This is one of the better things to happen for Travellers. As I wait for another delayed flight at Bangalore airport the magic of online music hits me. Switching between Saavn (the online Indian music service funded by Tiger) and TuneIn Radio (a worldwide selection of internet radio stations) I am definitely spoilt for choice.
I first stayed in a luxury hotel at the age of 27 and a fine thing it was. The soft beds & fluffy pillows, the scraping & aahing of so many, the big cheque at the end – I knew I was somebody. But unfortunately most of that wonder has now been taken away from me. I still love 5 star hotels. But not for their ability to reinforce my self-esteem but for their capability to deliver extreme physical comfort.
In this, the unkind God we live under has been having a bit of a laugh at my expense. Comfort now is less of huge, plump, soft mattresses and more of the anemically firm; less of the fluffy pillow and more of a tiny cotton one. Of course, a bathtub with running hot & cold water and a case full of assorted unguents can never wither. Nor will a Room Service that can deliver a truly crispy masala dosa at any time of the day or night.
The luxury hotels of the Taj group deliver the most physical comfort in India and that I like. While they can scrape and bow like the best of them, they leave you alone if you are of such a mind. I am & so we get along fine.
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.
HolidayIQ got this email recently…
How are you doing! I hope you are fine? I’m sorry i didn’t inform you
about my trip to Scotland for a program, I’m presently in Scotland and
got mugged at a gun point by some armed robbers on my way to the hotel
where my money and other valuable things were kept including my
passport. I would like you to assist me with a loan of 1620Pounds to
sort-out my hotel bills and get myself back home.
I have spoken to the embassy here but they are not responding to the
matter effectively,I will appreciate whatever you can afford to assist
me with,I’ll Refund the money back to you as soon as i return, let me
know if you can be of any help. I don’t have a phone where i can be
Please let me know immediately.
A few years ago, in one of those ritual paroxysms that grip the Indian business community every so often, everyone decided to set up budget hotels across India. As is wont in such circumstances, serial announcements were made, each one rivaling the previous about the number of rooms that would be set up across India in just 3 to 4 years. And as is wont again, nothing much has happened since.
Let me tell you why.
The basic premise went thus. With India’s economy booming at almost 10% growth every year there was a lot of new business activity expected. Most of this activity would require people to travel resulting in a huge increase in the demand for mid-range and economy hotels for these itinerant business men. Given that the current capacity was all in low-end, dirty (nay, mostly filthy) ‘lodges’ that sprout next to bus stands and railway stations, there was clearly an opportunity to provide clean, hygienic, smart hotels that would provide great accommodation at a compelling price point.
Unfortunately, the script has not quite worked out the way it was intended to. Uptake has been sluggish for the few hotels that managed to get launched. And it has left a number of highly-paid heads being scratched vigorously (mostly of people who have never ever done low-end business travel in India themselves).
To understand why the whole things has been a damp squib, a good starting place would be to deconstruct the basic premise I outlined earlier. The hypothesis had the following elements:
1. Indian economy will grow
2. That will lead to massive growth in business travel
3. Most of this additional travel will be in the mid to lower end of the market
4. Evolving consumers will demand a new product in business travel accommodation
5. This ‘new’ product will be ‘hygienic, smart, functional’ rooms at around Rs 1000/- per night cost
My guess is that the first four elements of the hypothesis turned out to be broadly correct although probably much lesser in extent or speed than envisaged in business plans. Extensive reading of hotel reviews on HolidayIQ, lots of conversations with actual consumers and my own personal experience of low-end business travel back in my CA student days suggests to me that the problem is primarily in point 5 above.
We all agree that the average Indian budget business hotel (the ‘lodges’ we talked about) is extremely unhygienic and generally unkempt. But that is to miss the primary value they provide. In addition to providing a room with a bed to sleep on, these lodges provide travellers with a perception of being important. In classic Indian ‘high touch’ style, there are multiple minions (the quintessential ‘chhotus’) who hover around the traveller and cling on to every word and take barked orders with meek accetance and generally scurry about. This sense of finally being a VIP is the biggest value provided by small business hotels to small businessmen. And it is precisely this value that has been lost in the new breed of hotels. With their policy of no room service and general parsimony towards having employees, this new breed of ‘hygienic and smart’ hotels are exactly what their target customer wants to avoid. After all, who wants to walk into a people-less hotel and realise that one is truly unimportant.
And in this lies their failure.
Since I am transiting again through Bangkok in the next few days, a friend of mine who lives in the region alerted me to a scam that has been reported from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport.
Evidently, sales people in some of the duty free shops are likely to unobtrusively slip in an item that you have not purchased, into your bag. As soon as you step out of the shop, the police are called in and you get ‘arrested’. The only way out of this apparently is to pay a hefty bribe all around.
I do not know whether this is true. But I guess it certainly pays to be watchful..
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.
Travelocity is coming through (and not just by buying up Indian companies) – looks like they have some of the better flight deals in the region. I recently found a Bangalore – Singapore return (economy of course) on Singapore Airlines for Rs 11,200. And a Bangkok return for 13,600. Both of which are better than the normal fares offered by m0st travel Agents.
So, if you have the time (or the necessity!) to do research f0r good flight deals, I suggest Travelocity India.
Talking to taxi drivers is often illuminating & almost always very interesting. And Singapore this week was no exception.
It started with Piara Singh who dropped me downtown from the budget terminal at Changi. His take on the economics of Tiger Airways (to which I have recently defected casting aside all moral and other compunctions I had about low-cost flying – a chance to get Singapore return at Rs 7.5k is no time to be queasy) flights to India was better than any commissioned Market Research I could have done. He explained to me why the Load factors on Singapore bound flights were very high on Mondays & Tuesdays (incidentally, it was 100% on Monday last) and why the India bound flights are full on Thursdays and Fridays. Piara Singh’s ancestry was in Amritsar and he talked of how Indians from Amritsar are spending a lot of money in Singapore. Most of all, he seemed calm & at peace with himself.
And then I got a succession of Mr Tan and Mr Tang, these names being common I understand because of the overwhelming presence of the Hokkien people in Singapore. One was particularly noteworthy. He hated Ikea – you know, the Swedish, clean-look, low-cost furniture company. He hated them with a vengeance reserved by Spanish terriers for large & woolly bears. In short, a passionate hatred that is unlikely to significantly affect the hatee. His hypothesis went so. The mastermind boss ( the way he hissed it, I was almost reminded of the evil Shaakaal in the early 80s Hindi movie Shaan – my teenage touchstone for villainy) of Ikea makes poor quality things that he very cleverly gets the stupid Singapore customer to buy by employing a combination of black-magic and European smoke & mirrors. And Since Singaporeans flock to Ikea in ever increasing numbers, Mr Tan/Tang has his view’s validated everyday! When he found that I too had fallen into Master Ikea’s seductive trap and ended up buying a table-lamp, the bottom fell out of his respect for Indians too.
The next chap told me about Asian people. He started with the Thais since he was engaged to a Thai girl and due to get married the next year. This is what he told me about the Thais. Be very careful around the Thais, he said – they never show their anger. Now, this is true. I have always found the Thais to be fairly pleasant and never angry, which I had always taken to be a sign of their essential good nature. Not so, he said. Remember, if they get angry with you, they will smile at you and bam, before you know it, you will be knocked out cold from behind. I started wondering about the likely longevity of his upcoming marriage. So, I asked him who are best & the worst people in Asia. The Japanese he said are the best. And the Malays the worst. And before he could tell me why, we reached my destination.
And then I stumbled upon Singapore’s most interesting citizen, who for the rest of this post will be called No-name. This guy had eyes that verily twinkled with villainy – late twenties, aquiline jaw, a small beard and a unique complexion that teetered between south-east asian brown and south Indian dusky. Seems his grandfather ran away from Kerala as a boy of 10 around the first world war. He then married a Chinese woman in Singapore and they begat a son that was no-name’s father. His father then married a Malay woman and brought No-name to the world, as the quintessential Singaporean with all 3 races well blended in. We started with the obligatory chat about how I had my beginnings in Kerala too and why he should visit it just once. But he quickly put that behind and got down to brass tacks and on to his favorite subject – Hookers. I got the most comprehensive run down on the seamy side of Singapore – incidentally, Singapore has legalised prostitution, which no-name assured me thrives in a corner of this otherwise squeaky clean city/country. He told me all about the difference between races & the sophisticated economic calculations that went into the buying process. Although he got mildly irritated when I passed up on his offer to help me get acquainted with the situation, he was too good a sport to let that get in the way of bonhomie and we parted friends.
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.
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.
Even though the formula is a bit too pat, I am a fan. The Mint is a business newspaper; a joint venture between our own Hindustan Times and the Wall Street Journal. It has a nice middle section called the “Business of Life’ which as the name suggests is less about business and more about ‘life’.
Elizabeth Eapen, the editor of this section in the paper called me the other day for a small piece. And since Elsa is a charming combination of wheedler, cajoler and a girl-school headmistress, I quickly complied. It has finally made it to the paper today in a Q&A avatar. Here is the link:
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.
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
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.
The last time we planned it a few years ago, the Tsunami struck. This time we were determined. So, in spite of the troubles in Bangkok and Pattaya (more about that later), we made it.
Another visit to Goa and another interesting experience. In my endeavour to peel away the touristy layers of Goa, I struck oil last week – if you pardon the ungainly mixing of metaphors. And ended up at the courtyard of an old Goan house (read Portuguese, since I haven’t been able to see much of Goa’s pre-european heritage). Armando Gonsalves has converted his old house into a venue for regular jazz and fusion music concerts.
There were a bunch of Spanish musicians that evening. It started with Basque twins, Sara and Maika beating out some nifty rhythms using the Txalaparta (closest pronunciation being tchalaparta), which is basically an ensemble of unlikely everyday stuff, including pieces of wood and stone. Followed by The Toumie Vila Seseca Trio on more traditional instruments.
I went with Savio & Pirkko and Pirkko’s visiting folks from Finland. The crowd was mostly Goa’s India refugees and booze flowed bringing forth its unique brand of mellow cheer. Everyone, as you can imagine was in a good mood, in which alchemy, Spanish music added the final dash. It was a lovely evening.
And as often happens, it is in such unlikely circumstances that you get these blinding flashes of insight that change your life for ever. It happened to me too.
I learned that starting the evening with a large whiskey is probably not a good way to start any evening. Especially if you plan to go a long way.
Before we move forward, here is a confession. I am not the world’s greatest fan of mughlai food. As Mohit observed, at times mughlai food seems rich & heavy just to be rich & heavy – and not because it adds immensely to taste. The last time I had wandered around the Jama Masjid area was about 20 years ago on one magical Ramzan evening just as the food stalls were getting busy. And i decided to go back again to see whether I could rekindle romance.
Nope. Karim’s was a sore disappointment. While the Burra did hit a couple of high notes the general sense was of let down. Maybe I ate the wrong stuff or maybe the place is over-rated now. Dunno. But, I did find a small place in Chandni Chowk that served ‘soth india dishes’ including Dosa and Chewmen. So that made up for it.
The highlight of the evening without a doubt was the New Delhi Metro. This is one of those rare times that an Indian will find it in him to praise anything contemporary over the ancient (for, who can argue with stuff so old nobody really knows anything about it). And I must thank Mr Sreedharan and his team at the Delhi Metro for this (and, I suspect Sheila Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Delhi, who, from all accounts is a lady determined to leave a lasting impression on Delhi). As any of us who have lived in Delhi can say without an iota of doubt, if a Metro rail can work in Delhi it can work anywhere else in India. It does & so it can. As I watched, the doors opened & closed automatically at every station and the world’s second most unruly crowd got in & off demurely. Atta boy ol’ S!
The Jama Masjid & Chandni Chowk area reeks of history (and a lot more, but that is par on course for all our cities). I am told that there a number of ‘walks’ you can do to get it all in. What I missed however was a good walking map. Wonder why no one has done one.
Nirwana Gardens is a resort complex in Bintan that has 3 resort options. The eponymous Nirwana Gardens is the regular place with all the facilities that you expect from an all-inclusive resort hotel. The Beach Club is the place for the serious water-sport enthusiast, with other facilities a bit thin. Mayang Sari is a bit of both. And since we were in a ‘middle-of-the-road’ mood, we plonked for Mayang Sari.
It was a good choice.
I am sure the seventeen men that controlled the Dutch East India company (the Herren XVII of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, to show you that I know this sort of stuff well) knew about it before me, but I felt no less an explorer when I landed on Bintan island. After all, it is not everyday that you get a chance to reach an outlying island among the group of almost 20,000 islands that make up one of the world’s most populous and to me one of its more likable countries.
These days, it is just a 45 minute fast-ferry ride from Singapore to the Bintan island in Indonesia, but in the old days, this island was an incidental part of the great southern arc that stretched from Malabar (Kerala) in India to the outer reaches of the south-eastern islands of today’s Indonesia, creeping almost up to modern Papua New Guinea – the production epicentre of the ancient world’s great spice route. One of the great spice islands it certainly was not and so was probably ignored in the maritime rivalries of Spain, Portugal and England. And left to curious travellers of the early 21st century to find some of the more beautiful beaches on earth.
An Indian Beach bum looking for the fastest way to get to a world-class beach? Rush to Bintan.
Visas for Indians are on arrival (for most westerners, visa is exempt) and for a stay upto 7 days, you need to pony up USD 10 per person. The catch is, being a government requirement, you need to have the exact 10 USD. So, ensure you carry the exact cash with you.
Of course, the mystery of why A R Rahman has replaced Celine Dion as the default muzak in ferries, restaurants & the such (although, thank god for that I say) in this region has not been fully cracked. Obviously, the return of India’s ancient cultural colonisation springs to mind. But there might be more to it…