A few decades ago, the biggest number of travellers worldwide used to be Americans. Then came the turn of the Germans and then of the Japanese. Lately, it appears to be the Indians, who now flock to almost every tourist destination in the world. But the discerning among Indian tourists have begun travelling to more exotic places, where the trickle is yet to become a crowd.
Sensing this, even old favourite country destinations have begun trying to create new spots and places for a new crop of tourists to visit. DNA called in a few experts in this business for their views. They included (in alphabetical order) Deepti Bhatnagar, director, Deepti Bhatnagar Productions Pvt Ltd; Michael Maeder, managing director, Switzerland Tourism; Adel El Masry, director, Egyptian Tourism Office; Radka Neumannova, director, Czech Tourist Authority, Czech Tourism and Orna Sagiv, consul general, Consulate General of Israel.
During the ‘conversation’ moderated by RN Bhaskar of DNA, the panelists talked about major changes that are taking place. Given below are excerpts:
DNA: Thanks to growing affluence, many Indians are beginning to seek out new destinations. We would like to know your views.
Neumannova: The Czech Republic Tourist Authority is quite new to the Indian market. It’s been only eight months since we began our activities here. So, probably, my view may not be that correct or appropriate.
My first impression, when I came here, was that India has huge potential thanks to the growing GDP, middle-class group and the potential for growth, in the sense of buying things for consumption.
I see a lot of changes from 2010 till now, especially because our nation [the Czech Republic] is developing a position on the Indian markets. Everything is in process right now. From a consumer’s point of view, new European destinations are positively welcome on the market, especially for a seasoned traveller who has visited Europe and already been to all the must-see destinations — Switzerland, UK, France, etc.
They are looking for something new. Some countries they have never explored. And Eastern European countries are right now the most targeted destinations on the travel map in India.
DNA: How many tourists do you get a year as a country?
Neumannova: Last year we had about 15,000 to 20,000 Indians. We expect that this number is going to grow steadily a few years from now. Overall, we have about 6-6.3 million visitors each year. Considering that we are a country of 10 million people, population-wise, it is quite an extensive number. And I recently learned that the same number comes to India.
Sagiv: I think Israel is rather new and is considered to be an exotic place for the Indian tourist.
Tourists who go to Israel are more sophisticated. I would say the middle and upper-middle class. Of course, people go to Israel on pilgrimage. And this is interesting, because in the beginning we mainly had pilgrims.
Last year, we had about 3.5 million tourists from all over the world in Israel. We are a small country of less than seven million. And we expect the tourist numbers to go to even 4 million next year. That’s more than half of our population!
On the other hand we had about 40,000 Indian tourists last year, which is the largest number from Asia today. To get the perspective right, I would like to add that the same number of tourists, about 35,000 to 45,000 people, come to India from Israel.
There is still potential for the numbers going [from India] to Israel.
I think Israel has a lot to offer the Indian tourist. First of all, we have very vibrant cities. If you go to Tel Aviv, we call it the 24x7 or the ‘non-stop’ city. And there are great clubs and beaches.
We have a lot of historical places. In Israel, every step you take, you can breathe history. Like in Jerusalem and all over the country, you have very well-preserved archaeological sites. So if you go up north, you can see the place where Jesus walked on water or you can go to Bethlehem. Everywhere history exists. But Israel is a very small country. If you go from North to South, it is eight hours. If you go from West to East, in the most narrow place, it is 15 minutes. So you have the Red Sea, the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. If you like beaches there are beautiful ones for you to be at. If you go up North, it is all mountains and greenery, if you go down South, it is a desert. You can have the whole experience in a very small place. It is only a seven-hour direct flight from here [Mumbai].
Another thing that we offer is that there is a lot of good shopping. And I think that it is another thing that the Indian tourist loves to do. We have great markets. Israel is also a centre of lifestyle. You have all the designers — from clothes designers to shoe designers to jewellery designers. Everything is very accessible, either in shopping malls or in small specialty areas. Many visiting Israel are business tourists who come to participate in conferences and they want to be a part of that. People feel safe to come to Israel and we create a lot of opportunity for the business traveller as well. Let it be agriculture, IT, telecommunications, home and security — we have lots of international conferences and we believe that the person who goes to Israel on a business trip will come again later will his family.
Maeder: I want to speak at this point of the difference between Switzerland and the other two countries.
Ours is a different story in India. We as a tourist office came to India about 12 or 13 years ago. That was long before my time here. I came only a year ago. As I said before, we also had Yash Chopra promoting Switzerland long before we came [to market Switzerland]. So we had this advantage that we still live off.
We try to somehow still maintain these well-known destinations that people have been to before and also try to launch new destinations, such as Geneva, which is not extremely well known to most Indians; or the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, Ticino. We launched a little bit more this year.
Our situation is, basically being an established destination, we are now making sure that we keep the freshness and people still think it’s worth [the effort] to go to Switzerland. Hence, we have to make sure we keep our brand visible even though it is not the latest one in the market. But we still want to make sure that people know it is also exotic to go to Switzerland. It was exotic at that time. It is still is. The mountains have not changed. And obviously the message is mountains. We have no beaches. We do have a night-life. We focus on the mountains, nature and the scenery. That is the key point.
In 2010, we had 4,00,000 ‘overnights’, that is roughly 2,00,000 visitors. That was 25% more than the previous year’s. We had a jump of 3,20,000 overnights to 4,00,000. So my aim is to have another 25% increase this year. These are the figures of Indian tourists.
The total number of tourists will be somewhere between 34 million and 35 million. You have to keep in mind, we are pretty much the ‘ski area’ in winter Europe. And that is where we have the volume, obviously tourist-wise. It is slowly shifting to 50-50. Maybe 10 years ago, 60% was winter and 40% was summer. That is why we are in India. Now, we also try to get more visitors outside of the winter region because the mountains have only so much space.
India is very attractive as it falls between the classic tourism winter season and our classic summer season, which is July and August.
DNA: Deepti, you’ve been looking at new spots that tourists opt for. Which are the other destinations that Indians have been flocking to?
Bhatnagar: I started a travel show in 2000 and that’s the time the population wasn’t travelling that much. We probably had a million tourists going abroad. Today, we have about 16 million. Then, tourism boards weren’t here and we didn’t have support. Today, there is more information [and support]. Tourists started to look up and say ‘where are you going next’? ‘Tell us the name of a new place?’ Today, tourists are very well aware. The first travel is definitely Singapore or some Asian country. They start with their Thailand tour, Singapore, Asian tour and then they go on to USA or Europe.
DNA: Which are the new places that you think Indians have discovered during the last one year, which are the most popular?
Bhatnagar: I think the Czech Republic has become very popular. Bollywood, television, fashion, etc, they really like to go and shoot in Prague. They think the architecture is fantastic and the hotels are not that expensive.
Italy is another. Not really Rome, Milan and Venice, but small places in Tuscany, places like Volterra, Lucca; small cities, good hotels.
Turkey, Serengeti, Zanzibar, game resorts, Kenya, etc are other places [that have caught the attention of seasoned Indian travellers]. Turkey has become popular in the last two years and also Greece, Mykonos, Santorini, are all becoming extremely popular.
Now, travellers are looking forward to cruise holidays. It has become popular in India now. First cruises start within Asia, then Mediterranean cruises.
DNA: In terms of numbers, what percentage of Indians would be interested in a new destination?
Bhatnagar: You have a large chunk going to old destinations because the middle class and the lower middle class also started to travel. The travel has become more accessible to people, 70% are still going to the traditional destinations.
DNA [to El Masry]: We would like to know from you how you see tourism from India?
El Masry: If we talk about Egypt today as a destination, the Indian market became one of the most important destinations for us now.
[In fact, it is] not only India but the Asian market in general. Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc. Our last study found that the Indian market has become very important for us. Tourism accounts for 11.8% of our GDP. Last year, we received more than 14.7 million tourists, out of which Asians were about 25%. If we focus on India alone, in 2009, we received about 88,000 tourists but for 2010, we received around 1.14 lakh — an increase of around 30%.
We also try to develop our heritage and culture. We try through our new campaign to send out two messages. The first is to promote Egypt as a cultural nation, but we also try to promote Egypt as a religious destination; like a honeymoon destination, as well as a wellness destination. We have many tour operators promoting our holy sites and we sometimes share tours with our neighbours, the Jordanese, etc.
All of you know what has happened in Egypt in the past two to three months. We try to promote a new edge and concept now. Egypt as a destination is open for the world. We try also to give things about Egypt: the Egypt of yesterday, Egypt today and tomorrow.
DNA: How do foreign destinations view Indian tourists? They are not easy to be with; they do not take care of their environment as well as Europeans do. They go in groups, they do not integrate easily.
Bhatnagar: In 2000, when we travelled as an Indian group, we used to [be greeted with] a frown. Nowadays they ask,”Indian?” and give us a big smile. Yes, we have also become smarter. And yes, there is a difference in cultures and the systems. The first-time traveller was not educated. So there was a difference. But now we are smarter.
DNA: Coming to Israel particularly, travellers must go through a series of security checks if they are travelling to Israel. This is understandable. But has that affected tourism?
Sagiv: We always say it is easy to get into Israel than to leave because we like our visitors so much that we do not let them go easily.
It is true that every traveller who goes to Israel with El Al, which is our airline, will have to go through security. But then that is why you travel with the best airline in the world, the safest one I would say. And in Israel, unfortunately, we are still not that fortunate like Switzerland. In this environment we have to make sure that people are safe.
And I think that today when you travel throughout the country, you will feel safe on the streets. You do not have any problems of safety or security. When you leave the country, they will ask you questions. But I always advise people that when they come to a country, someone will ask you questions and you should be ready for that. There is no special problem. We do not hear any complaints. It is more of a concept.
Even here in India, you get asked. Today, at every airport you have something [relating to security]. In the US you have to take your shoes off. In Europe too you have similar things. So I do not think this is particular to Israel. If you look at the statistics, we go up to three-and-a-half million tourists. In the past year, and even in the first two months of this year, we have seen these numbers growing. So the sense is that people are comfortable.
DNA [to Neumannova] You have Europeans and Asians, including Indians, visiting your country. Do you feel a kind of culture shock when more Indians come in?
Neumannova: I do not think so. The Czech Republic has been influenced so many times by so many cultures and so many populations. Every year, there is a mix of different kinds of people coming from all over the world. Especially Indians, when they are coming back from the Czech Republic, their experience is very positive.
There is a huge Vietnamese and Chinese community living in the Czech Republic. So it means the relationship with Asian countries has been established many years and decades ago, ever since it was Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia, for example, had a really firm relationship with India and in the ’70s and ’80s we supported a lot of engineering, exports, heavy machinery, etc. Many people still remember this relationship. Many companies have been established here in India, as many Indians have established in the Czech Republic. For example, the Mittals have set up their steel company there, Skoda has established itself here. We all know that Bata Shoes is not an Indian company but a Czech. So there are more than cultural relations and business relations between the two.
DNA: How does Switzerland view an influx of Asians?
Maeder: It’s a mix. To say it’s not a problem at all would be naive. When the first Indian groups came 15-20 years ago, there was a culture clash of course. There is a group of 40-50 people from India, colourfully dressed and seen on a mountaintop, asking for Indian food, which was not available, it was a [culture] clash. That is a given. But that has nothing to do with Indians. That is what I always try and explain. This is a culture difference. If a Swiss group goes to a New Guinea, it would behave in a Swiss manner and that would be a completely different way as well.
So what we did as a tourist office, and still do sometimes, are workshops that we hold and organise within specific destinations and explain to local tourist offices, hoteliers, and the local tourism partners, what India is all about. Why do people have tea when they arrive, why do people check out without a suitcase and expect you to bring it downstairs, why do they ask for railway station platform, etc. It sounds very funny and minor differences between cultures get noticed immediately and these are the ones we try to fix.
We cannot adjust these differences. We just focus on specific things that we feel will make them more comfortable. Having tea at the reception when they arrive, having Indian food. If they want Indian food, a good number of Indian operators have started giving curries in buses. So there was a bus travelling with the whole tour bus. And then the Swiss mountain started to offer lunch on the mountain tops. At Jungfrau, you have Indian food these days. There are even Indian signs in places.
It is like selling a product. If you sell the wrong product in a market you are never going to be successful. Certain products are perfect but if you sell it in a wrong market, it doesn’t work. So we also said to certain people in Switzerland that if you want to be a tourist destination, then you need to understand what Indian guests want to have, you need to be ready. If does not make sense to send Indian guests and then they have a bad experience.
DNA: How does Egypt react to Indians and non-Indians? The shopkeepers I know prefer a Westerner as a customer rather than an Indian.
El Masry: When Indians come back from Egypt, it is a pleasure to meet them. We have to come back again, they say. And I ask them why. So most of the Indians who come there feel at home. They closely share a lot of culture and even food. A lot of times we have to think about small things. What Indian tourists love so much is the shopping in Egypt. In fact, we try to send out a message for the same. In my strategy or media plan for the young, I try to woo them through newspapers or TV, etc. I try to promote Egypt as a vibrant destination and a good honeymoon destination. I try to focus on the culture, the marine, a passage for religious tourists, etc.
DNA: In Israel too there is food similar to that which Indians and Egyptians consume, right?
Sagiv: I think India is a special country. But Israel is a kind of melting pot. What is Israel? The Israeli is a person who basically came from 75 countries, 75 cultures, from Ethiopia and Russia and from India. We have in Israel about 1 lakh people who originated from India. They speak Hindi and Marathi. We have diversity.
My parents came from Europe. Others came from Morocco. So we are talking about diversity. But we are all also different from each other. Also, the food, I think, mirrors this diversity, because there is no such thing as Israeli food. We have adopted the Arabic, the Mediterranean, the Middle-Eastern food. We have a fusion of everything. We have Western food, European food and the beautiful part about Israel is this fusion.
You can have Hummus and you can have some exotic fish from Alaska as well. I don’t think that anyone has come back from Israel and said ‘I have been discriminated against’. I guess it is the opposite. When people from India go to Israel, they are being asked questions like ‘Oh! You are from India. Where are you from? Manali? Oh my God, I have been there too or I come from there.’ So it’s always that someone from your family just came from that place.
And if you look at it the other way, the number of tour operators that go from Israel to India are many. If it was my generation, we were backpackers. And now the parents are also backpackers. They come to India and have a special and different experience. There is a strong affection when people go back to Israel.
DNA: Any last words you would like to say about your countries, about India, about Indian tourism, etc?
Neumannova: I would like to comment about the first question we had. The capital of Czech Republic, Prague, is well known already in India. My first fight I had with changing this perception is that nobody knew that Prague is the capital city of the Czech Republic. So for me it was like rebuilding the brand of the country.
When I asked someone if they had been to Czech Republic, they said no. So I asked them which cities they had visited in Europe and they said Paris, London, Prague. And branding the country is different from branding the city. Prague is always going to be a must-see attraction for any Indian traveller coming to the Czech Republic because it is a beautiful city.
It is the perception of crossing cultures from West and East and all the architectural styles can be found there and I always soak it all up like it is an open air museum and you are just walking through it. And experience the friendly atmosphere of the city. Many of the people who are going there never want to leave the city. Of course, the culture and heritage is the main thing that we have.
For example, it is very big for the film industry. Many Hollywood companies, and now Bollywood as well, have started to shoot there not only because the price is convenient but also because of the spirit of the country. You can shoot any possible kind of film at different locations. For example, Rockstar, the new Bollywood film, has been shot in the Czech Republic in Prague and the surroundings. We are hoping that the film will showcase the destinations for Indians.
The best part of it is that it has been actually shot there, no place has been faked.
One more thing. The capital of the country doesn’t represent the country. You know, for example, Delhi or Mumbai does not really represent India. That is the same for any other country in the world, including Prague. If you go you can explore much more in the surroundings and beyond Prague.