Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and other members of a city delegation to India visit to Swaminarayan Akshardham mandir in New Delhi. Turner is pictured with Gnanumunidas Swamiji in a traditional greeting.

HOUSTON, TEXAS, HOME to about 300,000 Indian Americans, may soon strengthen its connection to India by establishing direct commercial flights that could ultimately lead to more business for both the Bayou City and the economically emerging country.

During a trade mission from Nov. 9 through 18 that was partially funded by Houston’s hotel tax, Mayor Sylvester Turner met with government and business leaders in New Delhi and Mumbai to discuss investment opportunities for India’s nationals as well as how to strengthen local businesses, including those owned and operated by Asian Americans.

Joining Turner was a 13-member delegation that included representatives from the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Houston, the Johnson Space Center and local government and business owners.

Included in the entourage was Hasu Patel of Unity Hotels Group. A longtime community activist, Patel is president of the Small Independent Motel Owners Association and the Indo-American Political Action Committee, part of the IACC.

Hasu Patel, third from left, president of the Small Independent Motel Owners Association in Houston and a member of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Houston, was part of the 13-member delegation on a trade mission to India Nov. 9-13. On Patel’s left is Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. The group visited the Swaminarayan Akshardham temple in New Delhi.

Besides commercial flights, the Houston delegation discussed trade opportunities in technology, tourism, construction and energy. India buys $1 billion worth of liquid natural gas from foreign sources every year and the Houston is in a position to provide more LNG to India, Turner said.

“I have no doubt that our business and diplomatic meetings in India will lead to more jobs, wealth and cultural enrichment in Houston as well as in the emerging sectors of what will soon be the world’s most populous nation,” Turner said.

Patel, too, is optimistic about the economic-development prospects. “The Port of Houston as well as the growing GDP of the Greater Houston area make it a very attractive place for business for investors from all over,” he said. “Combine that with the fact that Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. and offers unique cultural benefits, it makes promoting Houston very feasible.”

Establishing direct flights between Houston and India was a key topic for the mission, which was partially funded by the city’s hotel occupancy tax. Thousands of Indian tourists come to the city to see sites such as Space Center Houston or to visit relatives, spending an average of about $8,000 per person.

“Direct flights would encourage more business activity and tourism to and from India and Houston,” Turner said. “It would be a win-win-win for airlines and people at both ends of the routes.”

The Houston area is home to about 82,000 people born in India and another 200,000 people of Indian heritage, according to the mayor’s office. Houston is the fourth busiest gateway for trade between the U.S. and India, and India is Houston’s 10th largest trading partner among nations. It provides $4.3 billion in trade a year, growing by 36 percent from 2017 to this year.

Indian companies such as Oil India Ltd., Gail Global USA, ONGC Videsh Ltd. and Reliance operate their U.S. headquarters in Houston, employing thousands. Turner visited Reliance executives at their headquarters in Mumbai during the mission.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner visits with business people in India to discuss trade and investment opportunities. (Photo: Houston Mayor’s office)

“As in many nations around the globe, conducting business in India takes more than offering the best products and services at the lowest prices. It also involves building trust through long-term business relationships,” Turner said. “That’s why meeting with business and government contacts face to face is one of the many valuable aspects of such a trade mission.”

Turner also met with India’s Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri, who oversees the nation’s program for building housing for low-income residents. The two discussed private engineering and construction firms in Houston pursuing contracts for the housing program.

“I would be very happy to help you pursue this business,” Singh Puri reportedly told the mayor.

The mission did much to improve the city’s relationship with India, said Greater Houston Partnership CEO Susan Davenport. “From the moment we were on the ground, the connections between the Houston business community and our Indian counterparts were strong, and I am confident new business opportunities and partnerships will result from the visit.”

Along with tête-à-têtes with Indian business representatives, Turner and the group also visited culturally significant locations, including the Swaminarayan Akshardham temple in New Delhi. In Mumbai, the delegation met with India Vice President Shri M. Venkaiah Naidu and Mumbai Mayor Vishwanath Mahadeshwar.

The delegation received a traditional greeting at the temple a senior sadhus of BAPS on behalf of Param Pujya Mahant Swami Maharaj.

Turner performed abhishek on the sacred image of Shri Neelkanth Varni at the Swaminarayan Akshardham Mandir. Following the spiritual cleansing ritual, the delegation took in the Sanskruti Vihar boat ride exhibition that depicts India’s heritage and contributions to society and watched the Sahaj Anand Water Show.

Turner and the delegation toured recently restored buildings and grounds at Hamayun’s Tomb, a 16th century attraction that inspired the design of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. They also visited the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial. Indo-Americans in Houston have purchased land in far southwest Houston to build a corresponding Gandhi museum.