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Call it the swadeshi bonanza at the cost of the missing videshi. The domestic Indian traveller has never had it so good. And the tourism business is booming, even as India's share in global tourism shrunk from 0.4 per cent (2.5 million tourists) in 1999-2000 to 0.2 per cent in 2000-2001!
While India has, for a host of reasons, dropped low on the wishlist of international travellers, a significant portion of an estimated 4.5 million Indians who lived it up last year in luxury cruises, European wonder holidays and exotic Far Eastern tours, have joined the 24-million-strong domestic tourist bandwagon to explore desi destinations, because the low-priced packages are simply irresistible! For Rs 2,500 to Rs 20,000, the wanderlustful can enjoy three-night, four-day packages in the backwaters of Kerala or misty north Bengal, the beaches of Goa and Daman, or the royal grandeur of Jaipur and Agra. And the high-range packages include airfare and all-inclusive five-star hospitality.
"This is innovative packaging to suit the customer. Airline seats and hotel rooms are highly perishable and it makes every sense to offer attractive packages. You can be guaranteed of continued arrivals through the year," remarks Anand Anantram, vice-president (marketing), itc Hotels, adding: "Don't confuse this with distress sales." itc's Welcombreak package today guarantees a minimum 60 per cent occupancy through the year for the group's hotels in Jaipur and Agra.
Four states—Kerala, Himachal, Goa and Rajasthan (despite the summer heat)—top the charts of offering wide options that suit almost all segments. And it's not just leading hotel chains but a whole range of budget hotels which have entered the fray, with each trying to outbid the others with themes like romance, royalty, health and environment. Even at tourist mecca Agra, the rates being offered are quite fabulous—discounts as high as 35-40 per cent—in the town's top five-star properties owned by itc, Taj, Oberoi and the Jaypee group.
Says Arjun Sharma, executive director, Sita Tours and Travels: "It's the best thing that ever happened to the domestic tourism. Travellers are being wooed like never before. You have pickups from airports and railway stations and even bus stands. Look at a simple Delhi-Goa package—cut out the airfare and you'll realise it's a windfall. Look at all the new hotels coming up and check their rates. They are primarily hotels which offer five-star facilities at low rates. And once this trend catches on, domestic tourism will be on a perpetual high."
"Our packages are for those seeking quality service at affordable prices, so the fearsome tag of five-star expense does not haunt the traveller any more," says Ragini Chopra, VP (business development), East India Hotels. Adds Pradip Kalra, vice-president (marketing), Jaypee Hotels: "This trend was alien even two years ago when not many wanted to travel to places with negative climatic conditions during summer. Today, we have excellent occupancy because we have many options to offer."
For years, tour operators focused on the foreign market and a few selected domestic destinations. But international arrivals are clearly on a downswing today. The number of chartered flights reaching destinations like Agra, Jaipur, Goa and Thiruvananthapuram touched an all-time low of 466 in 2000-2001, down from 958 six years ago, primarily because of restrictive tourist chartered flight policies and delayed approvals at airports under army control. Tour operators say this sticks out like a sore thumb when compared with regulations in countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal or Thailand. Plus, there are not enough flights to India from across the world. "We hope India will have more flights and improve its infrastructure. Airport facilities at key destinations like Khajuraho and Agra are pathetic. Udaipur is a fascinating destination but there aren't enough flights. Our tourist offices abroad have little money to hardsell Indian destinations. And it's happening when many countries are opening their doors with attractive packages," avers Roma Satara, ceo of Indo-French joint venture Distant Frontiers.
Says Varun Gupta, GM (tours), Cox & Kings: "When the government relaxed forex regulations, many Indians wanted to explore international destinations. But now with the number of foreigners decreasing, hotels are offering goodies. The deals are good and domestic traffic is in its full glory. It's a great saviour for Indian tourism."
This boom can be witnessed everywhere, at all levels—from five-stars to dirt-cheap hotels. Says Tarun Kanojia of the North East Outdoors, which runs camps across Uttaranchal at rates as low as Rs 50 per person per night, inclusive of all meals: "Don't forget the sizeable number of government employees who cannot afford long distance travel because of non-sanction of leave travel allowance this year. Also, students, since the summer holidays are on." In other words, "have deal, will travel" is the mantra, from the super-rich to the hitch-hiker.