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The Indian tourist's in great demand

Surajeet Das Gupta in New Delhi | September 23, 2004

Remember the Ugly Indian? The international traveller who needs a passport full of visas to leave Indian shores. The one for whom the welcome mat is always whisked away in countries as far apart as Papua New Guinea and Luxembourg.

Hang on a sec. It might be time to rewrite the script. Now India's neighbours are dusting out the welcome mat. In fact, two neighbours -- Singapore and Malaysia -- are matching each other move for move in the battle for the Indian tourist's rupee.

For Indians travelling to south east Asia, the city state of Singapore has been the numero uno destination for the last decade or so. This year, for instance, 450,000 Indians are expected to make their way to the island that has established itself as a shopper's paradise.

That's out of two million Indians criss-crossing south east Asia. Says a beaming Merzban Majoo, area director, Singapore Tourism Board: "India features in the top seven markets for Singapore, but in the next two to three years we hope it will be amongst the top five."

That's an ambitious target. But it isn't the only country that's hoping to lure Indian tourists. Just four years ago Malaysia was not even on the map for Indian travellers. Now, attracted by cut-rate budget packages and aggressive marketing, it's catching on as a hot destination for price-sensitive Indians.

Malaysia has fixed itself ambitious targets. It hopes to virtually triple the number of tourists from India in the next three years.

Says Manoharan, director, Tourism Malaysia for India: "In 2003 we had 145,000 visitors from India. The board has targeted 400,000 Indian arrivals. India is amongst the top ten in terms of arrivals."

To give shape to its aggressive stance last fortnight, Tourism Malaysia unleashed an attractive package to visit Malaysia at a throwaway price. With an eye on the holiday season (Diwali), it launched a killer package: for Rs 18,000 to 21,000 a couple can fly down to the country and avail complimentary hotels for four days with breakfast also thrown in. Also thrown in for good measure are stays at Kuala Lumpur, Penang or Langkawi.

What's more, in an attempt to reach larger numbers of Indians, Tourism Malaysia is organising roadshows in smaller cities and semi-metros. It plans a string of promotions in cities like Ludhiana, Nashik, Indore, Kochi, Pune and Guwahati amongst others.

Singapore Tourism isn't about to be outsmarted by its next-door neighbour, even though it's trying to avoid playing the pricing game. Last week it launched a mega ad campaign directed at children which tries to sell the city as a fun place and an educational destination.

Majoo says the ad campaign is based on market research which clearly shows that children are the key influencers in deciding holiday destinations.

That's only for starters. In order to lure Indian students away from the US, Singapore is also pitching itself as a study destination with a touch of class. Last week, top universities and institutes showcased their offerings in an educational roadshow in Delhi, which will move to other Indian cities.

So why are the two south east Asian giants making such a determined bid to woo Indians to their shores? Well, one reason is that Indian travellers are turning out to be big spenders. STB points out that Indians spend an astonishing Singapore $1,500 for a three- to four-day stay.

By comparison, other foreign travellers usually spend an average of around Singapore $750. In Malaysia, Indians spend over $400 per trip, of which shopping constitutes 25 per cent.

In other ways too, Indians are worth their weight in tourist gold. For one thing, they are now staying longer than they did before in Malaysia. Manoharan says the average period of stay has gone up from 8.8 days in 2002 to 9.1 days in 2003.

This year it is expected to hit double digits. At another level, tourism receipts from India were $65.6 million in 2002; in 2003, despite the fact that fewer Indian tourists went to Malaysia (because of bird flu), it mounted to $71.15 million. And the Malaysians expect earnings to go up by 25 per cent annually year on year.

Of course, the strategies differ. Tourism Malaysia, for instance, is straddling two markets. First, there's the budget traveller and value-for-money market, where it plays the pricing game. And on another plane it is working out packages for the well-off where money is not the criterion.

Says Manoharan: "We will launch tactical promotions to tap the value-for-money products and thematic promotions to generate awareness of high-end products."

Tourism Malaysia realises that most Indians prefer to visit more than one country in south east Asia on a holiday and on limited budgets. The answer: twin destination marketing.

For instance, it has teamed up with the Hong Kong Tourism Board. So the two destinations are offering a package that includes a reasonable Rs 29,990 for a five-night trip -- of which three days will be in Kuala Lumpur. That includes airfare on Malaysian Airlines, accommodation and breakfast thrown in.

But for those who have the cash, the board is working on various innovative packages. One unique scheme is the launch of the Malaysia-My Second Home campaign. This is aimed at affluent Indians who want to stay in Malaysia for a longer duration.

Under the programme, Indians will be allowed to stay in Malaysia initially for a period of five years on a 'social visit' pass. Of course, the person wanting a second home has to deposit RM 150,000 (approximately Rs 1.95 lakh) with a Malaysian financial institution along with a monthly income certificate. Says Manoharan: "A roadshow to popularise this campaign is on the anvil and we expect it will attract many Indians to invest in property in Malaysia".

The board is also working on niche packages: for instance, it is launching a Golf and Formula 1 incentive travel scheme for those who have the money. It is also planning to push business travel through a new campaign.

Singapore, on the other hand, has clearly avoided an aggressive price game. Says Majoo: "Our offering is different from Malaysia's. Singapore provides a flavour of both the east and west."

And it's pulling out all the stops. It is, for instance, hoping to persuade schools to take children there on organised trips and it will soon start making presentations in educational institutions around the country.

For children who have already been to Singapore (50 per cent of the travellers are second or multiple time travelers), it is pushing new destinations within the city. There is more now to offer in terms of adventure-like the new Snow City, or Wet and Wild where kids can take water rides.

STB is also throwing in incentives to attract off-season travellers (for instance, between January and April). That is primarily because over 60 per cent of the island's tourists from India turn up in the four months of May, June, October and November.

It has identified two key markets: conferences and meetings as well as honeymooners. Says Majoo: "We have trained our agents to offer packages and hope that the conferences and meeting market will grow by at least 20 per cent this year (in 2002, 90,000 visitors travelled on such packages)." It also hopes to attract over 100,000 honeymooners a year to the city state.

The STB has also figured that the TV and movie industry can be big force multipliers, especially if they shoot in the more attractive parts of the city. The board is offering help and clearances to production houses who want to shoot in the city.

Majoo says that the recently concluded IFA awards in Singapore were used to showcase the state to all the leading film production houses. It also used superstar Amitabh Bachchan, a brand ambassador, to popularise Singapore. Majoo says that many are showing interest.

Once upon a time Indians travelled to London and European countries like Switzerland and Paris. Now Indians have turned their eyes to the east, and both Singapore and Malaysia are fighting it out to be the first destination of choice.

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