Online music is here

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.

HolidayIQ in Indonesia

HolidayIQ launched its Indonesia website today, our first real foray outside India. The soft launch is designed to allow domestic Indonesian travellers to add their photos, hotel reviews and the like. What a journey this has been!

A few years ago the only thing one had was this passion for travel and a desire to do something unique around it (read: not become a travel agent). And from an idea sparked off by reading an article about Zagat Survey to a 2-person team in a little room to now 150+ people across three countries, the journey has been a lot of fun and of course an ulcer or two.

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.

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.

Another travel scam?

HolidayIQ got this email recently…

Hello,

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
reached.

Please let me know immediately.
Regards

DR.THAMMAN

Duty Free Scam at Bangkok airport

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..

http://www.asiaone.com/Travel/Tips/Story/A1Story20090415-135496.html

http://www.travellerspoint.com/forum.cfm?thread=62493

Low-cost Asia

Asia is awash with low-cost international airlines and many of them are already flying into or are about to fly into India. And so, if you are looking for an international holiday ex-India, the place you must start your search with is a low c0st airline.

Tiger Airways flies from bangalore – I flew with my family on Tiger last winter and we got a delightfully cheap fare to Singapore (Rs 9000/- return per person). I checked again recently for summer and it is as good. This April, you can take Tiger from Bangalore to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) via Singapore for about 15k return.

Another low-cost to watch for is Air Asia, the Malaysian low-cost. Their inaugural sector from India is ex Trichy (and, no that is not in Cambodia, my metrosexual friend – it is in Tamil Nadu). You can fly Trichy to KL for a little over 11k return.

Going westwards, there is Air Arabia. Well discounted fares can take you to Sharjah from a number of airports India – Ahmedabad to Sharjah should cost you about 10 to 11k.

The good thing about these low-costs is the fact that most of them have new aircraft, which beats flying the aging fleet that is generally used by the full service guys ex India. The drawback is their lack of ‘service’,  the worst of  which is the draconian inflexibility on your bookings.

And so, if you want to set new standards for personal decadence in these times of recession, here is a thought. Fly a low-cost to a big international Asian city. Then check-in to the nearest Four Seasons for some serious pampering.  Just remember, these days even the Four Seasons are probably open to negotiating rates.

Bintan Island in the Riau archipelago – a prologue

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…

Stop Press : Go to Goa NOW!

Goa has had unseasonal rains. It rained loads in August instead of the usual June & July. And so, it looks extraordinarily green & lush now, with a wonderful ‘fresh & clean’ look. I was there for just one day over the weekend and had the good fortune to wander all over the Goan countryside just as dawn was breaking (all of this, after a full night of unique Goan revelry, which of course, is another subject).

The sight of light breaking over the lovely greenscapes of rural Goa, with the light mist slowly lifting in tendrils from the ground and the fresh smell of the damp red earth awakening to another day, is one of the more mystical experiences of life.

Go right away, even for a day to Goa. Once you get there, dont hang about near the sea. Go inland and check out Goa’s rural landscape. Obviously, all this has to be done between 4 and 7 am. You probably have a window of a fortnight to see this.

Dubai after 15 years

I was last in Dubai before it went beserk, about 15 years ago. As I write this post, sitting at the Jumeriah Beach hotel facing the Burj Al Arab, it is pretty clear that the madness here has some kind of a faintly discernible method. The method is, build fast, build more and build the mostest and they will come. And, so far, it seems to be working. Which beats me. Who in the right sense would want to go to the muggy water’s edge of the Arabian desert that is completely built up like Gurgaon? A lot of people apparently. After all, Gurgaon is at the edge of the Thar desert and the Arabian desert is a BIGGER desert. As usual, Dubai triumphs!

Weekend getaways from Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata and 10 other Indian cities

HolidayIQ has just revamped its weekend getaway section. Now one can find weekend getaway destinations as well as weekend getaway resorts/hotels by distance from each of the top 17 Indian cities.

Click here to see the new pages:

Weekend getaways from Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata

Weekend getaways from all 17 cities

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.

Best Summer Holiday Destinations in India

Here is a list of top (popular) destinations that Indian tourists are going to inside India during Summer 2008. This is from a tourism trends document recently released by HolidayIQ, part of a series called Holiday Intelligence.

Western region – Goa, Mahabaleshwar, Ganapatipule, Matheran, Alibaug

Southern region – Coorg, Bangalore rural, Kodaikanal, Nagarhole, Ooty

Northern region – Srinagar, Manali, Mussoorie, Jaipur, Binsar

Eastern region – Puri, Digha, Kolkata, Raichak, Shantiniketan

North-east – Gangtok, Shillong, Pelling, Guwahati

I had a lot of fun working on this along with the team – some cool insights there about Indian tourists. Incidentally, here is a link to a recent article in the Economic Times which quoted extracts from Holiday Intelligence.

If you’d like a copy of the document, send a mail to holidayintelligence@holidayiq.com.

HolidayIQ in Yahoo India Glue Page

Yahoo India has started a really interesting service called the ‘Glue page”. When you search for a phrase (on the search bar of Yahoo), this page shows composite results, including contextual visual results pulled from – as yahoo says – “the best sites anywhere on the web”. For Indian destination information, Yahoo India has decided to partner with HolidayIQ, which once again reinforces HolidayIQ’s position as the creator of the best tourism & travel content for Indians. Along with our already launched partnership with Google (hotel reviews in Google local search), this puts HolidayIQ on a platform where we are recognised as among the best in the world for our area of expertise – which is, helping everyone find high quality travel information & advice.

Sorry to get slightly puffed up on this, but is this cool or what?

Click here to see how HolidayIQ content comes up on a Yahoo Glue page >>

Read an article about Yahoo Glue Page on Content Sutra >>

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?

Planning a holiday abroad? Book your hotel online.

Over the last few weeks I have had a number of people asking me various doubts on planning an independent international holiday & particularly about booking hotels abroad. So, till such time as HolidayIQ launches a comprehensive international section (don’t worry, that is coming soon & I promise, it will be a great planning tool), here is a quick primer on how to book hotels & resorts abroad.

I am an online guy, so my first preference is always to book hotels online. With both Travelocity and Expedia launching India sites, the widest international hotel inventory is available to be booked from India and paid in Rupees. So, it sure beats your neighbourhood travel agent hollow. And since both sites have an Indian call centre, one can also talk to a real person in India to double check your bookings, which is often a real comfort.

I stress-tested booking a family room (4 people, 2 adults and 2 kids) at Orlando – in or around Disneyworld – on both the sites. Both Expedia & Travelocity did a good job and threw up a number of options (although Travelocity gave funny error messages & repeatedly failed in my Firefox browser which was a disappointment). However, Expedia’s search methodology was a shade more user-friendly since it allows you to find hotels by naming the Attraction you want to go to and throws up hotels around the attraction. Of course, both Travelocity & Expedia also allow you to narrow the list of hotels in the search results by distance or ease of access to the attraction.

Both excelled in prices. Hotel room prices around Disneyworld started in Expedia at Rs 1386 per night and in Travelocity at Rs 1583 per night. Continue reading

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.

A year on with The Long Hol..

It was exactly a year ago, on the 15th of Jan 2007 that I started this blog. It been fun. Much travel has got documented. Even more of my thoughts around travel have been recorded. I have hopefully moved closer to creating a personal style for my writing. It has certainly improved my understanding of that holy grail of the internet – Search Engine Optimisation. All in all, a nice journey so far. Except, it is starting to take up a fair bit of my early morning everyday.

Very surprisingly for me, this blog is starting to get some serious momentum. Its 3 month Alexa ranking stands at close to 300,000 and the rank for the last one week is 230,000; so it is clearly on a growth path. Alexa also ranks it as India’s 5667th most visited website, which is way cool for a blog started on a whim. I think all the stats seem to suggest that my little blog is probably India’s most visited travel blog. So, someone is reading this stuff I write – actually, more than someone, quite a lot of people. Crazy, isn’t it? Continue reading

HolidayIQ & Google

We finally went public with our deal with Google – Times of India broke the story nationally today.

For those of you who are interested, here are the top level details. Google Local Search is a service where google provides business listings as part of its search results. These listings are procured from a carefully selected group of content partners. The general idea is to have only very high-quality content aggregators and content creators as its content partners.

Over the last 2 to 3 months, Google did a fair bit of evaluation of our India accommodation content and came to the conclusion that it is high quality. They even did independent verification of telephone numbers etc! Anyway, finally, they agreed that our user review & photos content for an unmatched variety of hotels, resorts, home-stay and guest house accommodation in India was exactly what they were looking for. The service goes live sometime in Jan 2008.

Interestingly, most hotel reviews for India hotels is now being provided to Google by Tripadvisor, the world’s leader in travel user-content. The first Indian source for google will be HolidayIQ. It is a nice feeling to be now equated with Tripadvisor.

We might not make much noise and have screaming ads. But we certainly have very good content. Which is what matters, ultimately. A happy development.

More launches on HolidayIQ

Last week, we did the soft-launch of ‘The Vacationer‘ an e-magazine for the, well, vacationer. The idea is to create a space on HolidayIQ where the vacation enthusiast can ‘hang around’, even if there is no imminent holiday being planned. This works as a nice complement to the rest of the site, which is very focused on planning a specific holiday. Now that HolidayIQ has built a world-class travel editorial team, this initiative looks like it will acquire its own momentum. Maybe one day, this can spin off as a print magazine as well.

A lot of new, fun stuff is on the anvil. A fairly significant thrust into Travel Videos  & much else too. Keeps one busy.

Click here for all my posts on HolidayIQ.