Tuesday, May 26, 2009

India's Incredible

Report presented by Meenakshi Kumar on Times of India

Software engineer Naveen Pathak is packing his bags for a trekking trip through Sikkim this summer. Nothing unusual about that, except that a year ago, it would have been Paris or Vienna. PR executive Harsh Mehta has also reworked his holiday schedule. He has just returned from an 11-day trip to the Himalayas, canceling his plan for a five-day break in Bangkok.

In Bangalore, IT professional Mickey Bopanna says he has switched his holiday from violence wracked Sri Lanka to Goa’s quiet beaches.

India, it seems, is traveling around India like Pathak, Mehta and Bopanna are just three of large numbers of tourists to change their travel plans in this summer of discontent, with its economic slowdown, global swine flu scare and scattered violence-hit holiday destinations.

Vibhas Prasad, director of Leisure Hotels, says Indian tourists “are pushing back their travel plans to later in the year”, even as they increasingly put on hold plans, to visit swine flu- hit north and Latin America.

Adds Druv Shringi, co-founder of travel portal yatra.com, “Many people have been modifying travel plans, especially to the US and South America in the last few weeks. At least 12-15% is open bookings. People are hoping that the situation will improve so that they can continue with their travel.”

Indians are holidaying still but for many it’s Bharat Darshan time, discovering India like never before. Tourism figures for the first quarter of the year are not yet avail.,) able, but industry experts estimate that domestic tourism has grown 10-15%.If true, that would be a substantial addition to last year’s figures 400 million Indians traveled domestically and nine million went abroad.

Subhash Goyal, president of the Confederation of Tourism Professionals and chairman of Stic Travels, says, “The most happening domestic travel trend this year is to go on short trips for two-three days or over the weekends. And for such short trips, people are opting for destinations closer home where they have to spend little and can relax and enjoy more.”

Travelers are not just being cautious but canny as well with value-for-money deals. Harsh Mehta, who lives in Mumbai, says he’s happy he aborted plans to visit Bangkok because he’s spent the same money to visit several places in the Himalayas instead. “I got the best deals and visited many places - Shimla, Chail, Jammu & Kashmir, Rishikesh and Haridwar. It’s been the most cost-effective holiday for me so far,” he says.

Vinni Pannu, who heads Dabur Retail Venture’s North India operations in Delhi, agrees. “Smaller vacations and traveling to multiple places turn out to be much cheaper Often, the pack- ages have hidden costs, which are not revealed to the customers initially. Later, even a trip to Bangkok turns out pretty expensive,” she says.

But some industry experts say the apparent spike in domestic tourism is a mirage. Karan Anand, who heads relationship and supplier management at travel agency Cox and Kings, says, “Domestic tourism has been on a growth curve for the last couple of years with various state tourism boards such as Kashmir, Kerala, Goa, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh promoting their destinations aggressively in the Indian metros. We see growth in the range of 10-15% year-on-year.”

Whatever the truth, European destinations, once popular with the Indian tourist, seems to be losing some of their appeal.

Shringi estimates that demand is down by 2530% this year, compared to 2008. “People who would have travelled to Europe are now looking at options in South-east Asia and the Far East. And those who would have ‘traveled to the Far East are opting to travel within India. And even within India, they are going traditional, opting to go to the hills or historical sites,”she says.

Ketaki Narain, director of corporate communications of The Oberoi Group confirms that “domestic tourism to hotels in leisure destinations like Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur and Shimla has witnessed an increase.”