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Indian travel companies are getting practical. Realising that Phuket, Colombo, Kathmandu and Genting Heights are attracting far more tourists from Western countries, and also that the Indian tourism season has shrunk to six months (October-March), some travel companies are devising innovative ways to attract more tourists.
So, while shack owners in Goa give their shacks a makeover after Diwali, tour agents in Assam do up their boats to offer the Brahmaputra cruise to European travellers.
Yet others, like the non-profit Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board is trying to provide the best pilgrimage experience to Non-Resident Indians from all over the world.
This explains why all such players were seen sharing corners of the same convention centre at Pragati Maidan last week at the South Asia Travel and Tourism Exchange (SATTE) conference.
"Twenty-five buyers have made inquiries about bird-watching in Assam and Meghalaya since yesterday. We organise these trips for a group of four or more for $80 per day inclusive of everything but the airfare to Guwahati," says Arijit Purkayastha, general manager-tours, Network Travels.
These trips are highly popular among Europeans and there are packages for six nights-seven days or nine nights-10 days. Network also arranges individual travels for $110 per day.
For the people of Thailand and China, there is a d�j� vu trip to the interiors of the northeastern states, where their ancestors once lived.
"Not many know that there is a mini-Thailand and a mini-China in India, both of which are of great nostalgic value to the people of these countries, and we offer a lot of personal touches to tourists coming to these places," says Nimalya Chowdhury, senior executive-tours, Jungle Travels India.
The company also organises luxury river cruises on the Brahmaputra, and a four night-five day tour ideally costs Rs 16,000.
Chowdhury is elated because he has bagged 10 bookings for the end of May at the SATTE conference. He also boasts that last year, 400 tourists took the Assam Bengal cruise for which his company charges $215 per day per person.
Driven by the good response, the tour company is planning to raise prices to $245 per person. And this also means good business for a whole lot of tour operators.
The larger the group, the larger the commission for a tour operator who gets these tourists. For instance, for a smaller group, the tour operator's commission is 10-15 per cent but it may go up to 25 per cent when the group comprises more than 20 persons.
Yet there are others, like Sterling Resorts, which have moved beyond their traditional resort selling through time shares. They are promoting their hotels as eco-friendly and have also come up with two heritage hotels in Thanjavur and Mahabalipuram.
"We have converted two entire villages near these cities into heritage villages where tourists live like villagers, wearing the same kinds of clothes, eating the same kinds of food in similar vessels and going through similar massages, yoga, medidation baths and chores," says Colonel PS James, president, Indeco.
According to Col James, besides foreigners, the concept is becoming very popular among rich and well-settled Indians whose roots are in such villages and who want to revisit their childhood.
He also asserts that this is different from Chokhi Dhani near Jaipur, where an artificial village has been created. The rates for these stays typically start at $90 per day per person including meals.
Similar concepts are being floated in the newly formed state of Chhattisgarh where model villages are being created for tourism purposes.
There is also a proposal to convert an old jail into a hotel which will retain the essential fabric of a jail so that tourists get the experience of being a jail inmate, wearing pyjamas like a prisoners and eating food in distorted vessels.
"The number of tourists visiting the Bastar region has risen from 2,000 to 10,000 in two years, says an official representing the state at the SATTE conference.
And multinational hotels seem be taking lessons in indigenisation from these smaller players. Delhi's Japanese hotel, Nikko, for instance, has added an Indian restaurant called Chutney in its bid to attract customers having a taste for Indian food. Its earlier restaurant, Sakura, only served Japanese food.
However, it is not about making profit all the time. For instance, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board is making every effort to offer the pilgrims visiting Vaishno Devi temple the best darshan.
Now targeting NRIs, the board is providing every possible facility for pilgrims to have a satisfying visit to the shrine. "We have a tie-up with SBI [Get Quote] ATM card holders for prior bookings and have started golf cart services for older people," says Rajesh Raina, an official at the board.
And what is ISKON doing at SATTE? "It is an opportunity for us sell our books," says a worker. Not many are aware that if you are a life member you can stay in any of its temples for three nights-four days free of cost, all over the world.
Similarly, countries with a low profile in India, like Sri Lanka, Egypt and Poland, are doing their bit to attract outbound tourists. The Egyptian Tourism Authority (ETA) has opened an office in Mumbai.
"We are getting around 50,000 tourists from India, which we expect to double in 2005-06," says Samy Mehmoud of ETA.
And even Poland is coming up with new attractions. "While 30 million tourists visit Poland every year, Indians comprise less than 10,000. We are popularising Poland amongst Indian through promotional schemes," says Wlodzimierz Madziar, second secretary, Embassy of Poland.
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