India's holiest city tried 'pro-poor' tourism – but for young people, it's still a struggle for survival
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Anmol, 17, slips 500 rupees into his pocket as he swaggers down the stairs on bowed legs, after escorting American tourists to the pizzeria in Assi. Anmol reads faces to survive. If a tourist has a good face, he approaches, tests the waters in his broken English, and buys them a chai. “Trust is most important because tourists don’t trust you fast,” explains Anmol.In Assi, a neighbourhood of bustling cafes and temples in Varanasi – India’s most holy city – most people depend on tourism to make a living: building up that trust allows them to eat. According to the Uttar Pradesh Department of Tourism in 2017, over 300,000 foreign and 5m domestic travellers visited Varanasi. During the peak tourist season between October and March, Anmol earns between 2,000 to 7,000 rupees as a guide (that’s £22 to £77). In the low season, he earns little or nothing. “I also know how to do ceremony,” says Anmol, pulling out his smartphone to show shots of himself waving a lamp in front of a goddess. For a few hours, he helps his father, a priest, at a shrine, earning 50 rupees a day. Now, he has hatched another plan with advice from his Peruvian friend on Facebook – to learn how to play traditional tabla drums, so that he can make a little money teaching tourists keen on Indian culture. If all else fails, he will get a driver’s license.
Who benefits?Like many others his age, Anmol is struggling to claw his way out of poverty. The average monthly income he cobbles together is just above the World Bank’s poverty line of US$1.90 a day. Anmol is trying to acquire valued skills, and he is not among the “abject poor”, nor accounted for in government statistics about poverty. Yet he remains vulnerable, at constant risk of slipping backwards. When Anmol moved to Varanasi nine years ago from Bihar, his family circumstances were so strained that he had to choose between education and food. The locals have a cautionary saying about Biharis like him: “Ek bihari sau pe bari” – one Bihari is shrewder than hundred local people. Largely disdained by locals for corrupting their culture, most Bihari migrants in Assi work in the informal economy. When I ask Anmol who benefits from economic development, he replies, “Everybody benefits, but especially the hotel-wallah, restaurant-wallah, boat-wallah”. Those who own prime real estate, or are directly tied to the tourist industry – such as the boatmen who ferry visitors to watch the sunrise – have gained the most. But there has been no systematic effort to document who benefits from tourism, and in what ways.
Pro-poor tourismAcross India, tourism accounts for nearly 10% of the GDP, and is the third largest foreign exchange earner. One advantage of the tourism industry is that it can absorb even unskilled workers. The UN World Tourism Organisation has long held that tourism can be a key agent in the fight against poverty. But some experts are more sceptical, arguing that tourism’s value is overstated: it creates menial, seasonal jobs and mainly benefits the skilled elite.
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