As a nation we never had it better as far as our tourism industry is concerned. Foreign tourist arrivals are at an all time high, clocking a figure of 6.97 million in 2013, the latest year for which statistics are available. That corresponds to foreign exchange earnings of $18.4 billion. It is estimated that the Indian travel and tourism sector will be the second largest employer globally, involving either directly or indirectly 4.04 million people by 2019. The entire industry is currently valued at $23 billion and is growing at 4 per cent annually. How does Chennai fare in all this and is it capable of going along with the flow?

The city has been in the news for the correct reasons in 2014. It was the only Indian metro to feature in The New York Times global list of most desirable destinations to visit in 2014. Closer home, a survey has listed it as the best city to live in on the basis of various counts. And the tourism figures for 2014 are impressive – over 3.9 million foreigners came into Tamil Nadu, the majority making their entry via Chennai. The State still remains the top attraction for overseas tourists. Encouraged by this, the State Tourism Department has claimed that it will soon be unveiling a package to get more tourists to the city and the State.

At the ground level, however, those in the know feel that Chennai still remains a mere gateway, with tourists who land here immediately moving on to other destinations in South India. Poor packaging of what is on offer appears to be the chief issue. For instance, there are no tourist advisory centres strategically located, and the one or two there are, are manned by poorly trained personnel. Those who come plan their tour based on hearsay and secondary sources, gaining experience as they go along, not all of which is good. Secondly, the tours the Tourism Corporation offers are led by guides who provide little information and less by way of answers. There was a half-hearted attempt a few years ago to set up a hop on, hop off tour of Chennai but that it was planned to fail was quite evident to everyone except the Department of Tourism.

Chennai, like Ahmadabad and Delhi, has a number of precincts that have the potential to become heritage destinations – the Chepauk Palace, the Mylapore tank area, Triplicane, Tiruvottriyur and Fort St George are some of them. All that requires to be done are steps to regulate traffic, provide uniform signage and explanatory plaques, regular cleaning and sanitation and the provision of public toilets. None of these steps requires huge investment for them to be put into place but, if in place, they can generate considerable returns. Yet, no steps are being taken to harness the potential in any of these locations.

Chennai also uniquely has several cultural seasons – the Music Season in December, the Pongal festivities of various kinds in January (dance, literature, the Mylapore festival and folk arts), the temple festivals in March/April, May/June, August/September and December and the Madras Week celebrations in August. Each one can become a tourist draw if advertised and packaged well. Here too, attendance by foreigners at present is more by chance than by design.

What is really needed is a tourism master plan that ought to be drawn up for a five-year period. Steps need to be outlined in terms of actions proposed within the overall plan and implemented, keeping tourist potential in mind. It is imperative that the local stakeholders, in terms of shops and establishments, residents and service providers are roped in so that they can see the benefits as well. If all this is done, we see no reason why tourists will not throng Chennai and, more importantly, stay here, without merely flitting in and out of the first city of Modern India.