Sunday, May 9, 2004

Holiday fever

Driven by the falling dollar rates, a willingness to empty wallets on satisfying wanderlust and a desire to move beyond run-of-the-mill destinations, the Great Indian Tourist is set to go places and how. The Tribune team of Gaurav Choudhury, Chetna Keer Banerjee and Aruti Nayar takes a look at the trends and trails for this holiday season.

AS the poll season draws to a close and the summer travel season gets off to a start, the simmering heat over India Shining is bound to cool off. It’ll be time instead to chill out with a hotter campaign—-Incredible India.

If the explosion in domestic tourism is anything to go by, the Union Government’s ‘Incredible India’ campaign—aimed at positioning the country as a preferred global destination—appears to be having an inward impact. It has fuelled the growth of domestic tourism and has spurred our own populace into a rediscovery of India.With the 2004 summer season seeing a host of schemes being unveiled to woo domestic travellers, Indian tourism is truly set to cross new frontiers. From the whistle-stop, low-budget bag-packers to the more upwardly mobile corporate travellers, it is the Great Indian Middle Class that is expected to be the engine that will help propel the travel and tourism industry into a high-growth trajectory.

For this, the middle-class tourist segment is being tapped like never before. For instance, the recent tie-up between a private bank and Indian Airlines enables economy-class fliers to pay for their ticket in 10 interest-free instalments. Launched in the four metros plus Bangalore and Hyderabad, this scheme for the bank’s credit card holders is expected to give a major thrust to domestic tourism by augmenting the spending power of middle-class pockets. The first instalment of this travel-on-credit facility will be the down payment.

The Penang Bridge: South-East Asia remains a preferred tourist destination due to temperate climate the year round
The Penang Bridge: South-East Asia remains a preferred tourist destination due to temperate climate the year round

Hill stations remain a hot favourite with domestic tourists
Hill stations remain a hot favourite with domestic tourists

No lining up in never-ending queues or getting shoved around to make holiday bookings is incentive enough to set out to explore the world. Online booking schemes of airlines, launched recently, are also aimed at facilitating domestic travel. Under the e-ticketing facility, travellers can pay through credit cards and even take printouts of their ticket sitting at home or office.

From 273 million travellers in 2002 to 300 million in 2003, the domestic tourism market in India showed remarkable growth. The industry turnover too rose from Rs 319 billion in 2002 to nearly Rs 400 billion the following year. According to Ravi Bhoothalingam, member, CII’s tourism committee, "The benefits of a higher economic growth are percolating down to all sections of society." Add to this disposable incomes and higher consumer spending.

Industry observers and those following tourism trends suggest that the summer of 2004 may well mark the take-off stage for the industry. For both inland and overseas locales, new destinations are likely to emerge even as conventional favourites continue to attract a sizeable number of people. "Last year (2003), more than 300 million people from within the country took a vacation, travelling both in India and outside. This time, we expect 20 per cent more people to move out during the summers," says Ram Kohli, Chairman of PATA Worldwide. Similar views were echoed by Tourism Secretary, Rathi Vinay Jha, "We’re expecting more and more people to travel this summer. This is good sign not for the tourism industry alone, but for the economy as a whole," she felt.

The flow of overseas visitors to India is extremely elastic and events around the globe, especially in the subcontinent, have an immediate impact on foreign traffic. However, domestic tourism has displayed greater buoyancy and resilience. In the last 10 years, travel by domestic tourists has grown by more than 250 million. From a figure of 63 million in 1990, it stood at over 300 million in 2003.

"This phenomenal explosion of domestic tourism is an inevitable byproduct of the prosperity that India has achieved. People today have more disposable income with them which has direct positive correlation with the tourism industry," Kohli says.

This year, the disposable income argument is likely to get further reinforced with the Central Government deciding to allow LTA/ LTC facilities to its employees. "About 40 lakh employees of the Central Government alone will be entitled to the benefits of LTA/LTC. Assuming that even half (20 lakh) of employees travel with an average family size of three, it would mean that an additional 60 lakh people would be travelling around the country and the world," says Jha. Ironically though, the government employees have been unable to cash in on the cut in air fares as the rules prevent them from using their LTA/LTC to fly to foreign destinations. However, a large number of bank employees can now avail of LTA/LTC facilities to even touch foreign shores, provided Thiruvanthapuram is a transit point in their itinerary, says a travel agent.

For inland travel, Kerala, Goa and the hill stations remain the top summer destinations. "Offbeat destinations like the Jim Corbett Park and the Ananda spa resort (UP) are increasingly gaining popularity," says Mohinder Bajaj, Director, Bajaj Travels.

Domestic tourism in India is also fuelled by a number of socio-cultural and religious factors. "India is home to many of the leading religions of the world and important pilgrimage sites are located across the length and breadth of the country," Kohli says.

This may be the reason why pilgrimage and heritage destinations remain eternal favourites for the Indian traveller. "The golden quadrilateral—Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan—is the hotspot as always," Head (Business Development) of global travel consultants and advisers Cox and Kings, Gopi P. Iyengar feels. Kohli voices a similar view. "We are going to see a lot of Hardwar, Rishikesh, Tirupati, Varanasi and also Rajasthan," he says. And ‘God’s own country’ Kerala, as always, is among the major hotspots. "Kerala and all the hill stations of the country continue to remain on the top of the list of every traveller. So is Goa," Iyengar adds.

A striking feature of tourism in Kerala is the average length of tourists’ stay in the state – indulging in the langorous elegance of bountiful nature with medicinal and ayurvedic treatments— remaining a major attraction in the backwaters. Estimates suggest that the average length of stay of domestic tourists in Kerala is more than 10 days, which is extraordinary as compared to other destinations. The long stay signifies that the average visitor to these parts is serious-minded and exploratory.

The picturesque North-East, however, has yet not caught the fancy of the of the domestic traveller. "It is a pity that the area remains unexploited. But places such as Sikkim are beginning to attract large traffic. In other areas connectivity and security concerns remain a problem," Kohli points out.

God’s own country, Kerala, tops the popularity charts
God’s own country, Kerala, tops the popularity charts

The government, on its part, has identified the North-East as a major pocket for growth. "We are aggressively promoting the North-East as there are some very beautiful areas". Home to the world’s largest river island, the Majuli island, the mighty Brahmaputra, the Kamakhya temple and the Kaziranga National Park, Assam is being marketed as an adventure-lovers’ destination. Cruises along the Brahmaputra and river-rafting as well as water sports at Dibrugarh target those with zeal to visit offbeat locales. The Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh too is among the several locales that have yet not caught the imagination of the Indian traveller in a way it should have, primarily due to security reasons.

For the outbound tourists, the Asia-Pacific region continues to be a hotspot. Though the SARS scare dampened the holiday spirit last season, South-East Asia is high on the itinerary of the Indian traveller this season. "The sheer economics of it makes this circuit very attractive," says Sandeep Malhotra of Chandigarh-based AM Travels. For instance, a 6N/7D-package to Singapore-Malaysia works out around Rs 30,000 per head, whereas a 5N/6D air trip to Kerala at apex fares costs nearly Rs 27,000 per person, he points out. Another factor that makes the South-East a favoured destination is the temperate climate the year round.

Besides the exotic sightseeing locales these South-East Asian countries offer, shopping is a major attraction. Says Aradhana Mehta, who is heading to Singapore-Malaysia with her businessman husband and two kids, "We’ve been making shopping lists for weeks now. We’ll get to see a whole new world, that too by spending the same or even lesser than what we would on an air trip to South India."

Kohli says that about 70 per cent of the Indian travellers prefer to move around in the Asia-Pacific region. "Countries such as Nepal, Singapore and Thailand are among the sought-after retreats. But this time round, we are expecting more traffic to Macau and also Canada has seen a marked revival with visa restrictions in the USA helping its cause. In fact, awareness about Macau have increased phenomenally ever since its tourism board set up an office here," he says.

The cruises in the Asia-Pacific region are an added attraction. "South-East Asia and Mauritius continue to be the favourite foreign destinations of the upper middle-class Indian. The number of cruise travellers from India has grown by 10-15 per cent over last year. Most high-end travellers prefer European destinations though," says Bajaj.

A similar trend is pointed out by Gautam Chadha, Chief Executive, Tirun Travel Marketing, India Representative of the Royal Caribbean Cruises, "Like last year, this season too Europe and Alaska remain the choice of the outbound travellers followed by the Caribbean."

This is also corroborated by Dinesh Anand of International Tour Operators, who has 150 persons booked for SOTC packages to Europe in the April-June period. "A lot of these people are headed to Switzerland, the UK and Italy," he says.

Iyengar, whose organisation globally services the premium corporate and individual traveller, says that within Europe and Africa, new destinations are emerging. "Scotland and, Spain in Europe, plus Egypt and South Africa are among the major overseas destinations for the Indian traveller", says he. "We are expecting a 100 per cent increase in our clientele this season. The Far East and South Asia are among the eternal favourites. Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand continue to attract a lot of traffic. In Europe, Paris and Switzerland are the major attractions", he adds. Thanks to Bollywood, Europe has captured the imagination of many Indians. The branch coordinator of Thomas Cook’s leisure travel division Vayu says, "From April to September is the season for overseas travel, while the domestic season picks up October onwards. A hot favourite is the 13-day-long tour of Europe that covers Switzerland, Germany, The Netherlands, France and ends in the UK. Australia and New Zealand are also becoming popular."

If the middle class is the catalyst for the unprecedented growth of tourism, it is also caught in the groove of the familiar and the much-hyped destinations. Love for nature and passion for adventure or regard for the environment take a backseat. Mohinder Singh, a former merchant navy officer, wants to peg his Aqua Tours for those with a penchant for the offbeat. So it will be Seychelles, instead of Mauritius or Maldives and a Zambian Safari, where the tourists will be served food by the tribals and will dance to the tune of rhythmic African music.

An Antarctica cruise or a Hawaiian holiday still remains for the upper crust. It is the foreigners who look at the waves and soak in the greenery. The average Indian loves his mauj-masti and, of course, "free ki daaru that the hotel gives to a package tourist."

Like adventure tourism, both Iyengar and Kohli agree, the spa and other specialised tourism is still at a very nascent stage. " It is still on the threshold," Iyengar feels.

Disagreeing with them, Kapil Malhotra, Director Ekido Travels, is of the view that the spa tourism is a sunshine sector as is the focus on Chandigarh and Punjab as a tourist attraction. After spending on clothes, jewellery, property, the Punjabis are discovering the joy of spending on themselves. He elaborates that demonstration effect is still the major factor in determining the choice of destination. Kerala remains a favourite, followed by Goa and Himachal. Overseas travel has witnessed an exponential growth, he says.

Be it inside or outside India, more and more Indians are now on the move and certainly going places. It’s another matter that "most Indians travel not with the desire to explore," as one astute social observer put it, "but mainly to be able to boast to others that they have been there." The mind-set would, of course, change ever so slowly, but the purse strings are loosening, faster than ever. And that’s welcome enough. Liberalisation has finally made security-conscious Indians step out of their burrows in search of a far-off El Dorado or a pilgrimage closer home. Whatever it is, search for improved quality of life is making its definite impact felt.