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More Indians travel abroad

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-05-09

SANTA CRUZ (India) - Mr Charanjit Singh, a dapper Sikh who's well established in the travel business, went out the other day and bought himself a third mobile phone.

'What can I tell you,' Mr Singh said with a smile and a shrug, 'business is growing. I need to be available for customers all the time. The land lines at the office aren't enough.'

Even as he spoke, all three mobile phones rang, as if choreographed. Mr Singh expertly handled the calls, confirming one person's booking to Singapore, rearranging another caller's flight to London, and widening the European itinerary of a third party.

'Yes,' Mr Singh said, presently, 'business has never been better.'

He and others involved in India's late blooming travel industry have reason to be pleased. This year, more than five million Indians are expected to go abroad, a record. They will travel on business, to be sure, but also, more and more, on personal holidays. In fact, according to projections by the Madrid-based World Tourism Organisation, if the current trends continue some 50 million Indians will go overseas annually by the year 2020. The projections also suggest that inbound tourist traffic will rise from the current six million each year to perhaps 20 million in 16 years.

These statistical projections flow not from the fanciful math of computer programs but from solid evidence that Indians are going global. This year's outbound traffic is expected to be 20 percent higher than in 2003. The Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation - which monitors travel trends -- disclosed to Business Times this week that such traffic builds on the traditional 'VFR Factor,' meaning visiting family and relatives abroad. Typically, the VFR traffic went to Britain, the United States and Canada, where millions of Indians are settled.

But now Indians are increasingly holidaying abroad. The falling American dollar, affordable holiday packages offered by travel agents such as Mr Singh as well as by large companies such as American Express and Thomas Cook, and the growing affluence of India's burgeoning middle class of 300 million people - all these contribute to the vitality of India's tourism industry. (Although estimates vary, the annual revenue figure considered most plausible is around US$ 1.5 billion.)

And, say tourism officials, Indians are now branching out beyond the traditional destinations in the West. Singapore is a big attraction these days, as are other countries of Southeast Asia such as Thailand. Australia, too, is drawing more Indian tourists, as is New Zealand. These relatively new destinations frequently put on 'road shows' in major Indian cities such as Mumbai, Chennai and New Delhi to entice travellers.

Even European countries such as Austria - which haven't been especially popular with Indians - are hosting promotion campaigns. Ramesh Marwah, regional manager for Austrian Airlines, says that this year his carrier registered a 15 percent growth in passenger traffic, clearly indicating that the promotional campaign is yielding dividends.

But is India's transportation infrastructure able to cope with the additional traffic? A visit to the Chhratrapati Shivaji International Airport in this suburb of Mumbai shows that the facility is modern, of course, but it's simply inadequate to carry the new load placed on it. The check-in counters are now being expanded, and more gates may soon be added to accommodate the increase in flights in and out of Santa Cruz.

When the airport was built more than two decades ago, no one anticipated that air traffic and foreign travel would increase so dramatically. Chhratrapati Shivaji International Airport came up at a time when the Indian government - labouring under the political and economic constraints of successive socialist administrations - restricted most Indian citizens to a daily foreign-exchange allowance of US$50. Foreign travel was seen as a luxury and generally discouraged, even for those who could afford it.

The economic liberalization of the last 13 years changed the picture. Now there are few major restrictions on how much money Indians can take out of the country. Hard currencies such as the American dollar are readily available. Indians can buy overseas tickets with Indian rupees, even though these aren't convertible.

"In the past couple of months, our flights to and from India have been reporting passenger loads in the high 90 per cent bracket, which is at least five percentage points higher than last year. The situation can only become better as we are moving into the travel season," a spokesman of a major European airline told Business Times.

Mr Singh, the travel agent, told The Straits Times that there's been a heavy demand for tickets of airlines from Southeast Asia. It's now possible to get a package--which includes airfare as a week of room-and-board--for under US$1,000. Young Indian professionals have been known to quietly slip away for romantic weekends in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Mauritius and Hong Kong for what is the equivalent of a week's salary.

Mr Ankur Bhatia, managing director of Amadeus India, a prestigious travel organization, told The Times of India that during March, the outbound travel market recorded the highest growth ever. "There was a jump of almost 40 percent in outbound travel during March this year as compared to last year. Travellers going to Southeast Asia, among other places, are mainly fuelling the growth. Similarly, Europe and the US have witnessed a growth of about 10 to 15 percent over last year," Mr Bhatia said.

To meet with the rising demand, domestic Indian carriers are broadening their destination schedules. For example, Jet Airways, a private sector company, is now flying to Nepal and Sri Lanka. So is another private sector airline, Sahara.

One passenger who availed himself of the growing travel opportunities recently was Mr Milind Deora, the 27-year-old Congress Party candidate for the 543-member national parliament's Lower House, the Lok Sabha. He's contesting from the affluent South Mumbai constituency. After a particularly hard fought campaign, he took off for Thailand on a holiday. Mr Deora is expected back home only on 12 May, a day before the results of the three-week-long elections are disclosed.

Not to be outdone, his father, Mr Murli Deora - a member of the parliament's 245-member Upper House, the Rajya Sabha - left Mumbai himself. His destination? Geneva. A holiday? Mr Deora was asked in a telephone interview by The Straits Times.

'Are you joking?' he replied. 'I never take holidays. It's always work, work and more work. But this is a good time to get away from the heat of India.'

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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