Explore, and you shall find

New places, tame prices and better booking avenues are some of the promised travel attractions this year. Make the most of these on your long-deferred holiday.

Sushmita Choudhury | Print Edition: April, 2010

Year of Transformation. While 2010 has been branded thus by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, will it live up to its promise-laden tag? Yes, if one were to go by the industry predictions—a rise in tourist numbers, a spurt in hotel expansions and an increasing preference for alternate booking channels. The scenario appears even more optimistic for India. According to InterGlobe Technology Quotient, a global travel and technology distribution company, India's travel industry is expected to grow at 5-6 per cent this year compared with the global average of 4.5 per cent. The swing in fortunes for the battered sector translates to plenty of discounts and value additions for travellers. The aim is to tempt you into taking that longdeferred holiday this year.

The bargain bonanza notwithstanding, savvy travellers know that the trick to getting the best deals is to stay ahead of the curve—explore a fresh-on-the-map destination instead of, yawn, the same old places, or cash in on the emerging travel trends before they become the norm. Getting there and doing that before the hordes trample in is easier on the wallet, so here's a look at the best options this year.

Leisure travel
The growing consumer demand for authentic experiences is carving out a new business opportunity—creative tourism. In 2010, destinations with exotic cultures will be a sureshot magnet for Indians heading overseas. According to experts, places like Slovakia and Hungary, which offer the same 19th century grandeur and thriving modern art as France, Britain, Italy and Spain but at much lower prices, are the new hotspots. Similarly, Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan, is in the spotlight. Anticipating the demand for this destination, a Delhi-based tour operator, De Explore, is offering a four-day tour of Tashkent for Rs 37,900 per person. This includes air fare, accommodation in a fourstar hotel, all meals, visa charges, sightseeing and taxes. This price would not cover even the return air fare for most European destinations.

No longer satisfied with just a guided tour of heritage sites and observing local festivals, the culture vultures are keen on first-hand experiences. Such experiential tours could be hobby-based, say, developing a green thumb in one of India's plantations, or even themebased. Cox & Kings, for example, offers an eight-night package to Israel and Egypt, called 'In the Trails of the Christ'. Priced at Rs 64,999 per person, the package includes return air fare ex-Mumbai, airport and visa taxes, accommodation, meals, sightseeing and insurance. According to Karan Anand, head, relationships and supplier management, Cox & Kings, "We recognise that there is scope in promoting religious tours and we have taken the lead in doing so."

The search for the unique will be even more pronounced in the luxury space. Says Ashutosh Mehere, vicepresident, Cox & Kings: "The travel industry had its share of ups and downs after 2008, but this didn't impact the rich. The luxury travel segment continues to grow at an average 25 per cent year on year." While moolah wasn't an issue, the jaded Richie Rich club lacked the opportunity to do the off-beat till recently. With more operators starting to enter the space, luxe culture tourism is ready for take-off. Parthaa Kundo, who has recently launched India's first lifestyle vacation company, Esperienza, admits that he "may be taking a risk by entering this niche area", but he's clearly gunning for the first mover advantage. "In a few years, all the big players will have to come in. Currently, there is a limited demand for such holidays, so few operators are keen to enter the fray. However, as travellers evolve, so will travel businesses," he says. The once-in-a-lifetime itineraries offered by Esperienza include Harley Davidson tours across the US, igloo stays in Greenland, ghost-hunting in Ireland and a 22-day, around-the-world trip in a private jet.

When it comes to the hospitality sector, at home and abroad, the buzzword is not luxury but 'limited services'. This is not to say that there is no demand for upscale hotels, but it's the budget hotel space that is seeing the maximum innovations. If Ginger Hotels proved that a room costing Rs 1,500 a night need not be tacky, Tune Hotels has taken the lead in breaching the Rs 1,000 a night level. Currently operational in Indonesia and Malaysia, with plans for at least 20 properties in India by 2013, Tune Hotels is focusing on the basics. You'll get a comfortable bed, an ensuite bathroom and little else— if you want more, say, a towel, toiletries or meals, you'll have to pay extra. But with the chain promising a night's stay at hotspots like Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Bali for just Rs 6,00-800, nobody is complaining.

Business travel
This segment has taken a big hit in the past two years but the suit-and-tie brigade is on the move again. Says Javed Ali, vice-president and general manager, Radisson Hotel, Delhi: "The growth in terms of the number of business travellers will be modest this year, but the growth in supply will be tremendous, a 20 per cent hike over the current levels by winter." With increased competition comes the obvious perk, lower room rates. Experts predict as much in the near future, along with a host of value additions like free spouse stays to sweeten your trip. Once the domain of five-star hotels and often limited to members of the hotel's loyalty programme, this feature is now trickling down to three- and four-star accommodation and smaller cities. For instance, at the Deccan Rendezvous in Pune, a double room costs over Rs 9,000 a night, but a couple is charged single occupancy rates of Rs 8,000, which includes breakfast, airport transfers and Internet access in the room.

There is a reason why hotels are suddenly wooing your significant other. A random survey of 30 jet-setting executives living in the four metros revealed that six employees had asked their wives to join them on a business trip last year. More significantly, over 80 per cent are planning to do the same this year and some plan to spill over a work trip to the weekend. The savings potential is huge. Not only do you save on one person's air fare— in fact, both can travel free if there are any frequent flier miles to redeem—the room tariff also comes from the company coffers. In addition, check if the concierge can help. "Our travel desk offers special deals to guests wanting to explore Delhi and nearby areas like Agra, which are cheaper compared with individual bookings through online or offline tour operators," says Ali.

Booking channels
Did you know that the Indian market has posted one of the fastest offline-to-online shifts in the world? From $295 million in 2005, the online travel business is expected to grow to $6 billion by the end of this year. This is not only tempting more and more portals to enter the fray, but is also spawning innovative variants like metasearch engines (see Spread the Net for a Wider Choice). This translates to faster, easier searches and more end-to-end solutions like 360-degree hotel tours before making a reservation, live chat for queries, offline payment options, and more.

When it comes to technology, the next big leap will be driven by mobile telephony. A 2009 Amadeus study titled 'The Amateur-Expert Traveller', which polled nearly 2,800 industry professionals worldwide, reveals that 'mobile Internet will offer new opportunities for travel companies to provide an improved trip experience for business and leisure travellers'. For now, we should be happy with the speed at which the industry is accommodating reservations on the phone. It's a lot more convenient than reaching for the laptop.

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