The world has changed, and recreational and romantic travel at the moment seems like a distant dream. But even during these restrictive times, companies and super-luxe hotels are offering a paradisiacal escape. A look at all that has changed in terms of travel itineraries and options.
Short-Hauls A Safer Bet?
"Pre-Covid, people made these complex itineraries involving long-haul travel," says Pritish Shah, Founder and CEO, A Travel Duet (which organises personalised romantic getaways for couples) and A Travel Circle (A bespoke travel brand launched in June 2020 that crafts holidays for intimate groups). "They wanted to travel 20 days in Central America, or do Australia-New Zealand-Bora Bora." The hottest destinations were Mexico, Costa Rica, Cuba, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Lapland (in the winter, to see the Northern Lights and polar bears). But now, connectivity to long-haul destinations is out of the window, since travel for tourism is currently not allowed, unless for certain 'bubbles' such as the Maldives (recently announced), Sri Lanka, or Dubai. "It's point to point," says Shah, "And now, we are seeing a bit of the travel sentiment pick up."
Also, due to the sudden lockdown in March, many couples had to cancel their honeymoon plans. "There will be this pent-up demand," says Shah. "Couples who were stuck, will get married. People have started asking - where will we go and what will we do?" Only short trips are likely for now. "Do a mini-moon - for four to five days or 10 days, and then plan a bigger trip next year, starting April 2021, or a summer getaway, when things are more solid from a Covid standpoint," adds Shah.
With the traditional wedding season of November to February around the corner, the usual suspects - Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand are shut until the end of the year, at least. "We expect more travel bubbles to open up - the UK, France, Germany, the US - which will allow people to travel for leisure," says Shah. He feels it could be Christmas in the UK, or somewhere wintry, or California. "But we don't know about the second surge, and how the virus will react," he adds.
What's On The List?
Hotels and resorts have upped their safety standards. "All our staff wears face masks and gloves in their areas of work - be it in the villa, at the restaurant or spa," says Meenakshi Sundaram, General Manager for The Residence Maldives at Falhumaafushi and Dhigurah. "Hand sanitisers are placed in prominent places around the resort for guest use. Additionally, being located on private islands, all our villas at both Falhumaafushi and Dhigurah are well spaced to provide honeymooning guests their own private sanctuary." The Residence Maldives can be accessed via a domestic flight from Male, followed by a speedboat ride. (The resort blends traditional Maldivian architecture with contemporary elegance and modern with 94 villas in Falhumaafushi and 173 villas on Dhigurah). Guests enjoy cycling under coconut trees or on the longest private bridge in the Maldives, taking a dip in the deepest and largest atoll (an island or chain of islands formed of coral) of Gaafu Alifu and snorkel around the house reef of The Residence Maldives with baby sharks, sea turtles, eagle rays and colourful fish.
Another Maldivian resort that is all set to woo honeymooners is the Kandima Maldives. "A major aspect that sets the Kandima Maldives apart, is complete privacy for couples, since we are located on a 3.2-km long, secluded island in the middle of the Indian Ocean," says Neeraj Seth, Director of Marketing Communication and Public Relations, Kandima Maldives. They, too, have their own set of sanitising protocols, named K' OnGuard. The programme provides an additional layer of safety for complete peace of mind for guests. An in-house Medical Klinic with state-of-the-art technology and internationally acclaimed doctors is available around the clock. The resort has expansive Honeymoon Aqua Pool Villas with infinity pool and sun deck, and Ocean Pool Villas, half over the ocean, and half over the beach. Couples can indulge in Reiki and Walking Meditation classes; in the morning, there are the 'most Instagrammable floating breakfasts' to look forward to in a private pool; and dining from The Fresh Lab, a sustainable initiative for locally sourced Malidivian food. There's even an in-house photography studio, Snap!, for personalised photography and videography for the couple.
And if it's neighbouring Ceylon you are headed to, then Resplendent Ceylon (part of the Relais & Chateaux group) provides couples with a safe space for their honeymoon, in isolated locations and SafeStay protocols in place.
"Weve noticed that couples like to visit beautiful locations that offer unique experiences," says Chamindra Goonewardene, Director of Sales and Marketing at Resplendent Ceylon. "For instance, the south coast is where you'll find some of Sri Lanka's most popular beaches that are renowned for their surf and whale-watching offerings. Weligama offers the widest variety of surf breaks so is loved by beginners and seasoned surfers alike, and for couples wanting to return home with a new-found skill. Cape Weligama's five-night surf experience ensures you'll make the most of these legendary waves." Couples at Wild Coast Tented Lodge get an up-close and personal wildlife experience in Yala, with elephants and wild boar often found roaming through the lodge. Couples at Ceylon Tea Trails, a collection of restored tea planters bungalows, can opt for a private tour of the Dunkeld Tea Factory, learning more about the journey of tea from leaf to cup, and the story of the family behind Dilmah Tea, who pioneered the concept of single origin Sri Lankan tea back in the 1980s.
Personalisation is everything in travel. "For a couples' trip to the Maldives, we try to give the little touches that go beyond the first-rate resort they stay in," says Shah of A Travel Duet. "From a movie experience under the stars, to having a pre-recorded message from their friends upon arrival, to making sure that amenities are to their liking - a couple may or may not like champagne in their room or on arrival - it's about knowing the consumer."
As preferred partner to luxury destinations around the world - from the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Marriott International, Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts, Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, to Relais & Chateaux - Shah's companies gives a value-add to guests every time they book with him (it could be a spa credit, or complimentary breakfast, or a late checkout). "We were never about a city focus," he says.
"We go to vineyards, beaches, mountains - always in spaces that were open and wide, for example, a lodge in the middle of nowhere, in Botswana. That is the kind of experience we are working with for the future - we want to make sure our consumers are out in the wilderness enjoying the experience - where social distancing is maintained," he adds.
ATravel Duet has a special celebrations team and a romance director to organise couples' activities at the resort. "They can do a treasure hunt or a romantic picnic, take painting classes, or we can organise a jigsaw puzzle with their faces on it," says Shah. "It's up to them what they want to do. Younger couples are looking at learning experiences - whether it's a cocktail-making class, or learning to be a DJ. They want to go beyond museum walks and things like that."
And what is the most remote place that A Travel Duet has taken couples to? "So many don't know about Botswana or Namibia - with its uninhabited landscape of desert, ocean, safaris, and miles of open space," says Shah. "Imagine doing a road trip - we book the cars and research the roads and driving distances."
His firm partners with car brands (from modern to vintage) to enable this; it has also allowed couples to drive on ice in Lapland - where Audi and Mercedes-Benz cars are used for testing in icy conditions. He's even booked the Neon museum in Las Vegas for the whole night for couples' photoshoots.
The Creme De La Creme
A Travel Duet works along two categories - Deluxe and Signature. The first is entry-level luxury (Rs 7-8 lakh for a couple for a 8-10 day trip), while for the other, luxury has "no end" as Shah puts it (anything above Rs 20 lakh, with senior consultants, perks, exquisite servicing; it could include a private jet and resort costs).
And what does his client list looks like? "We have top industrialists and business families, and below that is the percentage that flies business and first class all the time," says Pritish. "On commercial flights - supposing we run charters of 20-seaters for the Maldives, instead of costing Rs 1 lakh per seat, this would cost Rs 2-3 lakh a seat. They wouldn't mind spending that money to have that exclusive experience."
Some Signature experiences for couples include a Dior perfume workshop visit and a meeting with the Dior family, or a tour of the headquarters of Salvatore Ferragamo Atelier and a wine tour with Chairman Ferruccio Ferragamo himself.
"We really try to give consumers what they love," says Shah, "In Mexico City, you can't leave unless you try taco-making, as it's a culinary hub. In Vietnam, we had a family in Hoya for A Travel Circle do a Vespa tour of the city, riding through fields, it was a delight."
"Right now, if a couple can't go to London for a romantic holiday or an anniversary, then they want to recreate a magical experience for their spouses from London," adds Shah. "We hired a Michelin-starred chef to do a digital cookoff from London, while they cooked in India, it was all about creating that experience, side by side."
As for the future of travel itself, Shah remains optimistic. "Travel will never go away," he says. "It's fun! In the last 15 days, my calls are increasing. People are frustrated, and are planning for next year. There is pent-up demand, and as flights pick up so will travel." Things may not return to the way they were for another two-three years, but new trends are emerging. "There will be a paradigm shift."
The author is a Delhi-based writer