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Why the world loves Indian tourists

Smita Tripathi | October 23, 2004

Remember the stereotype Japanese tourists of the 1980s? They had cameras slung over their shoulders -- Canons and Nikons, naturally -- and they clutched guidebooks like they had discovered a new religion tucked between pages on La Tour Eiffel or the Arc de Triomphe. Oh, and they also had wads of cheaply bought tourist dollars.

The world has changed beyond recognition in the last decade. The Japanese economic miracle has turned sour and as travellers the Japanese have been replaced by other races -- Eastern Europeans coming in hordes from the former Soviet Bloc countries, getting their first taste of western Europe and the United States.

There's even the Chinese leaving their fast-growth workers paradise for a quick glimpse of how foreigners live.

Are middle-class Indians about to take their place at the back of this queue? Suddenly, Indians are getting itchy feet and looking across the kala pani to foreign shores.

And most countries (except for the UK and USA which are afraid of illegal immigration and also terrorist attacks) are going all out to attract the Indian tourist. Yes, the global Indian has finally arrived and the fact that 20 or so countries have set up tourist promotion boards in India, is proof of that.

Countries as far apart as Seychelles, Malaysia, Spain, Hong Kong, New Zealand etc are competing with each other for the Indian tourist's time and, more importantly, money.

But why are countries going all out to attract Indians? "They spend money," says Edward Chew, spokesperson of the Singapore Tourism Board. Last year, Indians were the highest spending travelling community in Singapore with an average daily spend of S$200-300.

They beat the Japanese who till the year before last were the highest spenders. Singapore recorded 309,383 arrivals from India last year of which 34 per cent were leisure travellers. However, because of Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), 2003 was a bad year for tourist traffic. In 2002, 375,000 Indians visited Singapore, which was an increase of 10.5 per cent over 2001.

The fact that Indians splurge on shopping, of course, makes them the favourites of various countries. But shopping isn't the only thing they spend heavily on.

Says Bhupesh Kumar, marketing manager, Tourism Malaysia, "Most Indians prefer to stay in 4 star and 5 star accommodation. This is of course good for the Malaysian economy."

Moreover, most Indians travel with families and so the average spend goes up. Also, they are very enthusiastic when it comes to trying out new things.

Says a spokesperson of the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Board, "Indians like to try out everything even though these (submarine rides, dolphin shows etc) activities are extremely expensive."

About 5.5 million Indians are expected to travel this year and that's up from 4.5 million in 2002, which was a boom year for tourism. Says Ankur Bhatia, chairman, Amadeus, "As the economy grows more and more people are likely to increase expenditure on travel."

What's more, the global spend on travel is 9 per cent to 10 per cent of GDP while in India the average is only 2 per cent to 3 per cent. That means it will take us another ten years to reach the global average. Countries promoting themselves in India realise this.

Countries such as New Zealand have identified India as an emerging market. Says Kiran Nambiar of the New Zealand Tourist Promotion Board, which was set up in March last year, "India will be a very valued country in the next seven to eight years." Although, only around 17,000 Indians visited New Zealand last year, it was an increase of 25 per cent and Nambiar expects it to keep growing.

New Zealand has slightly different reasons for attracting the Indians. The country is trying to develop tourism in the May-June period, which is peak outbound traffic from India. By promoting tourism in the shoulder season (before summer and after winter), New Zealand ensures that there is sufficient tourist traffic throughout the year.

So how are the different countries promoting themselves? First, they are luring the travellers by offering cheap packages. Earlier this year, Tourism Malaysia tied-up with SriLankan Airlines to offer a three-night four-days package to Kuala Lumpur for only Rs 18,000.

Secondly, they are entering niche segments. Malaysia which had 145,000 Indian visitors last year and which expects the number to rise to over 200,000 this year is promoting itself in a big way as a motor sport and golf destination.

The Malaysian Grand Prix 2004 was promoted in India in a major way. Special packages were launched in association with leading travel agents, wherein the cost of entry ticket to Sepang International Circuit was included. These packages cost approximately Rs 40,000 for four days and three nights.

Tourism Malaysia has been spending heavily to make its presence felt. To promote the Malaysian Grand Prix, it co-sponsored the JK Tyre Go Karting National Championship, 2003. It also ran a popular contest with General Motors show as the "Race to Malaysia" contest and tied up with Tag Heuer for a consumer contest, coinciding the launch of the Formula 1 watch.

As a result of these market initiatives, nearly 2,000 Indians travelled to witness the Sepang Formula 1 live. The figure for the 2003 race was a mere 500.

Similarly, Singapore is promoting itself in four main areas: leisure, education, healthcare, and BT-MICE (conferences). "While leisure and business tourism has been our mainstay for the last decade, Singapore offers education and healthcare opportunities that we believe should be promoted as well," says Chew.

The STB has been making presentations in schools in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai to promote school trips to Singapore and is also attracting Indian students for post-graduate courses.

MICE (which is basically corporate training and incentive) is an extremely fast-growing sector globally and has a growth of 10 per cent annually. Countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Mauritius, Australia, Sri Lanka and South Africa are all trying to get a slice of this pie.

The tourism boards of different countries are all hardselling their countries through presentations to corporate houses and HR consultancy firms. Says a spokesperson of Mauritius Tourism, "MICE is good for business as the volumes are very high."

If that's not all, these tourism promotion boards are now concentrating on smaller towns and cities. Malaysia, for instance, is now advertising in vernacular papers in an attempt to reach the masses. Says Kumar, "We are now spreading ourselves wide."

Similarly, Sri Lanka which, had over 90,000 Indian visitors last year and which expects this number to go up to 150,000, is promoting itself in regional markets. Says Rajeev Nangia of the Sri Lanka Tourism Board, "With the opening up of the skies, we are now targeting the regional markets." There are now nearly 90 flights to Colombo per week.

Of course, the open-sky policy has done a lot to promote outbound tourism. Competition has led to cheaper fares, which has resulted in higher tourist traffic. Also, the weakening of the dollar against the Indian rupee has made foreign holidays cheaper for Indians.

Tourism boards are resorting to all manner of attraction-getting tricks. So Australia has appointed cricketer Steve Waugh and South Africa has opted for slightly different allure with actress Mandira Bedi. The Australian Tourist Commission promoted Australia through serials such as Kyunki Kii Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi.

Another significant change is that where earlier all the advertising and promotions were aimed at the travel agents, in the hope that travel agents will promote a particular country, now they are aimed at the traveller directly.

With the holiday season round the corner, more and more Indians are making their bookings to visit foreign shores. No wonder the tourism boards are grinning.

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