aniruddha_bahal

FOR Indians now, the key word is mileage. Beckoned by the sheer thrill of adventure, the awesome smell of history and grandeur that hangs in the air around our khandahars, or the prospect of simply lolling around in Bermuda shorts on some obscure beachhead, the desi juggernaut has hit the road. What’s more, rub your hands in glee, for ethnic traits are already becoming visible.

Take the youthful Panickar couple from Vadakkan-cherry, Mr Manickavasagam from Tirunelveli or the complete Tripathi clan from Gorakhpur—all of them only as imaginary as they are real. If any of them had their way, most of their LTC trips would see them lining their big toes against passing sails even as their bodies rubbed the beach sand in numerous little frictions of contentment. Anywhere, that is, in the wide V they have to choose from: Daman and Diu, Goa and Kovalam, to Marina, Gopalpur and Puri. And if windows of opportunities existed, they wouldn’t mind snoozing away their two weeks of vacation without the kind of qualms that would dampen the holidaying spirit of, say, the Chatterjees. There is nobody curiouser than the Bengalis when it comes to sightseeing. They want to map, document and memorise everything that moves and, even more so, everything that doesn’t—huge, stationary objects of stone or marble that have been stuck some place by the Mughals or the Cholas or the Dilwara rulers.

You might think that this trait would mark them as the super breed as far as cultural tourism went. But no. There are races and populations with bigger scales of ambition on this score. Tourists from Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Delhi apparently lead in the swarm of people with the cultural itch. Funnily, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad have the biggest concentration of nature lovers too and the hardy Hyderabadis go a step further by being the uncrowned outdoor-kings of India. The Madras crowd, on the other hand, doesn’t like much of either wildlife or culture, that’s for people with the bee-in-the-bonnet syndrome. And for the babu from Bengal out on a bidesh yatra during the pujas, a bit of adventure adds just that right dash of spice.

No wild caricaturing here. All these are more or less part of the findings of a study done by Tourism Futures, a Delhi-based tourism consultancy firm with top-notch clients, like Sterling Resorts and the Rajasthan Department of Tourism, on domestic tourism. Though some of the data could be said to be a little jaded, not so the trends. And for an industry where almost all data hangs on government apron-strings, the occasional private survey remains a pocket of light, especially if it throws up interesting asides on ethnicity.

But what’s apparent is that a multitude of reasons, social and economic, are pushing more and more Indians to take to the road. Says Gautam Chaddha, chief executive at Discover the World Marketing, a company which has taken more Indians on cruises than any other: “The most important thing that has happened is attitudinal. Our forefathers earned for the next generation. Today’s parents want to leave the future of their children where it belongs—to them. They want to live life here and now.” While the decay of the joint family institution was the principal point of genesis for the changed mental attitudes, it went a long way in making the nuclear family economically mobile. Incomes no longer went into the family kitty and somewhere along the line came the phenomenon of working women that raised incomes of families. Capital formation and domestic savings started growing at a decent clip of 25 per cent and more and more money started pouring into households that discovered the joys of travel in the late ’80s and the early ’90s. In 1991, for instance, just 10 per cent of the total households in India accounted for 40 per cent of the total household income. And the figure has become even more disparate in 1995.

SAYS Neelima Chopra, partner in Tourism Futures: “This increased incomehas spawned an entire generation of new travellers. Of course, the stimuli were mainly travel programmes on television, print media coverage, plain word of mouth and conveyance aids like Maruti.” Besides, the railways came up with the Shatabdis for medium budget travellers, hotels started coming up in the middle segment and travel agents began innovating with individual products to cater to the single traveller as opposed to group products. Says Hugo Kimber, director, sales and marketing, Cox & King’s, Bombay: “The spurt was aided in a major way by the plethora of products available and the access to them to theIndian because of relaxation of foreign exchange regulations.”

According to the Department of Tourism (DOT), the number of domestic tourists increased by nearly 3.4 crore to 10 crore between 1991 and 1994. By the end of 1995, though statistics haven’t been compiled yet, this is likely to go up by another 8 per cent. Encouraging trends are developing even in vacation habits on the whole. Not only has the percentage of people in the urban domestic tourism segment opting for a minimum of one holiday annually touched 41 per cent, around 20 per cent of them take vacations at least once in six months—the frequency of vacations being directly proportional to income levels. Also, according to the Tourism Futures survey, a sizeable 4.5 per cent like to go holidaying once every three months. Says Chopra: “We did our survey in 1991 and since then trends have moved on. Now, the tendency is to have more frequent vacations of shorter duration than the one big one.”

Another indication of the burgeoning market is the increase in the number of travel agents in the metros. Three years ago, Bombay had just 180 members of this tribe. Now it has close to500. In Delhi, the number jumped by over 20 per cent in a single year to the current figure of 340. And small towns with a tourism potential are showing the same kind of growth pattern. The hill town of Uttarkashi in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, showed a 50 per cent increase in travel agents last year, most of them catering to adventure tourism. Traditionally, only a small segment of Indians relied on travel agents to plan the holidays since most prefer to stay with friends and relatives—contrary to the developed markets where as many as 70 to 80 per cent of the travellers prefer going through agents. But the harsh pace of life in the metros is changing this syndrome. Says Raj Trehan, co-owner Span Travels, a Delhi-based travel agency with a turnover of Rs 10 crore: “In Delhi, customers are showing a tendency to arrange everything beforehand. Nobody has the time for personal effort. They want to have a proper set-up before venturing out.”

Span Travels started off just six years ago and looked after the travel arrangements of 84,000 people last year, showing a whopping growth of 20 per cent each year since its inception. It specialises in honeymoon travel, school group-expeditions and leisure travel. The biggest agency in Himachal Pradesh, honeymooners form as high a chunk as 20 per cent of its clientele. Says Trehan: “Honeymooners were traditionally a very non-adventurous breed. But now some of them want to go on treks and white water rafting.”

In fact, the urge for a participatory form of holidaying has been gaining ground. Says Stragway Oritz, senior manager at Snow Leopard, a Delhi agency specialising in adventure tourism: “People want to go on a vacation and do something. ” Oritz saw his client numbers double to 2,500 last year from the figure of 1993. Though the outdoor kind of holiday-goer constitutes just 6.5 per cent of the market, most importantly it’s the segment that undertakes the most frequent vacations vis-a-vis other categorised segments—the sightseer, the nature lover, casual explorer, cultural type, indoor rest-and-relaxation freak and the resort yuppie.

The sightseeing segment is the highest at 28 per cent of the domestic market,with Bengalis forming the biggest chunk. The wildlife buff or nature lover comes next at 20 per cent. This market is concentrated in Hyderabad, Kochi and Ahmedabad and has a high preference for hill stations and wildlife sanctuaries. Third on the list at 16.9 per cent are the casual explorers, with the biggest representation in Delhi, Punjab and Bengal. The cultural tourist comes next at 16.7 per cent and is found in big clusters in the Ahmedabad, Delhi and Hyderabad travel markets. The oldest in terms of age at 45 and above, this segment also believes in the shortest vacation. The rest and relaxation category also hovers at an ignore-at-your-own-peril 14 per cent and has representation in all age segments. While the resort yuppie comes last at 5.3 per cent, the segment happens to be the most educated. Indians as a whole, though, still retain the highest fondness for a hill station destination—the predilection for heights peaking at 71 percent. Beachsides come next at 48 per cent.

This middle and upper class road-bug hasn’t just bitten the young or those in their 40s. There’s a rapidly increasing segment of people above 50 who are discovering the joys of travel. We are not talking of the vanaprastha syndrome where old people take to places of religious significance like Rishikesh, Haridwar and Puri in droves. These are pleasure travellers doing Europe by bus and going to Australia next year. Says Vikas Khanduri, senior executive at Cox & King’s, whose outbound tours from Delhi have increased by nearly four times since last year: “Not only are the oldies more enterprising, it’s also very easy for them to get visas. They even plan their holidays in advance.” Khanduri, like many other travel operators, is miffed at the general let-it-happen bent of mind of Indian tourists—they never chalk out itineraries, they remain undecided on destinations for up to 45 days and then rush it all up within a week.

One such couple to return after a 32-day trip in Europe were the Nangias of west Delhi. A dairy equipment manufacturer, Yaspal Nangia, 60, distils the trip thus: “I haven’t spent such a splendid time in my entire life. The people I travelled with in Europe were also in their 50s, though none of them were Indian. I don’t know how long I have on this planet so I have decided to have a good time.” This was the first trip abroad for the Nangias.

WITH nearly all top agencies in India representing frontline international groups, quite a few of them encourage people to travel in foreign groups when vacationing abroad. Says. Sampath Kumar, managing director, VISA Travels, a Bangalore-based company:”We discourage Indians wanting to travel only in national groups. It doesn’t broaden their outlook. By travelling on these international groups, one gets to know people from different countries and cultures besides, of course, getting the opportunity to make associations and explore business partnerships.”

Which takes us to the business of sizzling destinations. Kodaikanal is hot, so is backwater tourism in Kerala. River rafting on the Ganga is in, along with trekking in Himachal Pradesh. And if the Andamans and Lakshadweep played their cards right, they could start pinching business away from Goa. Goa itself has become so hot for foreigners during the October-March period that it’s a tough time for rupee-paying mortals to get accommodation. A tip for the next hot beach destination currently in the development phase: it’s going to be Beckel in Kerala. All these, of course, apart from the routinely popular circuits in Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and the Mysore-Bangalore-Ooty-Kodaikanal loop.

As for the 8.7 per cent of urban domestic tourists who feel India has nothing to offer in terms of destinations, Kenya, Mauritius, Singapore, and Phuket, Changmai and Changrai in Thailand are currently hot spots. The Bangkok-Pattaya circuit, incidentally, is going to seed. The sectors which are expected to pick up tremendously in the near future are South Africa, Israel and Australia.

And if you are used to five-star amenities, you might find to your shock that it’s cheaper to hop over to Mauritius than go spend time in Goa. Also peculiar fare mechanics at work on international routes make some unique selling propositions on their own. For instance, while the Delhi-Mauritius-Delhi fare is Rs 21,215, the Delhi-Mauritius-Singapore-Delhi fare is Rs 21,565, costlier by just Rs 350. Honeymooning couples with some surplus funds find the proposition so attractive that they have all but jettisoned Goa and Kulu-Manali. Says Anurag Malik, 23, just married and with a lot of profits in the pocket after selling pressure cookers in Delhi’s Sadar Bazar, who did the circuit recently: “We were in Mauritius for four days and two days in Singapore. I found Mauritius very good and clean and with hardly any vehicles on the road.”

There are hardly any more vehicles if you are doing the safari in Kenya. Says Wilson Fernandes, director UVI Holidays: “A Kenyan safari costs $470 per person for a week, inclusive of everything. The fact that Indians are willing to spend Rs 17,000 in return fare to Kenya is a fair indication that they look at the holiday not in terms of a shopping spree but as an educational one.” In the two-and-half months of the Kenyan season the agency took 250 persons, a very high figure by industry standards.

The destination that’s really getting swamped in numbers is Kodaikanal. The southern India hill station received close to 27 lakh visitors in 1993, according to a study done by Tourism Futures, and 70 per cent of them came from Bombay. Thoughhardly known in the North, Kodaikanal has already eaten into the Ooty market with nearly 10 per cent of the Bombay tourists switching allegiance. Says Chopra: “An interesting thing we found in Kodai was that children played the most important part in the selection of holiday destinations. Also, there were a lot of families there who had one domestic and one foreign vacation in a year.”

People with money to burn, of course, go for sheer opulence, American style. Till two years ago, there was hardly any market for cruises in India but in the second year more than 2,500 people went cruising in the Caribbean and the Bahamas. The latest and the coolest is a seven-night Alaskan cruise from Vancouver. Says Chaddha, whose company dominates about 70 per cent of the cruise market: “If the product is available, the Indians are willing to indulge.”

Yes, indulge. Even at the school level. Span Travels, for instance, has taken school groups to Kathmandu, Bangkok and Singapore. They are planning one to Saudi Arabia. Says Trehan: “We took 70 girls from Auckland House, Shimla, to Kathmandu. It was a three-night, four-day trip and cost Rs 7,500 per head.” There’s something also for those who neither care about what it costs or how long it takes. Cox & King’s organised a business class, round-the-world-in-22-days trip for office-bearers of the Indian Sugar Mills Association. Along with their spouses, the group totalled 30 people and travelled to Hawaii, the US, UK and Japan. It cost them Rs 1.5 lakh each.

Awareness levels have matured so much that clients go to agents with specific products in mind. Says Oritz: “We have people from Ahmedabad and Bombay coming specifically for a weekend rafting trip on the Ganga.” Another popular product their clients ask for and which has spread by word of mouth is the Old Pilgrim’s trek to Badrinath which the agency clubs with rafting. On the flip side, however, there’s a general consensus that the domestic numbers would have been much more if the land had better infrastructural facilities. An ambitious paper prepared by DOT estimates that even to achieve the target of five-million inbound tourists over the next three years would require investment levels of up to Rs 39,100 crore. Says S.N. Yadav, secretary, FICCI: “The state governments haven’t taken tourism seriously.” While a state tourism ministers’ conference last year decided to set up regional tourism boards to identify travel circuits, some of the states haven’t yet declared tourism as an industry. This, when India has the fourth largest domestic tourism market in the world and tourism accounts for 7 per cent of the GDP, likely to touch 10 per cent by the next century. Says Chopra, talking of state tourism offices: “None of them even encourage you to stay in your own country.”

It’s also time the various agencies involved in domestic tourism put up a united front. Though the Government has made unsuccessful attempts to forge a board on the lines of the Singapore or Bangkok tourism boards, nothing has fructified. There are also other problems like fine-tuning a product whose market is highly regionalised. A Bengali tourist and a Gujarati tourist would have different food habits. Another ethnic titbit to sign off with? Well…the Gujaratis, incidentally, can’t do without dhokla or srikhand when they are on the move. Much like the Bengali can’t do without his monkey cap or fish. These gaps notwithstanding, while the nation is agog with whispers of federalism, the born-again Indian tourist seems to be building new bridges which can only multiply.

July 3, 1996

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Questions of ethics and safety surface as Everest claims eight mountaineers in one day
May 15, 1996

Olympian Efforts

Indian sportsmen get a boost from four American companies