Why the world is wooing the Indian tourist

When you think international travel, do you end up ruminating on the usual suspects — Paris, London, Bangkok, Singapore and Dubai? Well, you don’t really need to anymore. The whole world seems to have arrived at India’s doorstep over the last 12 months, wooing, pleading, coaxing and feeding the famous Indian wanderlust. Zagreb or Bergen are no longer just unknown spots on the map.

Ever had Finland (in picture) on your mind while planning a vacation? You’ll find charm, ease of access, why, even a veggie burger at restaurants in Lapland

Over the past few months, tourism boards of relatively less travelled destinations (as far as Indians were concerned) such as Flanders, Bavaria, Slovakia, Oman, and Finland are wooing the curious Indian tourist, and how. Give Bruges a chance the next time you think Bangkok, or Rovaniemi instead of Rome.

Flanders, anyone?
Between January and April 2012, for instance, the tourism board of Flanders, a region in Belgium, saw a rise of more than 10 per cent when it came to Indian tourists. Flanders is the northern region of Belgium where the Flemish art cities of Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp are located. Some of the other lesser-known cities (in the Indian market) in this region are Leuven, Michelin and Ieper. The capital of the region is Brussels, which is also the capital of Belgium and the headquarters of the European Union.

The Grand Palace at Bruges, the capital of West Flanders.

According to Sunil Puri, managing director, representative office of Tourism Flanders and Brussels, India, the Belgians are excited about wooing a community that has so much in common with its region —love for food, shopping, beer and culture to name just a few. “Indian outbound travellers are constantly looking for more diverse, unique and rich experiences for their holidays abroad,” he says.

And now that most Indian globetrotters speak English, and are not as rigid about food options as earlier, things have become easier. “They are more international in their outlook and in their food habits than many other emerging markets. Indian food is preferred, but as long as vegetarian and options like pizzas and pastas are available, most Indians are happy to travel to any destination. Indians are also big family travellers and love shopping. Flanders is perfect for such a traveler,” says Puri.

Bruges is best known for its art and architecture

Over the last year, more and more travel agents have been asking for Flanders tour packages. “Earlier, we only looked at major metros such as New Delhi and Mumbai for traffic, but now, we have a significant number of tourists coming in from cities like Pune, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata and Chandigarh.”

Of course this surge in tourist inflow from India could not have been sustained, unless Flanders had a lot to offer. The Flanders’ Maasmechelen Village, for instance, has more than 95 boutiques offering collections from prestigious Belgian and international brands in fashion. “Also Belgium produces 1,72,000 tons of chocolate per year in over 2,130 chocolate shops and Antwerp is the world’s capital for diamonds. Interestingly, a significant share of the diamond trade in Antwerp is controlled by the rich Indian community with roots in Gujarat,” reveals Puri.

The Westmalle brewery in Antwerp. Belgium brews 700 different types of beer. Pics Courtesy /office of tourism flanders and brussels, India

Then, there’s the food, Belgium boasts of one of the highest densities of Michelin star-rated restaurants in Europe, many of which are located in Flanders. The country also brews over 700 different types of beer. Do we hear whoops of joy?

Can’t get more German than this Of course, it’s not just the Belgians who are after us. After 11 years of learning German in Mumbai, Vishakha Awchat-Navare decided to visit Bavaria last year. “Many of my friends who had visited the region told me that if one really wants to experience German culture, Bavaria is the place to be. I was surprised at how untouched the state is by pollution or 21st century problems. The locals are a tad reserved but helpful, because the state really isn’t used to heavy tourist traffic,” she recalls.

Neuschwanstein Castle near Füssen in southwest Bavaria, Germany is a 19th century Romanesque Revival palace on a rugged hill above the village of Hohenschwangau

Navare says she has been to Switzerland and Austria, but neither destination was as arresting as Bavaria. “I got a sense of déjà vu at Switzerland and Austria — I had seen the pictures, I had watched movies shot there. But I hadn’t seen anything like the Neuschwanstein and Herrenchiemsee castles in Bavaria. A beautiful trek led to the castles and we went there on horseback. Bavaria is very accessible and is soaked in history even when you’re commuting.

For instance, if you want to visit the island of Fraueninse, you could take a 160-year-old steam engine to lead you to the ferry, which then takes you to the island. I visited a small fishing village there and was glad to see that the locals were oblivious of the only tourist around. I also decided to take a course in German there. Another remarkable feature I saw: you can actually sip beer in class at the university,” grins Navare.

Instructional Writer Vishakha Avachat-Naware at the Herrenchiemsee Castle in Bavaria.

An economic powerhouse
The main reason that so many countries and their tourism departments are wooing Indians though, is because our economy is one of the few that have shown sustained growth post the economic turmoil of 2008. In 2012, while most economies showed negative or static growth, India grew at over six per cent. “The Indian economy and the rupee are expected to be more stable in 2013 and will positively affect outbound travel,” says Bhupesh Kumar, head of PR and communications, German National Tourist Office, India.

The 160-year-old steam train which takes tourists to the castle.PICs/Vishakha Avachat-Naware

Bavaria, he adds, is wooing India because the market has evolved over the past few years and knows what it’s looking for. “Indians also look for value-for-money tours and bargain for the best price possible. Their holidays are well-planned, too,” he says.

Bavaria’s tourism board, says Kumar, has realised its UNESCO World Heritage sights including the Weiskirche pilgrimage church, the Roman Limes, Wurzburg, Bambergrand Regenburg, the snow-capped Alps and over 1200 museums — are top draws for adventurous and culturally-conscious tourists.

Navare for instance, says she was surprised at the state’s arts. “King Ludwig II was a great patron of the opera and the state comes alive in July and August when the famous conductors from across the world come here to perform. Richard Wagner played there, after all.”

Twenty-seven-year-old Zainab Ghadiyali, engineer at Facebook, travelled to Nicaragua in January last year. She says she instantly noticed the difference between travelling to a well-known place and a hidden one. “Nicaragua’s geography was so unusual compared to everything else I’ve seen in the US and outside of it. The Isla de Ometepe, for instance, is an island formed between two volcanoes.

I also sensed that people were more welcoming rather than being annoyed at the tourist influx. Natural beauty was untarnished, the food was unusual and prices very resonable.”

World at our doorstep
In November 2012, British travel company Trafalgar set up its first Indian office in the city and is steadily promoting lesser-known destinations around the world. Nicholas Lim, Regional Director, Asia, says they see a large un-tapped market of Indians wanting aspirational experiences apart from sightseeing in the usual destinations. “Trafalgar now offers Indian travellers packages to Argentina, Peru and Costa Rica. There’s much on offer—in Argentina, for instance, one can discover how locally grown ingredients are used on a tour of a family-owned craft brewery in Bariloche and explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Los Glaciares National Park, the second-largest National Park in Argentina.”

Such has been the attraction of little-known regions for Indian travellers off late, that the city-based travel group, Backpacker & Co launched The Villa Escape last year. When SMD got in touch with Backpacker’s and Villa Escape co-founder Yogi Shah, currently showing an all-women group around in Rovaniemi, Finland, he agreed that the Indian tourist had stepped out of his comfort zone of travelling only to ‘safe’ destinations. “The Villa Escape was born because we noticed that even places like Tuscany, Finland and Slovakia are persistently wooing Indians. The Indian traveller is maturing fast. Unlike those in the West, Indians have the money to travel, and have saved enough, too. All we need is the push, because we have the will to travel.”

One clear proof of the growing Indian tourist presence in these not-so-common destinations, can be seen in its changing cuisine landscape. In Finland, for instance, says Yogi, there are many Indian restaurants, something unheard of a decade ago. “And this is the case in most destinations. In Lapland, I found a place that sells vegetarian burgers. I am in Tallinn and locals sit in their own restaurants and bars and chat with travellers over a drink. It isn’t all about running from one attraction to another. These charming people make the places so much more relaxing and fun.”
The world has exhilaratingly opened up. Have you?

A vegetarian capital in Europe?
The city of Ghent is called the vegetarian capital of Europe, a fact that not many Indians are aware of. The city promotes vegetarianism very strongly. It has also pioneered in introducing a novel concept called ‘Thursday Veggieday’, wherein restaurants across the city offer special vegetarian cuisine

‘Travel is more convenient now’
According to Thomas Thottathil, spokesperson, Cox & Kings Ltd, 14 million Indians travelled overseas in 2012. “We saw a 30 per cent growth in this segment last year.” Destinations such as Oman, Argentina, Morocco and Lugano in Switzerland are aggressively trying to attract Indian tourists. “If one destination doesn’t have shopping, it concentrates on luxury or some other USP. Thottathil says travel for Indians has also become easier due to convenient flight connections and general ease of travel. “You could book a Eurail pass from India itself for instance, and travel the length and breadth of the region,” he says.  

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