Ditch the Alps for Spiti

Jun 03, 2012, 11:04 IST | Dhvani Solani

Honeymoons no longer demand a visit to a Swiss chalet. A bachelorette can be just as much fun in Bandhavgarh. The Indian traveller is chucking the erstwhile, glorified foreign trip to explore locales closer to home, courtesy sky-rocketing airfares, the rupee plunging to new lows, the Euro crisis and a heightened awareness of local destinations. Desi travel has never been cooler

If you look back to when your grandparents made that rare trip to the distant shores of a ‘phoren’ country, you will see black-and-white pictures of them buried under heaps of garlands, and posing next to the 50-odd relatives who had come to see them off at the airport. Fast forward to today, when international travel is nothing that will make your eyebrows shoot into your hairline. Then why did Meenal Khanna ditch her plans to walk around France in favour of backpacking in Ladakh in July, later this year? “The airfare, visa prices and hostel rates were all amounting to just too much,” the 23 year-old tells us. “And when I was talking to a friend who had been to Ladakh last year, I realised how beautiful our own country is. If I take a train to Delhi and then travel up to Leh by road, it will amount to only a fraction of the cost (almost 60 per cent less) I would’ve spent on my trip to France. Now, I can live more comfortably, stay for more days and see much more for a lot less money. I might also combine this with trips to the Spiti and Lahaul regions in Himachal Pradesh.”

There are top hotels in Europe that don’t even change your bed linen. People in Asia are warmer and our service is superior. Italy would have cost our group almost Rs 3,50,000. For the same kind of money, you can holiday in Asia like kings — Anuroopa Banerjee cancelled her plans of an Italian sojourn to travel closer to home 

The freefall of the rupee, airlines undergoing an upheaval with pilot strikes and flight cancellations, along with our growing respect for desi destinations, is leading the Indian traveller to explore his / her own homeland, it seems. News reports state that the cost of a foreign travel has increased by at least 20 per cent in recent weeks.

“The rate of exchange is very important to a traveller and currently that is not working in our favour,” says Kruti Shah, proprietor of tour company Travel Venture, based in Matunga. “Exposure of Indian destinations through marketing and advertising is also increasing manifold.” Case in point, she tells us, is the sudden interest in destinations in Gujarat such as the Gir Forest National Park and the Somnath Temple, thanks to the advertisement blitzkrieg of Gujarat Tourism, centering on their brand ambassador, Amitabh Bachchan.

“Every thing bought abroad is now 18 per cent more expensive,” adds Raja Natesan, COO of TUI India, a travel company that offers holiday packages of Indian as well as international destinations. “Domestic business has benefited as a result. We are seeing a surge in local bookings though the domestic booking market is a late booking market (bookings are often made just a week before departure) and it may be a bit early to conclude just how strong this surge is.”

Anshul Trivedi and a friend hired a bullet from the Leh marketplace to ride to the top of the world, Khardung La, in 2011

Incredible India
It also helps that our fears about visiting certain parts of the country, including Kashmir and the North Eastern states, is metamorphosing into a confidence in our abilities to tackle the supposed lack of amenities and services there. “Living in India is quite a privilege since you get to see such diverse topographies and landscapes,” says Anshul Trivedi, who works in the real estate sector. Though accustomed to taking one big international trip every year, this year, the 24 year-old resident of Matunga chose to plan three small domestic trips with friends to Uttarakhand, Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, instead. It turned out that the combined cost of these three trips totalled less than what his average trip to Europe costs.

“When you go abroad, you see something strikingly different from your country. In India, wherever you go, many factors are common and that adds to the wow factor. We speak the same language, eat comfort food, meet people whose psyche we understand and that works for most travellers. The perception that places abroad are so much cooler is now changing.”

So today, the quintessential Indian traveller — often caricaturised as carrying a big dabba of home-cooked food, or wearing salwar kameezes with sports shoes — boasts about his / her trip to the Ranthambhore National Park as he/she does about visiting Masai Mara, and has realised that the Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand is a lot more pocket-friendly than a trip to the Alpine Gardens in Interlaken, Switzerland.

Atithi Devo Bhava
Our famous hospitality works wonders as a catalyst. Organisations like Grassroutes, a Mumbai-based social venture promoting rural tourism, make the city slicker slow down and appreciate rural life, even if just for a weekend. Vikrant Patil, a resident of Vashi who chooses to spend at least four weekends a year in small villages of Maharashtra rather than done-to-death destinations like Matheran and Lonavala, loves the sense of warmth that these rural places bestow on him. “Earlier, they might have been suspicious of a shorts-and-tee wearing urban dweller in their midst,” the 32 year-old marketing manager tells us. “But today, they are happy about the exchange of thought, and make you feel so welcome. There is nothing quite like an Indian homestay.”

And though we are not known for being fussy travellers, our hotels too are doing their bit to make us happy. “There are top hotels in Europe that don’t even change your bed linen or give you bottled drinking water,” sighs jewellery designer and travel blogger Anuroopa Banerjee, who cancelled her plans of an Italian sojourn this year to travel closer to home. “People in Asia are far warmer and our service is superior.” The Jaipur resident, apart from flying off to lesser-explored places in Thailand earlier this year, takes off on weekend breaks every now and then to explore more parts of north India. “Italy would have cost our group almost ¤5,000 (Rs 3,50,000). For the same kind of money, you can holiday in Asia like kings.”

Home, sweet home
Tourism within India has also got a shot in the arm thanks to increasingly difficult visa procedures. “Places like Ladakh were off-limits till a couple of years ago. Only the adventurous backpacker treaded on that path,” says freelance travel consultant Bijal Shah. “Today, people are dying to uncover smaller parts of India. They are even eyeing the Andaman and Nicobar islands even though they aren’t well developed.”

But what happens when people realise that they can fly to Thailand or Dubai for almost the same cost that they would shell out to fly from say, Delhi to Kolkata? “Asian countries are becoming big on our agendas too,” says Shah. “Since we all are strapped for time, those big US or UK trips are losing steam. Plus, our mentality is such that we feel that if we are spending so much, it should be worth it. So, a ten-day trip to the US is just not worth the money. That is why travel within Asia is so hot right now, and will only get hotter.” 

Where are we wandering?
We quizzed Chirag Bhandari, the young founder and CEO of Mumbai-based High on Travel that promotes experiential travel in India, on where the Indians are heading to this year. Pack your bags, now.

Kumaon: This Uttarakhand region had Nainital as its strong selling point. But now, people have started exploring destinations like Almora, Mukhteshwar and other smaller towns

Sikkim: Since we still have a false perception of the North East being an unsafe place to travel to, people are exploring their fascination for this part of the country by opting for Sikkim instead. Apart from Gangtok (combined with Darjeeling in West Bengal), people have started showing interest in smaller towns like Lachung, although it is tough terrain to go to. Sikkim does not look like any other Indian city; it’s a different world altogether and hence the fascination 

Kashmir: It goes without saying that the usual circuit of Kashmir, Sonmarg, Gulmarg and Pahalgam remains the most popular. There was a time when there was fear attached to visiting Kashmir. That is relatively less now. Since most of us have already been to places like Shimla, Kullu-Manali, Mussoorie and Dharamshala, we are now comfortable planning a Kashmir trip.

Wayanad: Apart from the usual suspects in Kerala, Wayanad — a green paradise in the north-east of the state — is an emerging destination for those wishing to be close to nature

Nilgiris: We have always loved Ooty and Kodaikanal, but people are now discovering places like Coonoor and even Yercaud 

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