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Tuesday, 25 October, 2011, 14 : 00 PM [IST]

Niche Tourism – Opportunities for India

Travel is evolving rapidly the world over. There is a visible shift from mass tourism to niche tourism. It is a challenge before destinations and destination managers to prepare themselves to attract tourists around the niche in the coming time. Despite having diverse destinations and products, India’s tourism industry is not yet able to rise to the level of being called a niche destination. P Krishna Kumar explores the opportunities and challenges…
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Travel is a new religion for people around the world. A recent survey revealed that people the world over spend almost 40 per cent of their spare income or savings on exploring new places for leisure. The trend is growing year-on-year irrespective of the changes on the global stage. With this growth come the challenges. Today’s traveller does not want to spread his vacation too thin on too many things. Thanks to the communication revolution, he picks a destination after a lot of research, and comes to a destination with a definite bend of mind. He is very selective when it comes to choosing destinations and products. Traditional travel products no longer fascinate the evolved world traveller. What he is looking for, is niche or special interest tourism products.

Traditionally, people travelled to different destinations for either business or leisure. Pilgrimage has been another major reason for travel since time immemorial. Leisure travel involved visiting places of historic and cultural significance, fairs, festivals, etc. But over the years, especially with the advent of internet; the urge to visit new places and experience the life and culture there increased. As destinations started realizing the economic potential of tourism, they started competing for the moolah by introducing innovative travel products to add value to traditional products. Hence, new sub-segments of travel started evolving. These sub-segments are known by the pet name ‘niche’ or ‘special interest’ travel.

Today, there are a lot of niche travel segments, known by a whole lot of fancy names.  Popular ones are Eco, Rural, Cruise, Sports, Adventure and Wildlife Tourism. But there are a lot of lesser-known niche segments gaining ground in the list. These include Ancestral Tourism, Tribal Tourism, Volunteer Tourism, Student Travel, Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender travel (GLBT), Photographic Tourism, Gastronomic Tourism, etc. For niche travel, the sky is literally the limit. There is even a new concept called ‘Space Tourism’. It would be really interesting to note that there is niche around ‘graveyard’ as well. Graveyard Tourism is part of Calcuttawalk, a heritage walk itinerary developed by few young local enthusiasts where they take tourists around a few graveyards of historical importance.


India’s prospects as a Niche destination:
India’s niche is built around Cultural, Heritage and Adventure Tourism with its diverse topography and geopolitical heritage. While these core areas continue to drive tourism there have been efforts to create niche tourism products like Medical and Wellness, Rural Tourism, Eco-tourism, Wildlife Tourism, etc. in the last decade.

Niche tourism is fast becoming a reality in India. “In my opinion, these are the businesses of the future and many of them will be key to the growth of India’s tourism. Key niche tourism areas are Wellness, Medical, Cruises, Pilgrimage, Adventure, MICE, Golf and Polo. Both the trade and the government are cooperating to realize the potential of these sectors. A policy to promote these businesses is also being set up, which we expect to give further impetus to mainstream these segments,” said Arjun Sharma, MD, Le Passage to India (LPTI).

Essentially, niche is where money is which the industry also realizes. “Many of the new segments are high-end and India offers a perfect setting to grow and nurture them to be good value businesses. We are already seeing double digit growth in Wellness and Medical Tourism, and noticing their value, key tour operators and destination management companies are incubating specialist teams. This will gradually become a trend setter. On the infrastructure front, world-class airports in India have today created the environment for the country to also focus on creating international standard convention centres to further enhance the MICE segment’s growth,” observes Sharma.

However, there is a lack of clarity as to what comes under the ambit of niche and what not, says Rajesh Mudgil, MD, Planet India Travels. “What needs to be addressed is the definition of niche tourism. Once we achieve that, it will be easier to promote the segment. Several tour operators promote niche activities without realising that there is a thin veil between special interest tourism and niche tourism. A sector that is not clearly defined will hamper the understanding of the target segment - rendering any appropriate marketing scheme useless,” he admits.  

Need to focus on newer segments:
India has to focus its energy to attract more niche segments of travel involving young travellers. With the current stress on culture and heritage, India receives aged travellers who are more inclined towards culture and heritage.  These travellers are mostly not high-spenders. If India has to benefit from global travel, we have to look towards more niche segments of travel. To cater to these niche segments, the industry has to equip itself and create the right infrastructure to address various issues related to the sentiments of these segments. Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) is one such market that has very high potential, if tapped well.

The ITB Berlin organizers have been holding special workshops for the last three years on the LGBT segment as part of their annual exhibitions to create awareness among the global travel industry. There have been efforts to engage the Indian travel industry as well to make them realize the opportunities and benefits of tapping niche travel segments including LGBT. Rika Jean Francois, Sales Director - Asia Pacific, ITB Berlin, who was recently in India to announce ITB’s partnership with Goa International Travel Mart (GITM) said that if handled seriously, LGBT could bring dividends to destinations and businesses. “We are not promoting anything. What we are doing is just sensitizing the people in the industry that there is a business opportunity before them,” she said.  

A recent survey of 3,865 LGBT Americans organized by Community Marketing Inc (CMI), a communications and marketing agency based in the US, revealed some startling facts. According to the survey, over 80 per cent said they would visit or have visited India and prefer it over other destinations in South Asia. India is second behind Thailand as a cultural and adventure destination in terms of preference. Nepal is one country which openly invites such niche segments in the neighbourhood. “Nepal is offering Gay weddings in the Himalayas which is very popular,” says Rika. Even some Indian operators also organise mock weddings for gay travellers in heritage resorts in Rajasthan and Goa under special settings which is equally popular among ‘special interest’ travellers.

Niche Adventure:
India has good prospects for becoming a niche adventure destination. Adventure Tourism is one area where India tourism has made good progress in the last few years due to the synergy between government agencies and stakeholders. “If you talk about adventure, I can easily count 15 unique adventure sports activities that we offer at different places in the country,” says RH Khwaja, Secretary - Tourism, Government of India. Mentioning the recent Polo event held in Drass in Kashmir, Khwaja said no other country in the world offers Polo on camels and elephants. “We have the highest motorable roads in the world, we have the largest sweet water lake, we have the deserts, and rivers that offer unparalled water rafting opportunities,” he added.  

India is emerging as a destination for hard adventure from being a soft-adventure destination. From biking to self-drive tours, India offers trekking, mountaineering, river rafting, kayaking, scuba diving and snorkelling, ballooning and a lot more. India has already booked a place on the Formula 1 map; with the Buddh International Circuit ready at Greater Noida in the NCR to host the first-ever F1 race in India, in late-October.

“India has lots to offer for adventure travel in the form of trekking, mountaineering, white water rafting, paragliding and lots of water sports. Some support from the state governments for better infrastructure, connectivity, advertising and lower taxes can definitely help adventure tourism grow exponentially,” informs Rahul Nigam, MD, Jumping Heights. However, stakeholders need to stress on safety and security as it is paramount in adventure activities, he informs.  

Adventure Tourism is the fastest growing niche segment in India today, and the segment is getting a lot of attention as well, agrees Mandip Singh Soin, MD, Ibex Expeditions. At the same time, he admits that India has a long way to go for providing the level of safety and security an international adventure traveller looks for. “There are a lot of safety and security issues that need to be addressed to create that confidence. We still don’t have the permission to use communication equipments while on expeditions. That needs to be addressed,” he says.

Wedding Tourism:
Indian weddings are quite popular for their pomp and extravaganza. While other destinations try to lure Indian wedding groups, India can promote Indian-style weddings to prospective couples in other countries. The yesteryear royal palaces-turned-heritage hotels are picture perfect venues for weddings. Similarly, houseboats, beach resorts, etc. are also favoured locations. The wedding market in India mainly comprises of NRIs who come back to their roots for weddings with all the traditional rituals.

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“The wedding segment has grown substantially in the past few years. The main market consists of domestic and NRI tourists. Not too many foreigners come to India for weddings,” says Nikhil Dalal, MD, Lifestyle Holidays. Important destinations for big budget weddings are Delhi, Goa, and Jaipur, he informs.  

251011_tw_2.jpgWellness & Medical Tourism:
Wellness and Medical Tourism has become a niche travel product in the last few years.  Because of the cost advantage associated with medical procedures here, people from both the developed world and the Middle East, prefer India for complex medical procedures. Among competing destinations, India has the best of talented doctors, quality paramedical staff, cost effective treatments, and post-treatment care facilities. The majority of the patients are from the Middle East, who apart from the cost advantage, prefer India for medical treatments because of its proximity and easy accessibility.  

However, the challenge before India is to convert a medical traveller into a tourist.  Generally, medical travellers return home after they are discharged from the hospitals. We also have to review visa procedures. Even though we commenced the Medical Visa few years ago to facilitate more Medical travel into India, the initiative was a non-starter for various reasons. The registration procedures are quite cumbersome. Every overseas patient coming to India for medical treatments has to be registered with the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Office (FRRO) within 14 days. “Policies are a real concern in India. We need to be liberal in certain procedures,” informs Pradeep Thukral, President, Indian Medical Travel Association. While most of our competitions offer free visa facilities and are quite liberal in their approach, Indian visa procedures are time-consuming and cumbersome, he adds.  

Heritage Tourism:
The rich culture and heritage of the country still continue to drive tourists into India. To keep holding the interest, various agencies are working to revamp old edifices and monuments, and showcase them in innovative ways. The heritage walk, a concept started in Ahmedabad, is slowly spreading to other cities of India as well. Delhi is currently offering a heritage walk by linking a few of the heritage monuments in the old city of Delhi. The Punjab Heritage & Tourism Promotion Board also recently launched a  heritage walk programme in Amritsar. Calcuttawalk is quite popular with tourists going to Eastern India.  

251011_tw_3.jpgOther niche segments:
With its diversity, India can look at many other niche areas which could fascinate a traveller. India’s rich wildlife is unparalleled. Some travellers return repeatedly for their sheer passion and fascination of tigers. Jennifer Buxton from the UK is one such traveller. An artist by profession, Buxton comes to Madhya Pradesh and visits different parks in Panna, Kanha, and Bandhavgarh to see the tiger in the wild. She has a website of her own – www.tigertigerburningbright.com – which is testimony to her fascination for this animal.  She sells her artwork, paintings of tigers, etc. for funding for different community activities in India.

Indian festivals are real crowd pullers too. A lot of foreign tourists come to the country to experience these colourful festivals year after year. The Pushkar Mela is one such festival. Kumbh Mela is another major occasion which a lot of foreign travellers wait for to visit India. An Italian photographer, Murizio Cerrai, whom this correspondent met at Haridwar during the last Kumbh Mela, had numerous stories to tell about his experiences of catching the vivid colours of Indian life and culture. He has travelled 15 times to India in as many years, especially to cover all the Kumbh Melas.  

India has all the potential to become a niche destination for all sorts of travellers. The onus is on the stakeholders of tourism industry to develop and design something unique which is out-of-the-box. If I borrow the words of RH Khwaja, the Tourism Secretary of the country, “What the department can do is to promote the country, it is the responsibility of the industry to design niche products and packages.”
 
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