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It's time to make your travel plans

Samyukta Bhowmick | October 09, 2004

Thinking of going away for the holidays? There's no time like the present. Prices are falling (they are estimated at 10 per cent to15 per cent lower than last year), the Indian traveller is getting more adventurous, and tour operators are leaping on board.

Agencies like SOTC and Cox & Kings are making it much easier for you to go abroad, whether you want to hit the malls in Singapore, lie on the beach all day in Mauritius or go mountain-climbing in Europe.

They're slashing prices to within an inch of their lives and offering all sorts of perks: if you want a cheap, hassle-free vacation with no paperwork or nights spent sweating over the budget, these are the tours for you.

Cox & Kings's most popular tours are to the Far East, especially during the winter months. It has tie-ups with many of the hotels there -- which means that they can not only book rooms for you but also negotiate rates -- and similar arrangements with various airlines.

This latter is a key factor since India is becoming a magnet for international, and especially south-east Asian, airlines. Singapore Airlines has increased its weekly India flights from 29 in 2003 to 38 this year, and has just started operating from Amritsar.

Even Myanmar is riding the wave. Myanmar Airlines started its India service this March, and now has three flights out of Delhi every week and plans to increase this to four by month-end.

Taking advantage of the government's Open Sky policy, Emirates this week also announced plans to increase its flights from 43 a week to 10 a day from November.

With increased capacity of flights to holiday destinations, tour operators have found their market and are cashing in.

The market comprises around 4.5 million travellers, of whom at least a quarter, that's a huge 1.2 million, travel exclusively for leisure.

Of these, a large majority are seasoned travellers who don't want to be sucked into the general blanket tours that many operators offer -- they are not going to spend hours trudging dutifully around an old, cobwebby mausoleum that the generic travel brochure assures them is a fantastic tourist spot.

This more adventurous group is growing at the rate of 20 per cent per year, and demanding more exotic tourist destinations.

"Some Indians go on Alaskan cruises or to the French and Italian Riviera to towns like Nice and Monte Carlo, or to countries like Greece and Turkey," says Vikas Khanduri, the North IndiaGeneral Manager for Leisure Travel at Cox & Kings.

More people, however, are heading out to Australia, New Zealand and even Europe is making a comeback. However, in a quick swerve back to the predictable, the country that is drawing the most people is Switzerland, previously reserved for the honeymoon crowd.

In fact, if you take the cable car to the top of Mount Titlis near Lucerne, you will find safety instructions not only in English and French, but Hindi and occasionally Punjabi as well.

Also, once you get to the top, the souvenir shop that allows you to be photographed dressed in traditional Swiss costume attracts its Indian customers with a picture of Virender Sehwag, looking for all the world a solemn Alpine goatherd, next to his wife, a demure shepherdess with a Bo-Peep crook.

Bollywood has also played its part in our national fascination with Switzerland, and Sehwag's picture is flanked on either side by Lara Dutta and Diana Hayden, dressed, as part of what must have been some cruel trick, as milkmaids.

The reason that international tourism is on the rise, say some operators, is because the average Indian consumer now has more disposable cash than ever.

"Indian society is being increasingly driven by consumerism. Foreign holidays are becoming more aspirational by nature, and the society-conscious Indian is making an international holiday an essential element of his or her annual plan," says an SOTC executive.

Popular media campaigns and aggressive advertising (Duniya Dekho at Cox & Kings, for example), Bollywood shoots and television shows such as Musafir Hoon Yaaron all add to this trend, and tour operators are doing their bit to help the ball along with their "Holiday now, pay later" schemes.

If you still need a reason to jump on board, here are some figures. If you had wanted to travel to Europe last winter, an SOTC "Grand Tour of Europe" would have cost you $1,699 per adult from Mumbai and $1,749 from Delhi.

This would have included tours of Germany, Italy, France, Holland, Belgium, England and five days in Switzerland, return airfare (economy class), hotel accommodation, meals, sightseeing, coach tours, transfers, entrance fees and the assistance of a professional tour manager or local representative.

But compare this to what they're offering this year: now the "European Experience" costs Rs 49,900 per adult (roughly $1,000), for roughly the same tour, whether you're flying from Delhi or Mumbai.

If you had wanted to go to the Far East, last year, SOTC's fourteen-day "Malaysian Mystique" would have cost $1,199 per adult from Mumbai and Delhi, for a tour of Bangkok, Pattaya, Kuala Lumpur, Genting Highlands and Singapore.

The tour price includes, again, all of the above (accommodation, airfare, etc). This year, the same tour costs roughly $1,100: almost a 10 per cent decrease. Cox & Kings offers roughly the same price: Rs 52,000 or $1,100 for a fortnight in the Far East.

So if you need to get away from the country's melting heat and soul-crushing traffic jams, if work is just becoming too much, if you're starting to hallucinate or lose hair, get in touch with your local tour operator. In fact, do so even if you're happy, well-adjusted and just off the plane from the Bahamas. Because with prices as low as these, who needs a reason?

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