Delhi’s homestays and B&Bs

Sodhi Lodge New Delhi

A little guest house in New Delhi

The commonwealth games were to be the coming-out party for Delhi’s small hotels, home-stays and B&Bs. But as we all know, things did not quite turn out that way. Not too many tourists in Delhi converts into despairing house owners & desolate premises. Not a good situation. But if the experience of places like Coorg in Karnataka and Kochi in Kerala are anything to go by, there is no reason to despair. The emerging breed of travellers – both domestic and international – seem to like alternate accommodations. The better ones among these little places in Delhi will get filled up in time. They just have to hold on.

Researching Holidays Online

ASIA

 

Here is why I love the business I am in – because it piggybacks on the biggest thing in Travel since the Wheel (ok – mild exaggeration, but still…)

The Internet has become the most popular medium for Chinese travellers seeking information about their trips, according the latest Nielsen China Outbound Travel Monitor. The Nielsen survey found that travellers will search for conventional destination information ahead of their trips (61 percent of leisure trips taken), and then turn to online travel discussion forums (48 percent) to fine-tune their plans. This suggests that opinions and comments about travel experiences posted to online forums are nearly as likely to influence travellers’ decisions as the destination websites themselves. Conventional travel agents were approached on only two in five travel occasions.

The Nielsen survey also found that travellers were much more likely to recall seeing Internet advertising for travel destinations, compared to seeing travel advertising on other mediums. Close to 70 percent could recall seeing travel advertisements on the Internet, with only four in 10 recalling seeing a travel advertisement in a magazine or newspaper, at a travel agent or on TV and radio.

Read the full article here..

Immigration

Immigration officials across the world are all sent to this common, secret school (run, I suspect by particularly virulent commissars of the ex-USSR) where they are taught the essential niceties of their job – a deeply suspicious look & the ability to never ever let the slightest smile (or even a suspicion thereof) escape on to one’s face, being the most important.

Two countries I have visited stand apart in this – Cyprus & Thailand.

The gate-keepers at the Larnaca airport smiled at me (giving me the heebeejeebies, since to the best of my prior knowledge these guys smile only when about to effect a cop) and – I kid you  not – asked about the weather back home.

The guys at Phuket were the best of the lot. Their interaction was as between mature adults. A smile breaking out of a ‘yeah, we know you are here only to have a good time and as soon as your money runs out, you will go away – but we gotta do this…’ look.

I have been to Saudi Arabia too, where I met the guys who took all the prizes at the commissar’s school.

City-breaks in India

Why is that nobody in India (well, almost nobody) goes to another city in India on a holiday? In many countries, going to another city is a valid &  interesting vacation for most people. They might take in a play, do some fun shopping, eat interesting stuff on street corners, go to a bunch of attractions in and around the city and generally enjoy themselves silly.

In India, come weekends or vacations all we want to do is run away from the city we live in and hit the countryside. Which, given the conditions under which we live is understandable, I guess. But I am surprised at the lack of effort by city worthies to make our cities more tourist friendly. The reason I say that is, most of our big cities have some unique stuff to add to a vacation experience and need not be such bad options for a quick break – even with the traffic jams, a broken down power system and the bug-bear of them all, the monsoons. And of course, given the absence of business travel on weekends can actually help all businesses depending on the traveller.

Well, like everything else in Indian tourism, looks like nobody relevant has got around to thinking about it. What a poor, orphaned child Indian tourism is! Which is probably just as well, considering what could happen if our ‘leaders’ actually get into the act.

One day in an ancient Indian city

One of the tragedies of India’s tourism is the lack of surviving physical structures of the pre-colonisation period (ie. before the 1600s). Varanasi is of course there, as the world’s oldest continuing city. But a lot of the magnificence is no more to be seen. On a visit to Tanjavur last year, I was able to see the extraordinary temple there that the great Raja Raja Chola built and so get a glimpse of the creative outpouring that fed big stuff like Angkor Wat and Ayuttaya in other lands.

So, it strikes me that ancient India’s cities (of the likes of Thanjavur & Konark) must have been fascinating places in their golden moments and if ‘recreated’ well, can add a lot more depth to our tourism. And with this thought in mind, I have been scouring a lot of literature to find out exactly how an ancient Indian city would have been.

I struck pay-dirt a couple of years ago and not in any obscure place as you might imagine. It was in A.L Basham’s seminal historical work, ‘The Wonder That Was India‘, where he quotes an early Tamil poem, the ‘Garland of Madurai‘ which describes a day in the life of the city of Madurai. Captivating stuff. And since I cannot do any better, I am reproducing in its full, the relevant page from that book. Here it is (it is a much longer piece than I would normally have in this blog where I have a self-imposed rule of brevity, but its beauty lies in its comprehensiveness and so..):

The poet enters the city by its great gate, the posts of which are carved with images of the goddess Lakshmi, and  which is grimy with ghee, poured in oblation upon it to bring safety and prosperity to the city it guards. It is a day of festival, and the city is gay with flags, some presented by the king to commemorate brave deeds, flying over the homes of captains, and others waving over the shops which sell gladdening toddy. The streets are broad rivers of people, folk of every race, buying and selling in the market-place or singing to the music of wandering minstrels.

A drum beats, and a royal procession passes down the street, with elephants leading to the sound of conchs. A refractory beast breaks his chain, and tosses like a ship in an angry sea until he is again brought to order. Chariots follow, with prancing horses and fierce footmen.

Meanwhile stall-keepers ply their trade, selling sweet cakes, garlands of flowers, scented powder and betel quids. Old women go from house to house, selling nosegays and trinkets to the womenfolk. Noblemen drive through the streets in their chariots, their gold-sheathed swords flashing, wearing brightly-dyed garments and wreaths of flowers. From balconies and turrets the many jewels of the perfumed women who watch the festival flash in the sunlight.

The people flock to the temples to worship to the sound of music, laying their flowers before the images and honouring the holy sages. Craftsmen work in their shops – making bangles of conch shell, goldsmiths, cloth-dealers, coppersmiths, flower-sellers, vendors of sandalwood, painters and weavers. Foodshops busily sell their wares – greens, jak-fuit, mangoes, sugar candy, cooked rice and chunks of cooked meat.

In the evening the city prostitutes entertain their patrons with dancing and singing to the sound of the lute, so that the streets are filled with music. Drunken villagers, up for the festival, reel in the roadways, while respectable women make evening visits to the temples with their children and friends, carrying lighted lamps as offerings. They dance in the temple courts, which are clamorous with their singing and chatter.

At last the city sleeps – all but the goblins and ghosts who haunt the dark, and the bold housebreakers, armed with rope ladders, swords and chisels, to break through the walls of mud houses. But the watchmen are also vigilant, and the city passes the night in peace.

Morning comes with the sound of brahmans intoning their sacred verses. The wandering bards renew their singing, and the shopkeepers busy themselves opening their booths. The toddy-sellers again ply their trade for thirsty morning travellers. The drunkards reel to their feet and once more shout on the streets. All over the city is heard the sound of opening doors. Women sweep the faded flowers of the festival from their courtyards. Thus the busy everyday life of the city is resumed.

The star tourism product for karnataka

Recently, my friend Rohit Hangal posed an interesting question on one of the Tourism Groups on Linked In. His question was:

If we had to chose among one ‘attraction/destination’ in ‘Bangalore/Karnataka’, what would that be and the reasons for it – Scouting for that one ‘Star Tourism Product’.

I love the question, because I believe the bane of Indian tourism is trying to ‘sell’ too many things at the same time.

Therefore, let me attempt an answer:

I don’t think I know Karnataka well enough to pop up all of the options. But having spent too many years in Management Consulting, I cannot avoid the temptation to develop a framework to find an answer. So, here is my 2-bit on this.

It should be:

- Relevant – relevant to the target market. If we assume the target market is the 25 to 45 year old India urban-dweller, then we better make sure s/he is truly interested in what we come up with. if we assume that the market is 60+ year Caucasians, that is another story.

- Defensible – we must be able to able to ‘defend’ it from other competing offerings. that is, there should be no threat of it becoming a ‘me-too” product. Would any World heritage work? Unlikely, since many other states also have ‘world heritage sites’

- Desirable – the people of Bangalore / karnataka (ie. the ‘owners’ of the attraction) must feel that this is a ‘desirable’ facet to promote. If ordinary folks are in some way not quite convinced, all of the effort will go in vain. For, every time the tourist comes into contact with the real product, there will be a strong possibility of disappointment.

- ready – the product must be ready for sale. Which means, a reasonable amount of necessary infrastructure (both core & tourism infrastructure) should already be in place

Any ideas?

Learning from Thailand’s tourism

We all know that Thailand has a pretty effective inbound tourism sector, clocking up about 3 times the number of foreign tourists we get (just to keep this stat in context, India has 6 times the land mass of Thailand and of course 20 times its population).

My recent trip to Phuket gave me some clues as to why this happens. The most important reason that I can see is that the Thai people are ‘naturals’ for tourism, with a warm & cheery disposition that makes an outisder welcome immediately. The second key reason is that the logistics of tourism involving the co.ordination of activities between multiple small actors works surprisingly smoothly in that country.

Let me take an example. We did a a one-day trip to Phang Nga, the place made famous by innumerable photos of awesome towering limestone rocks and sea caves. We booked this trip with a small tour operator just outside our hotel in the Karon beach area. ‘Tuk’, the smiling and cheerful young lady who ran the outfit spent enough time with us to go through all the options needed before consensus could be reached by an opinionated family of 4.  Then she made a call, confirmed availabilty and booked us for the trip. She said the cab to pick us would reach at 9 am the next morning.

It did. The cabbie picked up a couple of more small groups in a clean van and drove us over a neat expressway for about an hour to the pier from where we were to take a boat. At the pier we were met by ‘ying ying’ another smiling thai girl (so now you now why they get a real rep!) who was to be our guide on the boat trip. We got on to the boat and reached the caves where we were transferred to small canoes handled by young local lads. And then we were shifted to a small man-made island on stilts where we had lunch at a small restaurant. And so on..

Here is the notable thing. Tuk, the cabbie, ying-ying, the canoeists, the floating restautant – none of these people were officially a part of the company that operated the trip. However, every person performed their role to perfection and with complete predictability. We did not have to call or talk to anyone to co-ordinate anything. Imagine the same thing in India – the likelihood of one of these pieces not working seamlessly would have been very high.

I do not know how the Thais do this. But I do know one thing. If we can emulate this to even 50% of the efficiency of the Thais, we can substantially improve our tourism image.

India’s biggest tourism promotion website

Have been wondering which website is doing most for marketing Indian tourism. So, I did a quick check of recent Alexa numbers (see chart above) for Incredible India (the official promotion website of India’s tourism ministry) and the sites of two of India’s premier tourism states, kerala Tourism and Rajasthan Tourism.

Surprisingly, the Kerala Tourism site gets more traffic than the Incredible India site, which is a bit for a shame for the Incredible India guys. Incredible India however did get a huge spike in traffic (a few months before the beginning of period I have taken this chart for) when had a massive ad campaign underway – obviously, they were not able to hold on to the audiences after the campaign got over, which seems a real pity.

And since I couldn’t resist it, I also compared these 3 sites wth HolidayIQ which at the moment also exclusively contains tourism information on India. HolidayIQ beat all these sites by a huge distance. Of course, this is a slightly unfair comparison, since HolidayIQ is not a tourism promotion site but a site for India’s domestic holiday-goers to plan vacations. Which, come of to think of it, is probably not very different from what these sites ought to be doing.

North Cyprus Tourism Video

Run-of-the-mill tourism marketing video, except for one device. The voice over, which is that of a small kid, chanting la-la-la. If you plan to target the ‘family’ market, this is a pretty cool device to complete the association. Also, the video is a bit speeded up which presumably helps in a ‘gasp-isn’t-it-fun’ kind of way.

Click here for all my posts on Tourism Marketing

Click here for all my posts on Cyprus

View of Dubai from a helicopter

Anshul & Rashi took their 5 year old up in a helicopter over Dubai. It costs US$ 800 for a 30 minute (max. 5 adults) and they say it is well worth it. Here is some of what they saw. Check it out the next time you are in Dubai.

A Dubai Panorama

The Burj Al Arab & Jumeirah beach Hotel

The Burj Dubai on its way to becoming the world’s tallest building

Cranes over Hotel Atlantis

Click on for a few more photos.

Continue reading

Indiana Jones Vacations from Expedia

Expedia.com has a nice set of itineraries built on the Adventures of Indiana Jones. Titled ‘Indiana Jones Travel Experiences’, it covers itineraries in India, Egypt, Italy, China, Jordan, Mexico, Nepal, Peru & USA. Sounds interesting. Check it out.

The most chilling sentence in world tourism

Of late, I have been researching Africa. Going by my past experience of my own behaviour, a trip there seems imminent.

But I was brought up short by this one sentence. I was on the Zambia tourism website, in the section which gives you lots of information on how to travel around the wonderful country of the Zambezi river & Victoria falls. Right at the bottom of the page, after all the enthusiastic stuff about Rail journeys inside Zambia, is one line, lurking all by itself. It reads:

“To be safe, ask the station police to escort you to a taxi”

What makes for great tourism : remaking the Taj Mahal experience

(Guess whose photo this is! Answer at the bottom of this post)

Recently ran into an interesting check-list of items to be addressed to create great tourism experiences.

  1. Enrichment and authenticity
  2. Partner with community
  3. Invent the themes that will intrigue visitors
  4. Engage all the seasons
  5. Increase the value inside the tourism experience by including access to people, a unique activity, or combination of both. When you do this , you can increase the selling price
  6. Invent new forms of programs that incorporate new mixes of activities, people, traditions and places that showcase and celebrate the community. Invention is the key
  7. Personalize and customize your services
  8. Add interaction and hands-on activities
  9. Involve local community and mentor them
  10. Add specific local retail items into the experience or package.

Ok. So let us try to apply this check-list to something we know. How about India’s best known attraction, the Taj Mahal? (Given the very sterile and – sometime very hassling – experience that is visiting the Taj Mahal, I think some creative thought can help). Here is my take on how one could apply some of these principles to the tourism experience of the Taj Mahal.

Enrichment & Authenticity : An ‘immersion’ into the world of Shah Jahan – how about setting up a place where travellers can experience in at least a small way, the nature of life at the time of Shah Jahan. Maybe, this can be in the form of a bazaar recreated in authentic historical detail.

Partner with Community: An obvious area would be to bring in the community into this bazaar. There are other options to bring in local musicians, artisans & cooks into an authentic street scene.

Invent themes that will intrigue visitors: How about “Luxury in the time of the Mughal”, a theme of what it meant to indulge in luxury fit for a king in Shah Jahan’s time. This can cover so many aspects, it is almost endless. Continue reading

The Incredible Marketing of India

Singapore has a land area of about 693 sq kms. India has 3.3 million sq km, making us about 5000 times larger than Singapore. In the year 2007, Singapore got over 10 million inbound tourists while India got a little under 5 million foreign tourists, less than half of Singapore . Therefore, using simple arithmetic we are about 10,000 times more inefficient than Singapore in getting inbound tourists. I think that is about right.

What explains this extraordinary incompetence of our country in attracting foreign tourists?

I don’t know.

But a good first step is to provide people wanting to travel to India with some simple, easy to understand information. An obvious place to assess whether we are providing such information is on the national website of our tourism promotion agency (after all, the internet has become the primary & often the only source of information for foreigners). And so I did a tiny exercise to find out Visa information on the Incredible india website and compare it with the tourism promotion website of a high-performing tourism nation, Australia. Here is what I found.

The first para on the relevant page on Australia.com reads as follows:

Visa

You’ll need a visa to enter Australia. Tourist visas are valid for three months, but you can also apply for a longer-term stay. Find out more about the different visas and how to apply.

Contrast this with the opening para of the Visa page on Incredible India, which reads as follows:

Visa fees are non-refundable and subject to change without notice. The High Commission reserves the right on granting and deciding type/duration of visa irrespective of the fees tendered at the time of making application. Granting of Visa does not confer the right of entry to India and is subject to the discretion of the Immigration Authorities. Visa can be applied for in person or by post at the High Commission of India in London. Visa applications from persons not ordinarily residing in the UK or from people of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan origin are considered only in the High Commission of India, London and Consulate General of India, Birmingham and their processing may take one week or in some cases much longer. Applicants not ordinarily resident in the UK and Sri Lankan nationals are required to complete an additional form. Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals have to file special visa application forms. In the following cases processing of applications will take longer: (a) British Nationals holding dual nationality or of other origin, (b) applicants not resident in the UK, (c) where clearance from India is mandatory, (d) visitors to restricted areas and (e) certain cases where documents may need to be verified. Visa Section will contact the applicant about the time of delivery for such passports. Please note that each application is examined individually and the time taken for issuing Visa will vary from case to case.

I don’t know about you, but I found the 34 words on the Aussie site made a lot of sense and invited me in to find out more. In contrast, the 237 words in the first para on Incredible India gives me the strong impression that I am not particularly welcome.

Why?

Who writes this stuff?

Microsites from Incredible India

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The Incredible India website has a number of micro-sites. The idea is to showcase the best of various themes that define Indian tourism. So there are 18 micro-sites for subjects ranging from Ayurveda, Yoga, Summer Retreats, Central India, Walk with the Buddha etc. All fascinating subjects, each of which can be a brilliant site in itself. Unfortunately, all the energy seemed have gone into thinking up these themes. The sites themselves suffer from too little content, poor navigation and that continuing bane of Indian tourism, a gimmicky approach.

Here is what is shown for the entry relating to the Jewish religion in India (in the Pilgrimage micro-site). 3 tiny paragraphs, one each on Kochi, Pune & Ahmedabad. No photos at all. Of course, no videos. No real sense of history, time or context. I have personally stood inside the Jewish Synagogue at Kochi and marveled at the murals depicting the arrival of the first Jews at Cranganore (kodungalloor). Why can’t we make this stuff come alive.

Good idea, poor execution.

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A couple of new tourism websites

Here are 2 new tourism websites that I recently came across. Each interesting in a different way.

Smallwander

As its name somewhat elliptically suggests, this is a site about travelling to small towns. Currently it covers only four states in the US. In many ways, this site reminds me of HolidayIQ, since over 70% of Indian destinations carried on HolidayIQ can be classified as small towns. This aspect makes is refreshingly different from the run-of-the-mill travel info sites, most of which give you more information than you need about New York City while not giving you any about say, Damascus, Virginia. I would have liked to see a user-feedback section on this site to complete the experience, but I guess it is early days for the site.

Fabsearch

Fabsearch aggregates information about hotels, resorts and restaurants mentioned in top travel and lifestyle magazines, probably making it the first aggregator of such content in the world. A search of places to eat in ‘Bombay’ throws up options selected from articles in Elle Decor, Tatler, Daily Candy & Our Friends. Some of the other publications they seem to track are Harpers Bazaar, Elle, FT, New York Social Diary, Town & Country, Vanity Fair, Vogue, W and Wallpaper. Interesting enough as a concept to see whether it gets traction.

St Mary’s Island near Malpe beach, Udupi, Karnataka

Here are bunch of photos of St Mary’s Island, taken by my photographer-friend Nagesh who has roamed this coastline since his childhood (and who is, incidentally, shooting India’s first fully digitally shot movie). Since they are such lovely snaps, I decided to let the story follow the photos.

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As I wrote sometime ago, if Karnataka gets its act together, it has everything going for it to emerge as India’s top tourism destination. Here is more proof.

St Mary’s island is a little slip of land about 30 minutes out into the sea from Malpe Beach in Udupi. As you can see in the photos, God certainly let loose on this one; it is gorgeous and I can say this with the certainty of someone who has seen a fair number of beaches and islands across the world. The island is full of crystallised basalt rock, a unique rock formation found in very few places in the world, the most notable being the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. And, the sea between the island and the long curve of the beach at Malpe is placid and gentle (or at least looks that way).

As I stood on this little island last week, it was clear that it is crying out for a bit of tender, loving attention. Continue reading

Mind of the new traveller – dissecting the indian tourist

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(Photo of the Taj Mahal, courtesy Incredible India)

There is a tourism doo-dah in Bangalore on Thursday and I have been invited to talk about the ‘Mind of the New Traveller’. Phew, that is a mouthful. Anyway, made me think. Over the last 3 years or so that I have been involved in creating India’s first travel community and getting a lot of feedback from them on HolidayIQ, I think I have got a pretty unique ringside view of the mind of the Indian tourist. Here, in a few short sentences, is the summary of what I see. Continue reading