EVER danced the night away atop the Himalayas at a disco 7,200 ft high? Or experienced the thrill of watching the world fly by as you bungee jump with the mighty Ganga thundering down below? Or for that matter, did anybody tell you that story about how 35 sugarcane and cotton farmers from a village in western India marched into a travel agent's office last month and announced "Hame London dekhna hai, woh jahan bhi ho"! And about the five-year-old who wanted to go to Australia because he wanted to feed a kangaroo? His parents obliged.
There's no fear in flying for the Indian middle class any longer. Nor any trepidation about falling off the map. They are packing their bags in droves and setting off...not anymore to visit Durga masi in Daltongunj, but to crisscross the country, and foreign climes as well if you please, in search of the perfect holiday—custom-made for luxury, leisure, adventure, wildlife, cultural and gastronomic thrills.
It's the day of the peripatetic Indian. Last year India was placed 11th in the list of the top 12 tourism generating countries worldwide. For the last 2-3 years, the middle and upper middle classes have been looking for offbeat options. Party conversations revolve round exotic holidays. Goa or Manali are passé. A game of oneupmanship is constantly being played out as to who's been to the most unheard of but exotic destination. Lesser-known areas in the Himalayas are emerging as the most popular tourist destinations. Soft and hard adventure holidays are being snapped up by the young and the yuppie. Children are being packed off to specially-designed holiday camps. Nature care resorts are mushrooming for the health conscious. There's something for everybody, to suit every taste and every pocket.
The reasons are manifold. For one, there's more disposable income, plastic money and aspirations are on the upswing. People are marrying late and starting families late in order to enjoy life just that little bit more. Company cultures are also changing as stress levels rise. Professionals are working hard and playing hard. It's becoming a part of corporate culture to hold conferences in offbeat resorts and also sponsor family holidays as incentives. Travel agencies have caught on and are offering Corporate Incentive Tour packages. Easy leasing of cars have helped the overworked executive make a quick getaway. There are more rail and air options. And there's nothing like a 'Tourist Season' left anymore. Tourism now is a 12-month phenomenon and there are different clientele for different seasons. For instance, till recently whoever wanted to go to Goa in the rains or Ladakh in winter?
Secondly, with the media explosion, Indians are taking travel information very seriously. With a number of foreign agencies launching a marketing blitzkrieg in India, Indian agencies, which have been multiplying like fleas, have restructured their sales strategies to grab that customer who could at any moment wriggle out and escape abroad. Eye-catching travel programmes and advertisements on satellite television, radio and newspaper supplements, travel freebies with consumer goods, opening up of affordably priced Heritage properties all over the country, attractive packages, travel fairs, free access to information on the Net and this, the third season after the plague scare unmarred by any natural calamity, have contributed to the creation of the New Age travel mart.
However, the Indian traveller is still very budget conscious, is aware and demands value for money. And this is where, unfortunately, outbound tour operators are cashing in. It's startling but true that tourism in India has not yet been given the status due to an industry. And there are no subsidies. Consequently, taxation on the domestic tourist adds up to about 30 per cent, which automatically pushes up prices.
Today, travelling within India is comparable to going to certain destinations abroad, at times even more expensive. Most international airlines are offering exciting destinations at excellent rates, with baits like buy one ticket and get one free. Even Indian corporate houses are pushing foreign destinations. For instance, ITC along with International Travel House has launched three packages: action-packed Wills Holidays covering 10-11 destinations for the first-time traveller; Gold Flake custom-made holidays for the more mature traveller; and Classic special interest packages which cover areas like golf, wine-tasting and music. The good news is that they plan to introduce such packages for the domestic sector very soon.
While home tourism runs into millions with no specific estimates available, the figures for outbound travel are still minuscule. But, according to a Pacific-Asia Tourism Association study, the market for outbound holidayers is increasing at the rate of 15 per cent per annum and by the year 2000 is expected to send about 80,000 tourists abroad. The government should see the writing on the wall and step up domestic infrastructure and revise taxation, or domestic tourists will flee. For, Indians have finally come of age and there's much to see and learn right here in this land of the seven rivers.
One last question: Did you know that 'tour' is a Hebrew word which means search and learning? Just what the Indian traveller is looking for!