Holiday Dangers

The news that a Zimbabwean tourist taking an outdoor shower in a wildlife camp got killed by pride of lions once again reminds us that vacation trips can have dangers. Remember the 2009 boat tragedy on the Periyar river in Kerala that killed 40 people? Or the large number of tourists that go to our beaches and rivers and get washed away.

Nature is an unforgiving place and those of us who venture out from the confines of our cities should understand this. Many of us don’t and that adds a layer of significant risk to our vacations which often goes unrecognised. The fact that we mostly emerge unscathed from our trips does not mean that we have not, knowingly or unknowingly, taken big risks; it just means we have been lucky.

What is equally disturbing is that safety is an aspect that neither the tourism industry nor the government is paying any attention to in India. It is time that we changed this inattention.

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.

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.

Accessible Travel

I had never really thought of it before; the needs of the disabled when they travel. While traipsing around India in the last 10 days (I did Bangalore to Chennai to Bangalore to Delhi to Chennai to Tanjore to Chennai to Bangalore, which explains my disappearance from this blog for some time), I came across the group that was in India for a series of conferences on Accessible Travel, which is short-hand for ‘doing all of those things that help disabled travellers travel easier’.

Met a couple of interesting people that evening in Delhi – guys who are opening up a world of easier travel for the disabled.

Scott Rains : Scott is the man who put the disabled on the world agenda. He coined practically all the phrases that are today the cornerstones of all discourse on disability, including Universal Design. In fact, almost all US legislation on disability has the Rains imprimatur. Read Scott’s writings at the Rolling Rains report here.

Craig Grimes : Craig was the first person to demonstrate conclusively that the disabled are a definite ‘market’ in world travel. While living in Barcelona, Craig set up AccessibleBarcelona, a tour operator focused on helping the disabled have a good holiday in Barcelona. And made it into a viable and vibrant business. Craig now lives in Nicaragua and is at it again. Check out his latest venture – AccessibleNicaragua.

I also met Jani Nayar of Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality in NY. They are a Non-profit that works to increase awareness of the needs of the disabled for Travel.

A common theme that ran through all of the conversation was the notion that disabled travellers form a large market. And that it is in the interest of the travel trade to focus on this market and make it easier for the disabled to get around.

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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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