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New horizons

Improved connectivity and proactive tourism boards have led to the birth of new holiday destinations—from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh to Agatti in Lakshadweep. But a lot more needs to be done.

Dhiman Chattopadhyay        Print Edition: April 18, 2010

For the Kolkata-based Dasguptas, a holiday in the hills had always meant a trip to Darjeeling or, when money and time permitted, a longer one to distant Manali. But, last October, tempted by the pictures their teenaged son's friend had put up on Facebook, the family of four booked a trip to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. "It was unlike any other holiday we had ever taken. True, the hotels were not top class, but the views made up for it. I have never breathed cleaner air, nor seen such pristine blue lakes. The people were very friendly too and my wife bought a suitcase load of local handicraft," recalls Abhik Dasgupta, 47, Manager of a nationalised bank branch in Kolkata.

As the Manalis, Darjeelings, Goas and Ootys of the world get saturated with thousands of tourists visiting them even in off season, the Indian holiday maker is increasingly seeking greener pastures. Or even the salt pans of the Rann of Kutch, to get a glimpse of wild asses.

EMERGING HOT SPOTS
THE PLACESEASONTHE LURE
Agatti, LakshadweepOct.-Mar., MonsoonsVirgin beaches, few tourists, paragliding, snorkeling.
Little Rann of Kutch, GujaratSept.-Mar.Saline desert cum seasonal wetland. The Indian wild ass; migratory birds. Home-stays in tribal mud huts.
Leh, KashmirMar.-May, Aug.-Oct.Trekking, rafting, luxury tents.
Kaziranga, AssamOct.-Mar.One-horned rhino and elephant rides.
Coorg, KarnatakaAll yearCoffee plantations, home-stays.
Cherrapunji, Meghalaya Oct.-Mar.One of the wettest places on earth; Natural bridges made of trees.
Sangla, HimachalMar.-Jun.Trekking, deluxe tents, not yet accessible by air or train.
Tawang, ArunachalSept.-Mar.Unspoilt natural lakes and hills.
Bamboo products and sarees.
Spiti, HimachalMar.-Jun.Home-stays. Ideal for long walks;
families with elderly people.
Sindhudurg, MaharashtraOct.-Mar., MonsoonsLuxury home-stay facilities.
Based on top 10 emerging destinations identified by Cox & Kings and Countryside Adventure Holidays.

"We regularly get enquiries from individuals, families and groups about new destinations, which have more open spaces and are not overcrowded," says Kirit Thakar, Senior Tourist Officer, Gujarat Tourism. While places such as Somnath and Gir continue to get tourists, it is the success of less-trod places such as the Little Rann and Dholavira (India's largest Harappan civilisation site, where excavation is still on) that has got Thakar excited.

"Till 2006-07, barely 300 tourists would visit the Rann of Kutch even in the October to March peak season. In 2009, that number shot up to a little over 7,800, an increase of over 25 times in less than three years," points out Thakar. Earnings from tourism in Kutch and the adjoining regions have also grown from just Rs 15-16 crore in 2007 to almost Rs 50 crore in 2009. What triggered this spurt? The Gujarat government started package tours to Dholavira and the Rann and also tied up with residents for home-stay facilities. "We have converted several traditional tribal mud huts or boogas into modern double-bed rooms with attached baths. These are a big hit with both foreign and Indian tourists," says Thakar.

The fact that there are more Indians under the age of 35 than ever before is also a reason why offbeat destinations are gaining in popularity. The young are willing to experiment, try out new places. They enjoy camping and staying in tents and more and more families are now asking about home-stay options on holidays, say tour operators. Fivestar hotels are not a must with the young, unlike their 50-plus counterparts who like to wallow in the luxury of a deluxe suite. According to Karan Anand, Head, Relationships and Marketing of Cox & Kings India, some of the most soughtafter emerging destinations are Cherrapunji, Kaziranga and Tawang in the North-east, Agatti in the Lakshadweep islands and the Little Rann in Gujarat.

Bangalore-based Braganzas who recently took a Rs 20,000 per person, four-days-three-nights Cox & Kings holiday package to Lakshadweep, say that whenever they plan a holiday nowadays, they look for a destination that's off-the-beaten track and check if home-stays are available. "At Agatti, we had the beach almost to ourselves—there were just three families, and 10 people. Apart from the 10 of us I think there were only about a dozen others staying in an adjacent hotel. It was a pleasure taking strolls, going for a swim or going paragliding without bumping into someone we know," laughs Dominic, 36, a member of the family.

Most tour operators agree that holiday makers are bored with the tried-and-tested destinations, be it the hills, forests or the beaches. "Most of the upcoming destinations, on the other hand, now have better road and air connectivity. While good hotels are yet to come up in some locations, many have home-stay facilities, something that younger tourists, at least, seem to prefer," says Milind Bhide, Co-founder, Countryside Adventure Holidays.

Countryside organises regular group tours to Ladakh, and the Spiti and Sangla valleys where home-stay facilities are gaining in popularity. Going by the number of clients that Countryside alone gets every year, the number of tourists going to Ladakh has jumped by over 820 per cent since 2006-07. "It's phenomenal. Even Himachal has seen a 210 per cent rise in overall tourist traffic since 2006-07 and Uttarakhand has seen close to a 150 per cent increase," says Bhide.

Take your hotel along

The Indian Railways has inked a Rs 60-crore deal with one of India's largest domestic tour operators, Cox & Kings, to start the first ever public-private partnership in passenger services. The Royale India Tours, a 50:50 JV between Cox & Kings India and Indian Railway Catering & Tourism Corporation, has started two super-luxury trains that will run across India on week-long tours.

Christened Celestial India and Royale India, the trains will run from Kolkata to Delhi and Delhi to Mumbai respectively. The train has 23 customised coaches, with a total passenger capacity of 84. The coaches will have four, three or two cabins each, while the presidential suite occupies one entire car. The train also boasts of two fine-dining restaurants, an observation lounge with a bar and game tables.

Each "room" has satellite television, Internet, direct telephone lines and climate control systems. While the Delhi-Kolkata tour halts at Agra, Gwalior, Khajuraho, Bandavgarh, Varanasi and Gaya, the Mumbai-Delhi tour has halts at Vadodara, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Bikaner, Jaipur, Ranthambore and Agra.

Tickets start at $800 per person per night and go up to $2,500 for the presidential suite. The ticket covers accommodation, meals, spirits and sightseeing, including entrance fees, guides, tour managers, and entertainment. "Our target is the foreign tourist and the well-to-do-Indian tourist who have money but till now haven't got state-of-the-art travel options in the country," says a senior railway official.

Over 3,000 km away from the snow-covered Sangla Valley (altitude: 8,900 feet), the nondescript towns of Tawang and Ziro in the North-east frontier of India have witnessed a similar influx of tourists. "People come to visit us now that the Madhuri Dixit lake has made us famous," jokes Tage Buda, Deputy Director of Arunachal Tourism. (Bollywood hit Koyala, starring Madhuri and Shah Rukh Khan, was shot at Sangeshwar Lake.) Tourists flock to Sela Lake and Sangeshwar (now renamed after Madhuri ). The inflow of tourists has jumped from around 8,000 in peak season during 2008 to over 17,000 in Ziro and to 23,000 in Tawang in 2009. This has helped the local handicraft and handloom market grow and enabled many locals to find jobs or start their own business.

"Locals are starting hotels, some have opened handicraft shops and tribal villages are being encouraged to let out some traditional homes for home-stay facilities. We have plans to convert at least a few dozen traditional tribal homes called ude (made of bamboo) into guest houses for tourists," says Buda.

In fact, the concept of home-stays has become such a hit that large corporate houses are also getting into the game. Mahindra Holidays & Resorts has created a division, Mahindra Homestays, which offers home-stay options across 15 states and 260 different homes to tourists. The homes, many owned by retired Army officers, non-resident Indians or old, landed gentry, come in all shapes and budgets: from renovated palaces and Rajput havelis to planters' bungalows. "The packages start at Rs 7,500 for a weekend and go up to Rs 14,000 and above for luxury home-stays. We have tie-ups with homes in Kerala, Coorg in Karnataka, Dehradun and Nainital in Uttarakhand and many towns in Rajasthan," says an official of the company.

All these initiatives, however, are more in the nature of a scramble aimed at grabbing tourists by offering the unusual. To maintain the flow, these locations need lots of basic amenities, forget about hotels, says Thakar of Gujarat Tourism. "We are hoping our new tourism policy (due in April) will bring in big players from the hospitality industry to Kutch. We badly need quality hotels to come up in and around Bhuj to attract more tourists. Also, Bhuj needs more flights and trains," he says.

The Arunachal Tourism story is quite similar. "Till now hotel chains have backed off from projects here citing lack of tourists. Now that tourists are coming in, we hope they will follow suit," says Arunachal Tourism's Buda, adding that a few more flights to Lilabari and Tezpur and perhaps a new rail line to the state will see tourism and allied businesses receiving a boost in Arunachal.

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