NEW DELHI - Foreign tourists have always been drawn to India's rich historical tapestry, its diverse landscapes and cultures and ravishing array of cuisines.
An Indian travel agency is now pitching the country's upcoming parliamentary elections in the same league, offering foreign travellers an opportunity to soak in the excitement of the world's largest democratic exercise.
The curated package will offer them the chance to attend rallies, engage with voters in rural as well as urban areas and even meet party candidates from across the political spectrum.
"The process of electing people's representatives in the world's largest democracy is almost like a festival. It is an experience like nowhere else," says Mr Manish Sharma, the chairman of Akshar Travels, the agency that has launched the tour.
With about 900 million voters, India will elect its next federal government from April 11 to May 19. This drawn out electoral process transforms the country every five years, with campaign material festooned across the country, corner tea shops that come alive with political differences and enrapturing political rallies that attract crowds of hundreds of thousands.
This tourism initiative was first started during the December 2012 state elections in Gujarat, drawing in those who visited the state during the peak winter tourist season. It was repeated in the 2014 parliamentary polls, which pulled in around 5,200 tourists. Most of these visitors included researchers, media professionals, students and political analysts.
This year, the number, according to Mr Sharma, is expected to cross 10,000, with most "positive inquiries" so far coming from the United States, France, Germany, Austria and Japan. The tour has also been showcased at major tourism expos in foreign capitals for the last six months.
"A lot of the queries have come from people of Indian origin, many of whom are interested to visit Varanasi, the constituency Prime Minister Narendra Modi is contesting from," he adds.
Mr Modi has in the past also supported this idea of converting India's elections into a tourism draw. Other popular locations include Lucknow, Delhi and Mumbai.
The package, which spans around a week and costs around US$450 (S$610), excluding flights, covers different regions a tourist may want to visit. It combines regular sightseeing with popular electoral campaign schedules in and around these zones.
Access to political leaders and their events is not really a problem, assures Mr Sharma. "Political candidates, in fact, like the presence of a group of foreigners at their rally, as it increases the attraction of the rally," he says.
Mr Hemesh Patel, a British citizen of Indian origin, joined the 2014 tour. Impressed by the "massive scale" of the election, he particularly remembers the way politics dominated conversations wherever he went and the manner in which party members canvassed support. "There were some booths too that were set up where people gathered every day until election to meet and greet each other and even share free food," he tells The Straits Times.
"It is, however, best if the tourist has an understanding of the local language or has access to a good translator so that he or she is able to understand people's views better," he notes.
Besides obvious challenges that arise from a lack of good quality tourism infrastructure across the country, the election tourism plan's appeal is also confined by the fact that parliamentary elections are usually held in summer, when temperatures can soar close to almost 45 deg C in many parts of the country. Security for foreign tourists among a crowd of thousands also poses a challenge for Akshar and its partner agencies.
Mr Sharma still thinks India's parliamentary elections, which take place every five years, have immense untapped tourism potential. "If the ministries of external affairs and tourism pitch in with their support and help develop this in an organised manner, we can generate revenue at least worth 20 billion rupees (S$390 million) from election tourism," he tells ST.
"We have many different kinds of tourism across the world, whether it is sports, leisure, heritage or others. Election tourism is one that is not available anywhere else. Why don't we develop it into a business model."