|Indian people bathing in the ghat near the Dakshineswar Kali Temple near Kolkata (Calcutta) // Photo by Radiokafka / Shutterstock.com|
Travel consultant Linda Silver, aka “The Travel Stylist,” specializes in bespoke luxury travel. She regularly sends clients to exotic destinations all over the world. Among those travelers there are a number of them who are “desperate to go” to India, she says.
Fortunately for India’s tourism industry, they are not alone — in fact, their numbers are growing.
Tourist counts and visitor spending are both on the rise. Americans make up the largest foreign source market of visitors to India. But they’re a much more diverse group than in the past.
Raju Ahmed, president and CEO of Exotic Journeys International, first began selling India tours in 1979.
“India will always be a cultural tourist destination. But in the old days, it attracted people we called the ‘original world travelers.’ They would think about India after they had already been to 15 or 16 countries. India was simply a place for them to check off the list,” Ahmed says.
“Now we see younger people. Growth in the Millennial market is a definite trend. They have their own ideas and interests and they also have money,” says Ahmed.
Seema Prakash, destination manager, India and the subcontinent for Cox & Kings, The Americas, agrees that the potential market for India is expanding.
“Over the last five years we have had a more balanced age group going to India,” Prakash says. “We see people in their 40s through their 70s. The majority of travelers we see today are couples; couples traveling with other couples and small groups. India has always enjoyed multigeneration travel and that continues. We see Millennials traveling with their parents. Girlfriend getaways are also rising in popularity.”
|Bengal Tigers in Bandhavgarh National Park can be seen on Abercrombie & Kent’s “Wildlife & the Golden Triangle.” // Photo provided by Abercrombie & Kent|
The key to reaching Millennials, Matures and every combination thereof is to understand what India has to offer. And perhaps, more importantly, get rid of some preconceived notions.
“The misconception that India is a poor country, not up to the mark for travelers, is still out there,” says Ahmed. “The opposite is true. India is the eighth largest economy in the world. It is going through such rapid changes. All the major technology companies have a presence there. The middle class is expanding. Infrastructure is improving. And you’ll find some of the best hotels in the world there.”
To sell India successfully, he adds, agents need a deep knowledge of the destination.
“It’s a huge country that offers amazing beauty, culture and people. You can do so much there, depending on your interests. One of the most incredible trips I’ve taken was a Bengal Tiger safari in central India. Every day we were in vehicles looking for these beautiful creatures. I learned about things like the ghost trees, which I had not known about. India offers some fantastic options for clients,” says Silver.
|Maharaja Express Presidential Suite is an example of the luxury accommodations aboard India’s elite touring trains. // Photo provided by Indian Holiday Pvt. Ltd.|
What to Sell
Silver recommends an “India 101” trip for first-time visitors. The “Golden Triangle” of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur is the country’s signature introductory tour. A modern expressway now reduces the travel time between the iconic destinations.
“I suggest doing the basics first. You go to Delhi, you go to Agra. You have to get used to the culture, the food, the people and the sounds. Then you can go deeper,” says Silver. After the Golden Triangle, extensions to Udaipur or Mumbai are especially popular, suggests Prakash.
Beth Sherer, product manager India and Asia for Abercrombie & Kent, says that most of their clients opt for add-ons to the south of India.
Clients who can’t decide between north and south India might consider “Iconic India with G Adventures and National Geographic Journeys.” It ventures from Delhi to Cherai Beach on a two-week introduction to the country. Highlights include opulent forts and palaces in Rajasthan; a houseboat stay in the backwaters of Kerala; spice markets, fish markets and talks by local scholars. The tour also includes the “Pink City” of Jaipur and the Taj Mahal.
The “Iconic India” tour is one of 11 new or expanded G Adventures itineraries in India for 2016. The National Geographic Journeys tours stem from a new partnership with the legendary brand. They’re designed to highlight destinations and in-depth experiences featured on the pages of National Geographic magazine over the years.
|One of India’s prized monuments, the Gateway of India was built in Mumbai in 1924 and is a major tourist hub in the city.|
Luxury and Variety
No matter the itinerary, it’s luxury travel that’s in high demand.
“We’re getting many more requests for the luxury category these days. That’s in large part due to greater awareness about hotel brands and palace chains. The Oberoi, Taj and Leela brands are making a name for themselves. Clients read about them in the glossy magazines and they want to be the first ones to stay there. We have the multi-national brands coming here as well. Most hotels have world-class health clubs, yoga, meditation and spa facilities. Those are all features clients want,” says Ahmed. As for travel styles, visitors are gravitating to intimate, small-group tours.
“Looking ahead to 2016 and even into early 2017, we’re once again seeing a nice upward track for India,” says Alexander+Roberts spokesperson Mickey Huang.
“Our luxury small group journeys are our most popular program in India. We go with almost full departures,” says A&K’s Sherer.
Small group size of no more than 16-18 persons has its advantages. Guests on Alexander+Roberts’ “Land of Maharajahs” enjoy tea and conversation with a Jaipur family; two ancient rituals along the Ganges in Varanasi; and a six-passenger Jeep 4X4 in Ranthambore National Park rather than traditional 25-seaters.
Abercrombie & Kent’s “Taj Mahal & the Treasures of India” also includes the much-requested Bengal Tiger experience. Likewise a visit to Bandhavgarh National Park is part of its “Wildlife & the Golden Triangle” itinerary.
“We’re consistently seeing more and more sightings every year. Conservation work has increased the [tiger] population at the parks,” says Sherer.
Both A&K and A+R offer special small group departures to coincide with the Pushkar Fair in November. Clients looking for the ultimate in custom travel may look ahead to December. That’s when A&K debuts a new product called “Wings Over India.”
Guests travel via private charter flights with no layovers or connections. The 15-day itinerary includes a visit to the Taj Mahal at sunrise and sunset; a Bengal tiger safari in Panna National Park and a private boat cruise on Lake Pichola in Udaipur, among other highlights. Accommodations on the $28,995 tour include the Taj Lake Palace and Rambagh Palace.
“’Wings Over India’ is a completely new type of program. It’s very hot, we’re seeing lots of interest. There is one date for 2016, but we are considering continuing it in 2017. There’s definitely a market for it. People are willing to pay for the convenience it provides,” says Sherer.
Up and Coming
India’s iconic destinations will always land atop visitor wish lists, but options are expanding.
The states of West Bengal (which is actually in eastern India) and Nagaland in the northeast are increasingly on the radar, says Sherer.
“West Bengal and its capital of Calcutta [Kolkata] have such a colonial past. There is so much British heritage there, it’s the former capital. Travel there really helps guests understand how India emerged as its own nation, with all the different religious influences and ways of life. Calcutta doesn’t have much tourism. But we’re considering several new products there for 2017,” says Sherer.
Train travel is also picking up steam.
“Interest in train travel has risen sharply and we proudly offer multiple train journeys of all lengths and destinations through the sub-continent,” says Prakash.
Luxury train operators such as Maharaja Express, Palace on Wheels, Royal Rajasthan on Wheels and Deccan Odyssey provide some interesting options, says Ahmed.
“Honeymoon requests are perfect for trains. Couples don’t have to waste time traveling between city to city or wait at an airport. They check in once and spend five or seven nights in unbelievable luxury,” he adds.
Finding Their Niche
Niche interests are also shaping itineraries.
“We have seen a rise in clients wanting to see India from more unique and cultural relevant places to stay. As a result we introduced ‘Esoteric Rajasthan’ this year. It offers accommodation in forts and palaces,” says Prakash.
Two years ago, Cox & Kings introduced its “Textiles of India” program, to great success.
“We have been planning textile themed trips for clients for many years and as a result we introduced the ‘Textiles of India’ program. We primarily are seeing couples traveling who have a desire to learn more about the textiles for decorating their home. On occasion we will assist a designer who is looking on behalf of their work as well,” says Prakash.
River cruises directed at the North American market are also coming of age. Abercrombie & Kent began offering a Ganges river cruise in late 2015.
“The cruises offer an incredibly unique experience. Unlike other destinations, there really aren’t that many boats on the river yet. You might see perhaps one other boat. The cruise begins and ends in Calcutta, it goes through West Bengal. You get off at sunrise and see people plowing fields with oxcarts. Little kids come up to greet you. They’re so excited to practice their English. This is untouched India,” says Sherer.
The seven-day cruise on the new Ganges Voyager is available on the 16-day “India & Nepal: The Taj Mahal, Mt. Everest and a Ganges River Cruise” program.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has also introduced a Ganges River cruise. The 13-day “India’s Golden Triangle & the Sacred Ganges” includes five nights on land at Oberoi properties in Agra, Jaipur and New Delhi. A seven-night cruise follows round trip from Calcutta. Passengers sail aboard the new 56-passenger all-suite Ganges Voyager II.
G Adventures has also introduced new river cruises on the Ganges River on the 24-passenger Varuna. “Cruise the Ganges with G Adventures” is an eight-day program from Patna to Calcutta.
“Cruise the Ganges with G Adventures and National Geographic Journeys” is a 12-day program from Calcutta to Varanasi. Among other highlights, passengers will meet with a monk at the Mahabodhi Vihar temple complex. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is believed to be the spot where Buddha attained enlightenment.
Mid-September through Mid-March is the traditional peak season for India travel. But, Ahmed believes it could be year-round.
“People have preconceived ideas that India is hotter than Death Valley in California. That’s why it’s now only a six or seven-month destination. But agents should remember that India is huge. During summer, you have the north side of Kashmir and the Himalayas. You can go all the way to Darjeeling,” says Ahmed.
Cox & Kings offers The Ultimate Traveling Camp, which provides options in the hottest months.
“With the creation of a new ultra-luxury camp, a visit to the base of the Himalayan Mountains in Buddhist India is now accessible. This campsite makes it possible to visit India in the summer and brings a level of comfort and hospitality that was not available prior,” says Prakash.
Expanding the notion of what is and isn’t feasible in India is critical to maintaining the country’s tourist momentum, says Ahmed.
“The Tourism Board is doing a better job marketing India in the last few years. But it’s still up to those of us who sell India to do the job. This is a country that offers something for every type of tourist. Culture, architecture, people, wildlife, trekking, mountaineering, you name it. We have it all,” he adds.