News is EasyCruise is coming to India for this winter season to be based out of Mumbai.
News is EasyCruise is coming to India for this winter season to be based out of Mumbai.
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.
I read recently that 2009-10 is an important year for India since all children born during the beginnings of India’s economic liberalisation of 1991-92 turn 18 years of age now.
The news brought back memories. My dad was in the civil services and during that tumultous phase was for a while one of the three secretaries (ie. a senior bureaucrat) of the ministry of finance during Mr Manmohan Singh’s stint as India’s finance minister. I remember those days being vicariously involved in the whole liberalisation process. Dad would rush off to many meetings looking excited (a 55 year old bureaucrat getting excited is always a sight!) and would come home all agog with the news that things are changing in India.
I was a child of the cusp. My working life started in 1989 just before all this brouhaha (as a trainee software jock in TCS after qualifying as a chartered accountant, but that is another story) and in 1991 the world changed pretty definitively. The most immediate impact of India’s economic liberalisation was that my salary went from an adequate (at that time at least) Rs 2500 per month to an absurdly indecent figure of Rs 10,000 per month. What with that and my dad’s old amby, I was even able to attract girlfriends, which is of course the acme of life at that stage. So, I remain forever a commited free-marketeer and hormones are partly to blame.
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.
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…
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.
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.
In “India – a million mutinies now“, Naipaul makes the point that India’s political identity as one country is a recent creation and that it goes against the grain of her long history. He concludes therefore that this aberration called modern India will give way at some stage and the country will break-up to form the large number of small political units that have historically existed in South Asia. Gloomy Gus, isnt he?
So, when the BSE tanks (as it seems do every few years and amazingly, seems to surprise a lot of people each time), I refuse to panic. To me, the prospect of the larger melt-down forecast by Naipaul is the real worry. If that were ever to come to pass, life will be very different from what we see today.
Will it happen? The answer my friend is blowin in the wind.
So, let us give our collective index finger a lick and hold it up to the breeze. And remind ourselves that history is full of funny, unanticipated things that seem to happen again & again.
To take just a couple of examples from the very recent past across the world. The collapse of the soviet Union, a State so overwhelming in its projection of power that when the wall crumbled in Berlin one night on TV, I simply could not assimilate it. Similarly the break-up of the Balkans (the word balkanisation had for a few years become a relic, an anachronism – and suddenly, in just the space of a few months we learned why the word meant what it did).
One of the reasons ascribed to the rise of English as a world language is that it is a pretty basic one with fairly elemental rules. Since it really did not have an orthodoxy, and rose from the ‘grassroots’ (so to speak) it was easily adopted by ordinary people and grew and grew. And the very same absence of a language clergy also probably allowed it to freely borrow from others (a la cummerbund and mulligatawny among a vast array).
Looking back at the history of languages, one is struck by the fraility of classical languages. Latin never really caught on in a big way and neither did Sanskrit. It seems that classical languages were by nature designed to exclude and in that design lay their own seeds of destruction. For, language has no life if it is not widely adopted.
Given India’s population projection for the next 50 years and combined with the explosion of communication, it is certain that an Indian language stands a good chance of emerging as one of the leading languages of the world. Which will this be? Hindi is an obvious candidate. Like English, it has the enormous advantage of a plebian provenance. And, of course, it is spoken in one form or the other by a very large segment of the Indian population. So, its spread to the whole of India and then to the rest of the world will not be surprising.
But hold on – a dark horse emerges. English is probably the fastest growing language in India. In the Bharat of today, it is the language of entitlement and is it any wonder that Mr Laloo Prasad’s English comments during a railway budget are often the source of the most attention? So, maybe, just maybe, English as we say it will become the lingua franca of the world.
So, when the Economic Times is unable to make up its mind whether the high growth of Telecom in India is a ‘whooping growth’ or a ‘whopping growth’ (‘whooping’ generally wins hands-down), the language purist in me defers to the nationalist. For I know, getting this right is really not that important. Enough people saying it the same way as the ET does, is. That is the way of languages.
Having said that, I would enjoy my morning cuppa more if they could also call it ‘whopping cough’. Makes things more consistent & I really like that.
About a year ago I was in Australia. As is my wont during my wanderings, I spent a full evening lazily in my hotel bed, largely because I had done too much walking up & down the littoral forests in Byron Bay. And chanced upon a TV program that I am constantly reminded of as the political yada, yada goes on in India about the nuclear deal.
It was a chat show with a number of Aussie nuclear experts and the debate was from the perspective of a big nuclear fuel producer, which Australia is. Among the various pros & cons that was discussed, one fact stood starkly ahead of all others. Spent nuclear fuel is extremely dangerous and takes at least 10,000 years to become relatively less harmful. Get this – 10,000 years!
Now, I have the utmost respect for the government & corporations in India (well…almost, ‘utmost’). But would I fully trust them to handle the world’s most toxic substance that can wipe out whole communities if not handled properly and which we know ab-initio will require at least 10,000 years to become relatively harmless?
In all this nuclear deal brouhaha in India, I have not come across a single media comment, newspaper article or TV program that focuses on the substantive issue of whether India should have significant nuclear power. We seem to be all focused on the vastly more entertaining political soap that is unfolding.
Sometimes, it takes a view from outside to tell us what the real issue is. For me, that unintended viewing of a TV show while slumming in bed in a hotel in Byron Bay has given useful perspective on the nuclear issue. This thing is not about our Prime Minister’s prestige or of the shenanigans of assorted politicians and hangers-on or of the impact of the Hyde Act on our nuclear weapons or any of the scores of other considerations that seem to dominate prime-time & the front pages. It is a real issue of playing with very dangerous substances and its potential impact on a heavily populated country.
Luddite, I dont think I am. But, taking this country steeply down the path of nuclear power is a step that common sense suggests to me is full of risk and we better show maturity in assessing it’s relevance for our country. Maybe, there are good ways to handle the risks, maybe not. I certainly don’t know. But it does require a better quality of debate than we seem to be having and my respect for Indian media would undoubtedly be higher if that quality of debate was forthcoming.
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 Chinese had Fa-Hien, the Arabs Al-Baruni, the Africans Ibn Batuta and the Europeans Marco Polo – world famous travellers all, who put their respective lands on the travelling map of the ancient world. In this melee of ancient international travel, India stood aloof. No one from India travelled or explored. Maybe some like the sea-farers of the west coast did – but no one wrote about it and certainly no one became famous. Nope, we never had our ‘travellers’. Ancient Indian (read : Indo-gangetic, brahminical) texts talk of becoming a mleccha (an impure person) upon crossing a sea. Maybe this was the reason – but in any case, Travel in ancient India was not a cool thing to do,
Funnily enough, the other way for people to discover lands in ancient times was by marching off for conquest. In antiquity, the Mongols did it in Asia, the Romans & the Greeks in Europe – conquest of foreign lands was certainly cool for most of the world. But except for a brief period when India’s eastern kingdoms used their maritime power to spread the Indian idiom to East Asia, India has not done much conquest abroad. We seemed to have been pretty caught up with ourselves.
Strange as it may sound, India’s most powerful ‘conqueror’ of antiquity was probably Gautama Buddha, who brought the entire peoples of China, Japan & much of Asia under his sway. And his credo was, ‘don’t kill anything, not even an insect!’
As I do more travelling, exploring & writing, I am starting to sense a real opportunity here. All I have to do is to travel a lot (not too difficult), write about it (do-able) and get famous enough for everyone to know my name after 500 years (ahem..). If I can do that, I will be the first Indian ‘traveller’ which means a historical minority of One.
Now, isn’t that cool?
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
American movies were having a good year. Top releases included Frankenstein, Mata Hari, Chaplin’s City Lights and James Cagney’s Public Enemy in addition to Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Other world events too were apace. Thomas Edison was filing his last patent application. New Delhi became India’s capital. The Empire State Building was being completed. Mao Zedong proclaimed the Chinese Soviet Republic and Haile Selassie signed Ethiopia’s first Constitution.
And in that year, a young man from the backwoods country in the southern tip of India set sail for England to pursue the dream of higher education. Along with 5 other Indians, he would be among the first batch of St Catherine’s College in Oxford University. And would later be immortalised as ‘Lost Alumni‘.
I haven’t as yet informed the Dons at St Catherine’s; but if ever there was a person who was not lost, it was this young man. He went on to do a lot of stuff in life, none of which could be characterised as ‘lost’. I know it, because I knew this young man very well.
But in that world, where telephony was an idea and long distance transport was rudimentary, such displacement was probably the equivalent of ‘lost’.
All of this came to me while listening to Paul Theroux the other day. Continue reading
(Daman & Diu tourism map, courtesy eindiamaps)
In my quest for little known destinations across India, especially beach destinations, I have been pondering about Daman & Diu. Since I haven’t got there yet, checked up the reviews on HolidayIQ for Daman & Diu. Here is the gist.
Go to Daman & Diu largely because it close to Mumbai and Ahmedabad. A big thing there seems to be booze, since it is surrounded by ‘dry’ Gujarat. Travel between Nani Daman & Moti Daman (the 2 parts of the territory) by boat. Check out the beaches. Although the beaches are clean, they are a bit muddy (not sandy) and so might not be great for the usual beach experience. Sea food is good.
There are 39 resorts & hotels listed for Daman & Diu, which came as a bit of a surprise. Cidade De Daman seems to be a popular place to stay.
Not sure this is getting me all excited. But, maybe I will keep it for a rainy day so to speak.
As many of you would have figured out by now, I am besotted by most things Chinese, starting with Beijing Roast Duck. It is one of my ambitions to spend two separate periods of 6 months each, wandering across India & China. One to re-discover my own country. The second to figure out what is to me the most intriguing other country on earth.
I just found a site which focuses on only Indian & China. Called
, it has certainly piqued my curiosity and I intend to dig into it over the next few days.
(One among the 3 trillion videos in cyberspace on India vs China. I selected it for its pretty anchors).
Get on to the District Line (green) on the London tube and aim for Wimbledon. Alight at a station called Fulham Broadway and turn left as you come out of the station; walk for about a quiet mile and you get to Chelsea Harbour. London is full of surprisingly nice boroughs and Chelsea Harbour is one of them. If you are in London, are interested in Interior Design and have a few hours to spare to meander out a bit, this is an interesting little trip.
I found Chelsea Harbour a few years ago because I was chasing up a new design centre I had heard rumours of. Chelsea Design Centre - CDC – is a nice concept if you happen to like anything associated with Interior design. (I do, so the interest). CDC is a one-stop mall for various outlets providing designer products for all interior design requirements. When I visited it a few years ago, it was almost exclusively focused on Architects and Builders. I recollect wondering why they had not promoted themselves among the aam janata and I am happy to report that they seem to done it now. It is a concept crying out to be done in India; I think Mumbai, Delhi & Bangalore can each take one such place.
The other interesting place is the Chelsea Harbour Marina which as the name suggests is, well, a Marina. A lovely little marina on the Thames ringed by residential buildings that obviously provide a respite for harassed but well-heeled Londoners.
Here is the link to all my Europe posts.
And, here you can find stuff classified under European Cuisine.
(Charter a yacht for your next holiday. Photo from Sunseeker)
Paradiso, the new tour operator brand launched by the Sahara group focuses only on premium & exotic holidays – Scottish castles, French vineyards, Caribbean beaches, Fancy yachts – the whole caboodle. I like the idea and have been mulling over the execution of such a model for some time. The problems are obvious, notably the size of the market & the sales delivery method. But for a player ready to slowly and carefully build a brand, the medium to long-term value creation from such a business can be significant. After all, India is creating an uber-rich class faster than any other country on earth with the possible exception of China. And clearly ‘Experiences’ are trumping ‘Things’ as the true indulgences. So the need is there, which is an excellent starting point. The question is – have Indians, even rich Indians, got to the point where spending over USD 15,000 (Rs 6 lakhs) on a luxury holiday is ‘natural’? My conversations with a number of friends in the tour operator business & our own experience on HolidayIQ tells me that it is starting to slowly happen, especially among the younger rich.
Which brings me to another point. I am absolutely convinced that for Indians, the ‘Art of Spending Money’ is a tougher one to master than the art of earning money, simply because we will have to unlearn generations of our own mindset. (I am just back from another one of my ‘holiday observation trips’, this time to Hong Kong and it was obvious that the Chinese have a natural flair for spending money which we do not have). As Indians get richer, I am sure we will figure out how to spend money. The faster that happens, the easier Paradiso & others of its ilk will find life.
Click here to find out about a holiday in outer space,
Click here to find other posts around luxury holidays,
And finally, here is my selection of the Top 5 Holidays for Winter 2007.
I was at the ET Awards do in Bangalore last evening. Everyone but everyone was talking about the big daddies of the future world – China & India. How they will drive growth, how they will reshape geopolitics, how they will change everything. The mood was generally upbeat, as it would be when there is an armchair discussion inside a five star room full of well fed & ‘well drunked’ rich men (mostly).
But I view things with altogether more concern. For I can see the big battle brewing between these two powers that I think will shake the foundations of world civilisation as we know it. I am referring of course to the battle to become the world’s epicurian default setting. In the next decade, lightly done & midly aromatic chinese food with fresh vegetables & mixed meats will meet the the sensory overload of fried + spiced, strongly vegetarian Indian cuisine in an all-out war for hungry mouths worldwide. And the best part is, I have no clue which will win.
But in a ressurective spirit of Panchsheel, let me propose a partnership. As all of us who have travelled to the deepest interior of our land know, there is a diabolical dish whipped up by ‘chotu’ chefs across a million dhabas, that has the potential to bring these two warring parties to the table and create a whole new cuisine that can quite effectively take over the world without shedding an unnecessary drop of ketchup. I am obviously referring to Gopi Manjoori (nee Gobi Manchurian), that versatile creation that I can never have enough of.
God, save me from cut-jeans bimbettes taking us on the world’s most boring journeys. Why, oh why do we have the extraordinarily yawn-inducing travel shows on Indian television?
Good travel shows have a few obvious elements. The first is an interesting anchor – someone with a personality; which means he or she has had a life, has seen the world, has a fresh viewpoint on things and still has the nous to tell a tale. 25 year old cheerleader types from the chattering classes of Delhi & Mumbai DO NOT fall into this category. Neither for that matter does tired editors of news channels. The next requirement is an underlying theme. Food is a great theme. Hotel detectives, the idea of checking out hotels incognito, is another theme that works. Why not also (Frater’s) ‘Follow the monsoon’ or (my very own) ‘Follow the Indian mango trail’ as themes for a uniquely Indian travel show? Or maybe something around Nostalgia. I can think of at least 10 other interesting thematic possibilities. Hey guys, there is no harm in thinking. The last requirement is a storyline that incorporates real human beings in believable situations. Considering India is bursting with interesting characters at every turn, this should be not too difficult to do.
And just in case money is the problem, here is my plea to the bean counters at TV channels, – please release more budgets. Indian travellers are growing up, they are big-spenders, your advertisers salivate at the prospect of reaching out to them – so well made shows with enough money spent is a good investment.
Kunal Vijayakar & the Times Now team do a reasonable job with the Foodie Show, which is the only Indian travel show I can stomach (so to speak). I am waiting for more like this.