And the winner is India!

Our burgeoning tourism potential is drawing many countries to woo Indian tourists in a big way and how! Hugh & Colleen Gantzer report on the South Asian Travel and Tourism Exchange-2011

POST-Republic Day 2011, when chilly winds skittered leaves down the avenues of Lutyens’ Delhi, scams tumbled like poisonous cakes out of the corridors of power.

But only the slightest whiff of their fumes filtered into the brightly lit halls of Pragati Maidan. Here, in January end, a very specialised mini-UN was in session. As the flags of 33 countries fluttered, 596 organisations vied to shrink the world, to bring people and places closer together at the South Asian Travel and Tourism Exchange (SATTE), the oldest travel mart in India. According to Rika Jean-Francois, product manager, South Asia and Pacific, of the world’s leading travel trade show, ITB Berlin, "India is a major emerging market. Three years ago, we found that SATTE was the only Pan-Indian international travel mart. We decided to associate with it." ITB Berlin does not have a similar association with any other organisation in the world.

Participants at SATTE-2011 felt that it is getting bigger and better each year and the business sessions are well conducted Photos by the writers
Participants at SATTE-2011 felt that it is getting bigger and better each year and the business sessions are well conducted Photos by the writers

China’s low-profile presence at the event may have been deliberate. Perhaps, it wanted to show that it does not wish to court the Indian market
China’s low-profile presence at the event may have been deliberate. Perhaps, it wanted to show that it does not wish to court the Indian market

The growing clout of Indian tourism has seen countries like Indonesia returning to SATTE again and again
The growing clout of Indian tourism has seen countries like Indonesia returning to SATTE again and again

We walked around all 6,244 sq.m of this mini-world, met people from many lands and asked them, "Why did you choose India? Why SATTE?" According to the urbane Cornell Buckradee of The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, "Berry has been aggressively promoting India and the Indian market. It’s the fastest growing market and now we’re happy we’ve come." Travel publisher Navin Berry is the far-sighted prime mover and chief coordinator of SATTE.

We strolled from the Caribbean to Iceland to meet another first-time visitor. Jakobina Gudmundsdottir, of Iceland Travel, felt that Indian tourists would be enchanted by the radiant curtains of the Northern Lights, the midnight sun, steaming hot springs, spouting geysers, and smoking volcanoes. She gave us a bit of lava from the Icelandic volcano that had grounded European flights, for a long time, last year. About 600 Indians visited Iceland in 2010, including Sachin Tendulkar and his family (they spent seven days in this verdant land). "We expect many more this year, now that we’ve come here."

We stepped into the new Mediterranean-and-mountain lands of Croatia and Slovenia. They were both born out of the former Republic of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. According to slim, blonde Renata Dezeljin, the number of Indian visitors is growing and Indians are good travellers. Croatia is steeped in the culture of Old Europe, offering customs and cuisines lost in the better-known countries of the continent. Also in the same, large, circular stall, was Lucija Jager of the Slovenian Tourist Board. This little country of two million people became aware of the Indian market when they came to SATTE last year. They’ve returned and are very satisfied with the high potential of India. Slovenia is a tiny country of amazing variety. It stretches between the Alps and the Adriatic arm of the Mediterranean and includes the fabulous Karst country with its huge network of limestone caverns and their fantastic stalactites and stalagmites.

Slovakia should not be confused with Slovania. Slovakia was a part of Czechoslovakia and became independent in 1993. According to them, India is the fastest growing market in the world because of its burgeoning economy. They called their stall The European Quartet, sharing it with Poland, Hungary and The Czech Republic. We learn that the EU gave them a grant to reach out to new tourist-generating countries and they chose India. The Quartet should prove a boon for those of us who want to get a quick sampler of European cultural history, visiting four inter-linked countries in one trip.

Indonesia is much closer to home and its country director, Sanjay Sondhi, told us that this was the third year they’d attended SATTE. He said, "Each year, it gets bigger and better and everyone’s happy with the way the business sessions are organised." The very fact that Indonesia keeps returning is an excellent commentary on this travel-savvy nation’s opinion of the growing clout of Indian tourism. Last year, there was an 11 per cent increase in the number of Indian visitors to Indonesia.

Turkey expressed virtually the same opinion as Indonesia and added that its Tourism Board listens closely to its industry. This year, it brought 20 exhibitors because it found this mart very effective for business-to-business contacts. According to Ozgur Ayturk, culture and tourism counseller, while European tourists opt for sun ‘n’ sea, the Indian tourist prefers heritage and nature, getting a more comprehensive exposure to the country’s varied attractions. After our extensive road tour of Turkey, years ago, we feel that our travellers would enjoy this fascinating land.

Little Maldives, our oceanic neighbour, traditionally catered to the Europeans’ love of the sea. But it, too, has seen the writing on the wall, with a shrinking euro-dollar economy. Last year, it received 25,000 Indian visitors and woke up to the fact that they’ve only scratched the surface of the Indian market. According to Mohamed Malesh Jamal, secretary-general of the Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators: "India is an emerging market. This is the first time we’ve come here and, because it is a very well-organised mart, we’ll be back here over the next five years.’

We walked across to our old friends from Malaysia. In the early 1990s, Malaysia realised the potential of the Indian market, and keeps reaping rich dividends in the increasing inflows of Indian tourists. But, like astute entrepreneurs, Malaysians are not complacent. Amirul Ariffin Md. Nasir, director in the Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board, admitted: "We participate in SATTE to meet buyers and also to understand the approaches of other countries. We can still learn from them about how they target India."

From SE Asia, we strode across to the Arctic Circle and met the ebullient Papoori in Finland’s stall. Her country discovered the Indian market some years ago and has steadily increased its inflows of Indian tourists: mostly from the seasoned been-there-done-that segment. Finland had charmed us with its friendly people, great coniferous forests and Santa Claus. When Papoori met some travel industry folk in Mumbai, they were making a beeline for SATTE-Delhi because they felt that it was the easiest way to meet the national tourism organisations of many countries.

In fact, at SATTE we saw a wide spectrum of the travel industry, from new Minister of Tourism Subodh Kant Sahay — this was his first major tourism event since taking over — and Salman Khurshid, whose father we had interviewed when he was Minister of Tourism, Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand Suraphon Svetasreni, through the heads of various state and industry-based tourism organisations, to the young and elegant Devika Pasricha of Chandigarh, who was busy promoting her heritage hotel. Such interactions are part of our heritage. Centuries ago, India was the hub of the Spice and Silk Routes. Then, the colonial powers discovered India and, through India, Asia. Today, the wheel has come full circle. Tourism lures international travellers to our land and they cannot resist shopping. Virtually every SATTE delegate shopped: a Malaysian for salwar-kameezes, the Adriatic nations for scarves, the Europeans for leather and silks, Tony Kanaza from Nazareth for spices, everyone for handicrafts. The list is endless, the long-term ripple effect continuous.

Political and bureaucratic scams notwithstanding, tourism has ensured that the winner is India.

Cutting edge

Over breakfast, on the last day of SATTE, a delegate from Turkey did mention the many scams reported on TV. The reply given by a delegate from Germany was interesting. He said, "But the news report was in English, the scams are being debated in their Parliament, the scammers are being investigated, and the newscasters are all under-35. Don’t you see the significance of all this? English, democracy, the rule of law and a bustling young generation. These give India its cutting edge over all its, so-called, competitors...."

Bollywood beckons

Both tourism and Bollywood converged at the opening ceremony of SATTE-2011. All delegates were transported to Gurgaon’s Kingdom of Dreams. Not many of us knew what to expect, but the setting, as a Canadian put it, "was a cross between Disneyland and Amber Fort ... plus the glitz!" But even that could not have prepared anyone for the musical extravaganza called Zangoora, The Gypsy Prince. The stagecraft was superb, the special effects outstanding, with palaces dissolving into forests, merging into submarine scenes, soaring into aerial visions with lissome damsels flying over the audience. And though the language was Hindi, because the multi-language headphones had not been installed, the story came through loud and clear. Much too loud, in fact. But it was pure, overstated, Bollywood kitsch and that has global acceptability.

For many of us it was worth seeing and hearing ... once!

The China syndrome

China is a major player on the world tourism scene. Strangely, its stall at SATTE-2011 was small, understated and under-staffed. This, in spite of the fact that the tourist literature they handed out was excellent. The Chinese must have known that SATTE was the only mart in India to be associated with the world’s greatest travel expo: the ITB Berlin. We must presume, therefore, that their low-profile presence was deliberate.

Delegates speculated that China wanted to show that it did not wish to court the Indian market. But if that was its calculated response to the many irritants that exist in Sino-Indian relations, the message had an impact only on those who would otherwise have sent their tourists to China. China’s loss was other countries’ gain.

If China had asserted itself significantly in this mart, it would have shown that they are prepared to accept the challenge of India’s private sector head on.

Sometimes, realpolitik can become very unreal.

India outbound

The excitement to tap the Indian market makes sound economic sense.

In 1998, Indians spent an estimated US$ 17 billion in their travels abroad; in 2008, that jumped to a shade above US$ 96 billion. In 2009, Indians went abroad 11.58 million times and that could rise to 50 million by 2020.

There is another factor that the travel industry has to take into account. In the old licence-permit Raj days, travelling abroad and shopping in foreign destinations, was a status symbol. One of our friends had six clocks in her drawing room because they were imported. Today, Indian travellers want value for money, and they know how to get it.

We’re still big spenders, we’ve become increasingly adventurous, seeking new places and unusual experiences, but we’re not spendthrifts. And that, really, is the big challenge for sellers tapping into the Indian outbound market.