HUGH AND COLLEEN GANTZER
Apart from pilgrimage, travelling for pleasure was not much on middle-class India’s agenda. With plenty of money to spend, that is changing fast as they discover anew the pleasures of mobility and the many Indias within India.
Changing middle class lifestyles have created new segments in the tourism market. People whose working hours are spent enslaved to the small screen need more frequent, wide-open, getaways.
Tourism is the leisure sibling of travel. It’s travel for recreation. From 1841, when preacher Thomas Cook launched the world’s first conducted tour, mass tourism had been associated with the Caucasian middle class. Our predominantly conservative, Indian middle class either headed home on leave, or went on a pilgrimage, seemingly disinterested in other places. Indeed, the Leave Travel Concessions (LTCs) restricted government servants’ assisted holiday trips to such destinations.
An independent publisher, Navin Berry, tried to break this mindset by starting a travel magazine, Destination India, in 1975. It dented inhibitions about tourism, slightly. The next year, Khushwant Singh, editing the popular Illustrated Weekly, launched an innovative travel series “The India You Do Not Know”. It highlighted the attractions of a chosen State, every week, because “it is worth knowing that our country has all that any other country of the world has — and much more.” But travelling was still a fairly expensive undertaking if it wasn’t covered by the LTC.
Tamil Nadu was the first to offer a viable solution. The TTDC’s popular Temple Tours tapped LTCs. We were invited on one of these trips in 1977 and it was an eye-opener. When we boarded the coach, the passengers from Delhi, Maharashtra, Bengal, Kerala, UP and Tamil Nadu clustered in their insular regional groupings. By the end of the 10-day tour, however, we had all become friends, integrated by shared travel experiences. We wrote about it just when the press had begun to sense the integrating and economic importance of tourism. It was in that year that the first of our fortnightly destination and critique columns on tourism appeared on the editorial page of a national newspaper. This continued for many years, with a brief hiatus during the critical period of the Emergency.
Those were the days when the State still “controlled the commanding heights of the economy”. Haryana’s C.M., Bansi Lal, while journeying on his State’s highways, discovered that the roadside dhabas were very popular with people travelling from Delhi to Punjab, U.P., Rajasthan and Himachal via Haryana. By setting up Haryana Tourism’s Highway Complexes, he successfully tapped this traffic. They were superbly maintained by the PWD and excellently run by the State’s Tourism Development Corporation under the eagle eye of IAS officer Ashok Pawha who, later, became our DG, Tourism. Highway Tourism had been established as a viable economic activity.
For the first time, then, in 1979, the rather elitist Travel Agents’ Association of India (TAAI) realised the great potential of the domestic middle class market. They instituted awards for travel writing. That was when the State tourism organisations, attending the TAAI convention, started inviting award-winning Indian travel writers to tour their tourism facilities and write about them. Tourism features began to appear in increasing numbers in the press, and interest in travel as a relaxation, grew. Tourism burgeoned.
We were still, however, shackled by the constraints of the license-permit raj and the grim, grey, vaguely socialist feeling that enjoyment was, somehow, unpatriotic.
Five years later came two major developments that gave a tremendous boost to tourism in our land. Rajiv Gandhi introduced the five-day week, and then he liberalised the LTC rules, allowing government servants to go on leave to any part of India. The money spent by domestic tourists began to fertilize the grass-roots of the economy nation-wide. A fisherman’s daughter in Vagator told us that she made more money selling coconuts to tourists than she did carrying fish to the market. An old embroiderer in Kashmir said that, because of tourism, his sons no longer needed to toil in shops in distant Delhi: they were far better off working at their traditional craft at home, in the Valley.
Awareness of the growing impact of tourism prompted Doordarshan to agree to us pioneering the first TV travel documentaries in English: 24 half-hour episodes entitled “Looking Beyond”, telecast on DD’s national network in 1988-89. The sights, sounds and allure of Indian destinations reached into Indian homes, week after week, for six months
A little later, the economic reforms launched by Finance Minister Manmohan Singh in 1991 swept like a slow, implacable, tide over the middle class. With an increasing acceptance of women in the workplace, both disposable incomes and aspirations grew. Cashing in on this growing market, Navin Berry set up India’s first international travel mart in 1994. SATTE, The South Asian Travel and Tourism Exchange, was an encouraging success and attracted a lot of attention. Pavan Varma quotes another publisher, Aroon Purie, writing in the inaugural issue of the glossy magazine India Today Plus, in 1996: “The economic liberalisation that has been sweeping the country for the last few years has altered the lives of a large section of India’s burgeoning middle class. They have become ....more adventurous and demanding in terms of holiday and leisure activities.”
The print and the electronic media boosted this urge to travel. As communications expert Marshall McLuhan put it: “The Medium is the Massage.” It massages and stimulates the egos of would-be consumers to create aspirational needs. In a virtual feeding frenzy, everyone who had a potential tourism product, thrust it on the market in the hope that the great Indian middle class would be attracted. Visit Britain was the first foreign National Tourist Office to tap this urge to travel abroad: today NTOs are flocking here in droves.
In 1989 Kerala had coined its memorable slogan “God’s Own Country”. It caught the imaginations, and travel itineraries, of both domestic and international tourists earning for Kerala the title of one of the preferred international destinations of the millennium. This prompted the State government to encourage the private sector to set up the Kerala Travel Mart in 2000. It is still the only permanent market place run exclusively by the industry of a State, to promote its tourism offerings to buyers from around the world. This year it attracted an estimated 1,000 buyers to the stalls of 250 Kerala-based sellers. Its major success lies in the fact that it gives a platform for national and international customers to interact with the middle class and small investors in tourism products. Targeting such entrepreneurs, Captain G.R. Gopinath launched his low-fare Air Deccan in late 2002. He told us that his intention was “To attract the growing middle class of our land; the people with small and medium industries.” A year after Gopinath’s Simply Fly dream became a reality, Kerala-cadre IAS officer Amitabh Kant gave his vision of Indian tourism a global reach. Kant had been one of the prime movers in Kerala’s remarkable thrust into tourism. Now, as a Joint Secretary in the Centre, he initiated the dazzling Incredible India campaign. While, essentially, targeting the foreign traveller, it had a major surge down effect on our aspiring middle class. Lured by the campaign’s projected international appeal of Indian destinations, they decided to discover such places for themselves!
Sophisticated international travellers had also given a high status value to re-discovering gracious retro lifestyles: heritage hotels have, consequently, become increasingly popular with our upwardly mobile middle class. Spas and ayurveda, “discovered” by the West, have become coveted fashion statements with our newly rich. Even pilgrimages have acquired a certain éclat. Hardship on the yatra might earn merit but a heli-trip is far more comfortable besides being a status enhancer. Why stay in a dharamshala in Haridwar when there’s a Carlton Hotel at hand?
Changing middle class lifestyles have created new segments in the tourism market. People whose working hours are spent enslaved to the small screen need more frequent, wide-open, getaways. The Maruti 800 became the vector for the week-end break. Adventure tourism is the refreshing new muscle-taxing alternative to mind-and-emotion stressing hours in a Call Centre. Even the personal interaction offered to Double-Income-No-Kids (DINK) couples by genuine Home Stays has been sanitised. Concerns of varying standards of hygiene between the hosts and guests are being taken care of. Ramesh Ramanathan, MD of Mahindra Holidays, has set up an inspection and audit regimen of all homes in their network to ensure the continuing maintenance of quality standards. Obviously, if government-listed home-stays do not conform to such criteria they will lose the quality-conscious middle class Indian tourist.
These concerns, with value-for-money and upward mobility, of the middle class also focus on the education that they give to their children. It extends to encouraging them to go on school excursions during their vacations. Some schools even choose such attractive schemes as those offered by Malaysian Tourism: it is often cheaper to fly overseas than to Indian destinations that are burdened by high transportation taxes. The well-heeled parents of such kids are, however, increasingly, taking trips on luxury trains like the Palace on Wheels, the Golden Chariot, the Deccan Odyssey and the Heritage on Wheels. Clearly, as Khushwant Singh reportedly put it, “It’s not enough to have money: you must flaunt it!”
That is what makes our middle class tourist today different from the travellers whom Thomas Cook conducted to a temperance meeting, 167 years ago.
6 months ago