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Monday, 23 May, 2011, 11 : 00 AM [IST]

Self Drive Tours: A growing trend amongst Indian travellers

Self-drive holidaying as a travel product is becoming increasingly popular amongst Indian outbound travellers. The trend is picking up here in India as well as more and more car rental companies are coming forward to offer self-drive tours to the inbound. As the world celebrates the 125th anniversary of the car this year, Travel Biz Monitor explores the potential of self-drive tours.
Travellers no more want to be held by a leash, neither do they want to be led down the driven path. They like to make their trips to a new destination as experiential and adventurous as possible. Trends are loud and clear. People are looking for more experiential and adventurous products like self-drive tours. These niche products, which were popular with more matured travellers from Europe and the US once, is, of late, finding growing acceptance among the Indian travelers as well. Destination managers are also gearing up to fulfill this growing demand for experiential products by travellers.     

Although a niche concept, the number of Indian tourists opting for self-drive while on holidays at overseas destinations has been on a rise in the past five years. As per  statistics by the US government, in 2010, approximately 30 per cent of all Indians arriving into North America, rented a vehicle during their stay. The number has been on an upswing and will soon increase several folds as many Indian travellers look for more freedom and flexibility during their trips and do not want a set schedule.

Michael Maeder, MD— India, Switzerland Tourism informed that the percentage of Indian guests who booked a car in Switzerland was approximately 7 per cent in 2010. “Guests from India seem to be willing to pay a premium to get good cars, understandably so, as a decent amount of horse power increases the fun to drive in the Swiss Alps; although an economy car is sufficient enough to explore Switzerland,” Maeder said.

Self-drive holidays have been promoted as niche holiday product by a lot of tourism boards in India. New Zealand has been the pioneers in promoting this product in the Indian market since 2004. Other popular destinations which promote self-drive holidays include Ireland, Canada, Malaysia, and most European destinations. “Tourism New Zealand has been promoting self-drive as the ultimate way to experience New Zealand since 2004 in India. New Zealand is a pioneer in the concept of self drive,” Kiran Nambiar, Regional Manager – India & South-East Asia, Tourism New Zealand said. As far as the popularity of the product and the growth over the last few years goes, Nambiar added, “The demand for self-drive as an experience has grown tremendously in the Indian market.”  

International car rental companies also testify to the increasing demand for self-drive holidays from Indian customers. “Over the years, Hertz has seen a double-digit increase in the number of Indians doing self-drive overseas. Some of the more popular destinations for Indian holidaymakers are New Zealand, Australia, Europe (namely UK, France and Germany) and South Africa,” informed Mark Mendes, Country Director, Discover The World Marketing (DTWM) – India, India representative of Hertz Rent A Car.

Sunil Gupta, Chief Executive Officer, Avis India, a leading car rental company in India, which is a JV between Avis International and The Oberoi Group of India, stated that they  have been promoting “customised” all-inclusive self-drive holiday packages to destinations like Thailand, UK, France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Germany, with “great amount of success” with “designated vehicles being booked two months in advance.”  

Advantages of Self-drive holidays
Self-drive tourism brings with it a number of advantages, which has helped it gather a significant growth momentum worldwide. Firstly, travellers have the freedom to explore the destination completely at their own pace and navigate wherever they want. Driving around on one’s own proves to be cost-effective, when compared to other means of transport like flights, rail etc. Self-drive car renting is an uncomplicated concept in the West. It is hassle-free in the sense that most tour operators make sure to include protections in their pricing so that the customer is covered in case of an accident. Moreover, self-drive is part of an experience. One can explore new places in the privacy of your choice of vehicle, in the relaxed company of their loved ones and amidst refreshing landscapes.

Self-drive holidays are popular in destinations where condition of the roads and other related infrastructure are in place. According to Mark Mendes self-drive experiences are more appealing at destinations which offer lot of attractions which are spread out. It is also popular in such destination where public transportation or seated coaches are expensive, Mended added. While Australia and New Zealand come under the first category, South Africa generally falls under the second category, Mendes informed.  

“Apart from the fact that most of the western countries have ample public transportation options like trains and trams with rates starting at EURO 56, they are well equipped to sell self drive tours with various arrangements like sign boards at every junction, smoother roads and so on,” opined Hector D’souza, India Representative, South West German Tourism Board.

“Internationally, self-drive is the mainstay of the car rental business with point-to-point self-driving being the most popular. In Europe and the US, self-drive is most popular for leisure and highway driving and not within cities where there is a lot of traffic congestion,” said Gupta of Avis India.

New Zealand has developed self-drive-themed-highways like Alpine Pacific triangle, Classic New Zealand Wine trail, Thermal Explorer highway, Inland Scenic Route 72,  in both the North and the South Islands. These themed highways are multi-day routes from one point to another that will lead you through some of our most famous landscapes, with great attractions along the way. All routes are supported with road sign-posting and touring maps, which point out all of the attractions and activities,” informed Nambiar.

Most tour operators feel that while promoting self drive to Indian outbound travellers, a major drawback is that of the left hand driving in some parts of Europe and American regions. Also, sometimes, first-time travellers are not accustomed with driving in these regions, as a result of which they find it slightly difficult to follow the different speed limits allotted to lanes. For instance, in many German destinations, minimum speed limit is 100 kmph, which is quite high for Indian travellers who are habituated to Indian road speed limits.  

“The main challenge we face in the Indian market, is educating the consumer that these packages are available and that it is simple and easy to do a self-drive tour. Some people have never done it before, so they are unfamiliar with the process of self-drive. However, the process of renting a car is a simple and short one; from the time a customer arrives at our counter they can be on the road enjoying their vacation in under 15 minutes,” opined Jay Hasler, Director-International Business, Enterprise Holdings, California.

However, such niche products definitely add value to a destination and offer an extra edge for promoters and sellers of destinations while promoting destinations. The package sellers can highlight such niche products and make the whole package more attractive to the customers. At the same time, they have to convince the products competitiveness to the customers in comparison to other modes of transport available at the destination. The added advantage to a self-drive package is that tour operators are able to offer an experience with it, which truly allows the customer experience everything that a destination has to offer at his own pace.

Selling self-drive holidays is profitable to tour operators located in regions which host internationally acclaimed events like the Grand Prix. Explaining the same, D’souza said, “2011 marks the 125th year of the car. Spillmann, an inbound tour operator for South West Germany has designed a special luxury self-drive package called ‘Premium Cars of Southern Germany.’ The seven nights/eight days, five-city itinerary package consists of a circuit tour around four destinations in the region, in four of the world’s luxury cars. Thus, the celebrations have given tour operators a great opportunity to design packages in self-drive tours.”

Self-drive options in India
A lot of regions in the northern part of India offer self-drive travel options to inbound and domestic travellers. The most prominent hub for self-drive holidays in India is Goa, which is one of the first regions to start self-drive tourism to FITs and leisure segments. Spotting young and older travellers on different kinds of vehicles right from bicycles to SUVs on the street is a very common sight in Goa.

The car rental market in India is worth Rs 2.5 billion, as per some rough estimates. Hardly 20 per cent of this market is  organized and the rest is vastly unorganized. However, the self-drive market has been showing some sort of growth in the last few years. From a mere .8 per cent share in the organized car rental business three years ago, self-drive business today has 5 per cent share in the business. “In India self drive, though relatively small, is definitely on a high growth path. From being virtually non-existent around 5 years back, it now contributes around 5 per cent of our revenue,” said Gupta. According to Gupta, the most popular Indian circuits for self-drive amongst foreign guests are Rajasthan (Jaipur, Jodhpur, Ajmer etc), the Himalayas, Goa, Agra, Varanasi, and destinations in the south including Bangalore, Kerala, and Tamilnadu.  Avis had introduced Himalayan Holidays on self-drive recently.  
However, many parts of the country still lack the option of self-drive holidays, owing to a number of factors like lack of lane discipline amongst local drivers and bad road conditions. India has immense potential to promote self-drive holidays, but the right infrastructure needed to be created to grab the opportunities. “Since chauffeur rates are relatively cheap and the road infrastructure and road signage is poor, customers prefer not to drive themselves. Low awareness levels are another major concern,” Gupta observed.
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