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South India tourism set to grow

Kishore Singh | November 20, 2004

If tour operators are cramming up on South Indian history and culture, they have the globetrotting tourist to blame (or thank). Ever since the Tourism Cell first came into being, followed soon after by the creation of India Tourism Development Corporation in the mid-sixties, tourism has tended to be north-centric.

But not any more. This year, the skew in southern tourism has been sharp enough to make those in the travel business sit up and take notice of the land south of the Vindhyas.

With tourist traffic growing at a steady trot and domestic and international airlines adding more services to airports in South India, clearly the southern tourism industry is having its day out in the sun.

2004 is proving to be India's most successful year yet where international tourism is concerned, but with city hotels in Mumbai and Delhi putting up house-full boards, group traffic is being diverted to alternate entry points, and it helps that the South has more international airports and increasing connections with the rest of the world.

But, say tour operators, travellers are increasingly asking for the South to be included on the itinerary. And alarmingly for those whose infrastructure has been confined to the North, some are happy to do Kerala without bothering to ask for the Taj Mahal to be included as a supplement at all.

Despite the Taj being touted as India's symbol of tourism, Agra isn't the most popular venue on tourists' itineraries. Traditionally, it is Rajasthan that has had the most appeal among states in India, followed closely by Goa; now it seems both might soon be upstaged by Kerala.

"What's helped," says a travel agent who has registered a 30 per cent increase in traffic to the South, "is Kerala's sustained advertising campaign, which has caught the eye of the world traveller. But," she hastens to add, "the Incredible India campaign has proved just as instrumental in positioning India as a global travel destination."

According to Balbir Mayal, president, Travel Agents Association of India, "of the 3.6 million tourists expected this year, about 40 per cent will visit the South" -- mainly Goa and Kerala.

He also estimates that average tourist stays tend to be longer in the South than in the North. Besides, "TAAI estimates that tourist arrivals in the South will grow by 30 per cent, while that in the North will be 10 per cent."

In fact, according to Amitabh Kant, joint-secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, "Tourism in the North has decreased from 68 per cent to 42 per cent." And tour operators and travel agents are agreed that while tourism in the South has shown a sizeable increase of 20-30 per cent this year, the pace of growth in the North is going to be half of that.

"With 15 per cent of the travellers to India being repeat travellers who would prefer to go to new destinations," according to Mayal, it's clear that the interest in the South is going to continue growing.

The first to cash in on the trend are the airlines. "This season, we expect a considerable rush to the southern states," says C R Gopinath, managing director of Air Deccan, "so we'll be beefing our fleet there."

But government sources indicate that of the 3,500 slots requested by international carriers during the five-month open sky period, the South has attracted a 40 per cent share in cities like Chennai, Bangalore, Trivandrum and Hyderabad.

Emirates, for example, operates 43 non-stop weekly flights from India to Dubai, 17 of which are to the South (Hyderabad, Kochi, Chennai), and would like to add 600 flights during the peak season.

Sri Lankan Airlines would like to take up its 66 weekly flights to 73, all of them within the southern region. Qatar Airways too is negotiating for more flights in the region, though it already has 38 (of a total of 51) operating there. The number of charters to Goa too are on a roll, up from 532 last year to 700-750 by the end of this year.

Recent media reports from London indicate that British Airways is expected to launch at least two direct flights between London and Bangalore every week.

Another 21 flights per week to India are up for grabs between British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and BMI, though the decision on how to split the spoils rests with UK's Civil Aviation Authority. Hyderabad currently has 11 airlines serving 26 destinations on 300 domestic and 50 international services.

That number is now expected to grow with Air Sahara planning to increase the number of flights from the city from 28 to 140 per week. Lufthansa Airlines is planning three weekly flights on the Frankfurt-Hyderabad-Frankfurt route.

Singapore Airlines and Saudi Arabian Airlines too should soon be flying from Hyderabad, while Sri Lankan Airlines wants daily flights from Hyderabad starting March 2005. Chennai has already increased the number of weekly international flights from 143 to 165, and domestic flights from 396 to 445.

The increase in traffic will put pressure on the airports, none of which are of the stature of Cochin International. In Bangalore, in particular, the HAL Airport is already operating to capacity and the possibility of additional flights therefore remains merely on paper.

The proposed international terminal -- when it sees light of day -- will probably help bring in charter traffic to Karnataka, without which there is little hope of promoting World Heritage Sites like Hampi adequately.

Hyderabad's existing airport can handle 2 million passengers per annum, but the proposed international airport at Shamshabad will be able to handle 5 million passengers when it becomes operational in 2007 with an investment of Rs 1,400 crore (Rs 14 billion).

There are, of course, good reasons for the growing engagement with the South. For one, tourist officials representing India overseas were often at pains to point out the continental size of India, and how the South at most times was peaceful when terrorism racked parts of northern India.

Adding to it is the growing awareness of the southern states through advertising in the global media (primarily Kerala), events (St Francis Xavier's Exposition and the International Film Festival of India, both in Goa), major restorations (Mamallapuram's Rs 19 crore project will end in 2006), film shootings (Jackie Chan in Hampi)  and increasing business travel to Bangalore and Hyderabad.

Kerala may well have set the trend, but of late Karnataka too has shown immense potential. While its biodiversity and cultural heritage have triggered higher tourist footfalls, infrastructure continues to be its bug bear.

Efforts by the state government to improve the infrastructure, if and when implemented, are likely to yield results only in the subsequent 18-24 months.

According to Mahendra Jain, commissioner, Department of Tourism, Government of Karnataka, "We expect to witness a 15-20 per cent increase in tourist traffic this year." Tour operators are reporting capacity bookings at hotels.

"Even the smallest hotels have been filled to capacity," says Suresh Pendakur, manager (leisure and sales)-south, Cox and Kings. A Sita spokesperson agrees: "Tourist flow to the South has seen incredible growth." According to Pendaukar, West Europeans are big on the state's heritage circuit of Badami, Hampi, Aihole, Belur and Halebid.

With its booming IT and ITES sector, Bangalore is clearly unprepared for such demand, and its 1,300 five-star rooms are inadequate, with 90 per cent year-round occupancy the norm. Guests are short-listed for bookings against cancellations in hotels.

Two- and three-star hotels have sensed a huge business opportunity in the market, and with state-wide occupancies at 70 per cent, may see a huge spurt in growth in the next years. No wonder the tourism department is asking the state government to increase its budget allocation from the current Rs 16 crore (Rs 160 million) to over Rs 55 crore (Rs 550 million).

In Andhra Pradesh, which has done little overtly to push tourism -- traffic grew from 6.33 crore (63.3 million) in 2002-03 to 7.41 crore (&4.1 million) in 2003-04 thanks largely to its pilgrim footfalls to Tirupati -- the number of foreign tourist arrivals has also increased from 2,10,310 to 4,79,318, because of its growing business profile.

But the state tourism department seems all set to change that with advertising on the electronic media, building wayside amenities, developing a one-stop tourism-information centre, besides developing its Buddhist circuit. "We plan to spend heavily on advertising in the electronic media," Geetha Reddy, minister of state for tourism points out.

A feasibility report for a cruise from Visakhapatnam to the Andaman Islands via Chennai has been sent to the Centre, says Reddy, who is also keen to encourage rural tourism.

The Andhra Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation is working on 12 projects to build restaurants, toilets, hotels, souvenir shops and petrol bunks on national and state highways by December 2006. T V N Rao, managing director of APTDC, said a total investment of Rs 7.2 crore (Rs 72 million) will be spent on these, of which the state government will spend Rs 3 crore (Rs 30 million) and the corporation Rs 4.2 crore (Rs 42 million).

That apart, APTDC will spend Rs 12 crore (Rs 120 million) on developing the Buddhist circuit in the lower Krishna valley and has also embarked on a Rs 22 crore (Rs 220 million) project for developing a first-of-its-kind Paryatak Bhavan, to be set up within the next four months.

As in Kerala and Karnataka, hotel occupancies are high -- "75 per cent in five-star hotels and 90 per cent in three-star hotels", according to Veer Vijay Singh, executive committee member of Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India.

According to travel agents, foreign tourists asking for Kerala also actively seek out visits to Mysore in Karnataka and Chennai in Tamil Nadu.

Tamil Nadu's chief attractions are its temples, and the state government is investing Rs 20 crore (Rs 200 million) in improving infrastructure in places of tourist interest, and Rs 11 crore (Rs 110 million) for promotional and marketing activities, with the Centre pitching in with an additional Rs 13.5 crore (Rs 135 million) on promotion of rural tourism and destination and circuit development.

Already, in 2004, "there has been an increase of 18 per cent in foreign tourists and 12 per cent in domestic tourists, numbers that will go up in November and December", according to Shaktikantadan Das, commissioner of tourism and managing director, Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation Limited. Occupancies too have shot up on average by 20 per cent across all hotel categories.

According to Michael D Horsburg, vice president, Grand Hotels, occupancies in luxury hotels in the South are going to top 95 per cent this winter season with average room rates zipping up by 20 per cent.

In part, this points to the acute shortage of tourism infrastructure in the South, which, traditionally, has not kept pace with developments in the North.

Says Jehangir Katgara, director, Travel Corporation, "I cannot say that the inflow has shifted to the south primarily because the tourism infrastructure there is not as developed as it is in the north.

The Golden Triangle (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur) is still the main attraction for inbound tourists. But if the South invests more in its tourism infrastructure, including better roads, fewer water and electricity problems, the interest will turn into an inflow."

The tide may actually have already turned. Now it's up to the public and private sector organisations to capitalise on the gains before the interest shifts again.

Additional reporting: Bipin Chandran in Delhi, Arti Sharma in Mumbai, Praveen Bose and R Raghvendra in Bangalore, Barkha Shah in Hyderabad and Nelson Vinod Moses in Chennai


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