of the fastest growing, and most highly polluted, countries would attract unprecedented global attention. It would kick-start an entire Ganga tourism industry along its more than 2,500 km-long banks.
And this would come at just the right time. As successful and heart-warming as the Incredible India campaign was, there is little doubt that it has petered out over the years. India needs innovative ideas to boost its tourism sector which could provide millions of new jobs. Many of these jobs do not need a huge leap in skills and are just the kind that India desperately needs.
Interest in India’s cultural treasures has never been higher. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey promotes vipassana, whose biggest contemporary teacher was a man called Satya Narayan Goenka. Where is the Global Vipassana Pagoda? On the outskirts of Mumbai. What is on the reading list of one of the most talked about members of the US Congress, Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez? The Bhagvad Gita. Any day now, yoga will become a verb.
In business and branding, we have spoken about the ‘India story’ for more than a decade. The reinvention of the Ganga, not merely as a river, but as a source of the eternal nature of the India story is perhaps one of the most fascinating, and endlessly lucrative, tales we could tell. But it could not be done with a dirty river. Now that it seems like it might turn the corner, India must embrace this momentum and create a global photo op where the waters of the Ganga are so clean once again that the Prime Minister along with all his cabinet members could go and drink a glass of it right from the ghats of Benaras. Now that would be incredible for Indian tourism.