The brightly lit streets of London, amazing window displays at major shopping centres in Paris, the throbbing Times Square in New York and the traditional Christmas markets that line up almost all across the world, especially in the Old World Europe, have been a big draw for Indian tourists, seeking to get that precious time away from work and have the fun and frolic at a time when entire cities, nay, the entire world seems to be dressed up to welcome them.
Though for decades, the peak travel season for outbound tourism from India was restricted to the April-June period, coinciding with school vacations, over the past 10 years or so, a growing number of people, especially young couples with children or singles with high disposable incomes, had begun travelling in the winter season as well, notably around the Christmas-New Year break, not only to relish the happy moments of this time of the year, but also to get some snow while they were at it.
A whole host of ‘happening’ cities across the world attract tourists for their appeal, notably during this period, with iconic spots to welcome the new year. New York’s Times Square, Eiffel Tower in Paris, London’s Trafalgar Square or even the Burj Al Khalifa in Dubai and the Sydney Harbour in Australia are only a few of them. It is not just the big, bustling cities with their jazzy appeal that are pitching to the Indians, but also in the race to get Indian tourists are the wildlife sanctuaries in South Africa or Kenya and the amazing Himalayas in neighbouring Nepal and Bhutan.
Thus, it is little wonder then that as global travel picks up pace, most destinations are once again lining up to welcome Indian tourists to spend their winter vacations with them. With the recent reopening of the borders of United States, the Big Apple or New York, has prepared a long list of holiday activities across the five boroughs, with numerous winter exhibitions and cultural events as well as light festivals and displays. New York has also mounted flagship shopping offers and is promoting local shopping, besides inviting tourists to experience ice skating rinks, outdoor igloos and cabins as well as holidays on the water. It has also prepared a whole host of exciting offers for accommodations in numerous hotels dotted across the megacity.
It is not only France that is looking for winter arrivals from India. At the edge of the southern hemisphere, over 12,000 km from France, South Africa is also equally excited, and with good reason. “Our travel trade partners in India tell us that there is growing interest and queries for destination South Africa, especially during December 2021 and early-January 2022, given that South Africa has no quarantine period, while also having globally benchmarked safety & hygiene measures in place. With the increase in Indian traveller demand, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Ethiopian Airlines have regular flights scheduled from India to South Africa, with layovers at Dubai, Doha and Addis Ababa respectively. Additionally, Air Seychelles is also scheduled to resume flights from India to South Africa,” Neliswa Nkani, hub head – MEISEA, South African Tourism tells India Outbound.
Beyond destinations, other stakeholders are also in the play for Indian tourists this winter. Cruise operators like Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) are also looking at India to make their festive season happier with a strong revival, especially as most of their ships are finally back in the sea, where they belong, rather than being berthed in the harbour as they have been over the past two years. “The Indian market is very important for us and we know that Indian travellers love to cruise. As the festive season nears, border restrictions ease and the global vaccination rollout accelerates, there is an incredible level of positivity and excitement from the Indian market, who are now dusting off their bucket lists to plan their long-awaited cruise. Globally, NCL now has over half its fleet back in the water, sailing in Europe, Alaska and the Caribbean, with Hawaii, Asia Pacific and Africa to follow soon, and our guests are thrilled to be back on board,” says Braydon Holland, senior sales director, Asia, at NCL.
Tour operators line up packages
Seeing the uptick in demand, several tour operators in the outbound domain have accordingly been pitching various packages, each more unique than the other and they say they are getting the numbers.
“The upcoming festive season including Christmas and New Year is certainly proving to be a key travel driver and having launched our festive products well in advance with attractive deals and offers, we have seen a strong surge in queries for international destinations. The overall business has picked up on a 150 pc month-on-month basis and with recent positive announcements from UK and USA we expect to see strong momentum for Q4, accelerated due to large scale vaccination drives globally,” Rajeev Kale, president & country head, Holidays, MICE, Visa, Thomas Cook (India), tells India Outbound.
“Destinations such as Maldives, UAE, Egypt, Turkey have been driving demand for Thomas Cook, adding that with the reopening of borders and consular operations, winter travel to Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria and Spain in Europe is also bringing brisk business for us – with Christmas festivities and light ups holding strong allure for Indian travellers. UAE is leading the charge with Expo 2020 Dubai and the cricket fixtures of T20 World Cup,” adds Kale.
At SOTC, another leading tour operator that is now part of the Thomas Cook stable, Daniel D’souza is also equally upbeat about the prospects for this winter. “Post the second wave, international travel has seen steady demand of over 3.5x (September 2021 v/s 2021) and for the upcoming festive and winter season, we expect to grow over 75 pc as compared to December 2020,” D’souza tells India Outbound.
“With vaccine acceptance and reopening of international borders, we are witnessing an increased demand for winter favourites including Christmas markets in Switzerland and France, Christmas lights of London and Scotland, medieval churches of Germany and Austria, the picturesque northern lights from Ireland, amongst other top destinations,” he adds.
To ensure that the excitement builds up adequately and potential customers actually book, travel agents have also launched lucrative deals, priced extremely competitively. “Special offers for the festive season include attractive deals like Buy One Get One – Companion Free across select international holidays; an early bird offer of INR 60,000 per family on select Europe Tours,” says Kale.
At SOTC, too, a range of attractively-priced packages have been launched to ensure that budget does not become a limiting factor for tourists keen to travel. “For customers seeking budget travel, we have launched cost saver packages to favourite destinations including Dubai, Maldives, Switzerland, and Turkey. Additionally, we have introduced ‘buy one get one companion free’ packages across destinations from Dubai, Sri Lanka, Iceland, Egypt, Turkey, France, to Spain and more. With Expo 2020 being the biggest highlight of Dubai presently, we have also designed a women’s special package,” says D’souza.
Same tourists, different tourism
Certainly, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, tourism has evolved more over the last two years than it may have evolved over the past century. Various studies show that going beyond the health and safety aspects of travel and stay, tourists today are getting to be increasingly demanding and well-informed about what they want to do, when, where and with whom.
SOTC’s D’souza says that list of destinations being sought after by Indians this winter is not limited to the traditional winter destinations as they seem to be actively looking out for unique experiences wherever they may find them. Hence, D’souza says adventure loving customers are keen on unique activities including hot air ballooning in Cappadocia in Turkey, skiing in France and Switzerland, zipline in the Atlas Mountains at Terres d’Amanar or kitesurfing in Essaouira in Morocco, while honeymooners are keen on visiting secluded destinations like Maldives, escaping the hustle and bustle of city life to be cocooned on an isolated island.
“For the New Year, there is also demand for backpacking across Spain, witnessing the striking of the clock in Puerta del Sol Square, in Madrid, and starting the new year on the right foot (literally). In line with the positive news of USA uplifting travel restrictions for Indian tourists, we see a surge in bookings for Las Vegas, Miami, and New York. Additionally, Expo 2020 Dubai is another favourite among customers,” adds D’souza.
In trying to keep pace with the changing customer preferences and their never-ending search for ‘something different’, destinations are also innovating and trying to capture the travellers’ imagination. “France has stayed in the foray when it comes to facilitation and protocol in these very turbulent times and has also reinvented itself and introduced a plethora of new offerings that will certainly intrigue Indian travellers. France is also on top of minds as a wedding destination in recent times,” says Munshaw of Atout France.
South African Tourism is keenly watching the Indian marketplace to ensure that it regains the momentum it had before the outbreak of the pandemic. “Prior to the pandemic, India was the 8th largest international market for South African Tourism. India still remains a core market for South African Tourism globally, and holds much promise in the coming years. Indian travellers are resilient, with a large appetite for travel and new experiences. Keeping this in mind, India has been listed amongst our top three international focus markets alongside Nigeria and China,” says Nkani of South African Tourism.
The destination is going the extra mile to get tourists from India and has expedited process of visas, which now takes 5-7 days, she says, adding that better air connectivity will also help. “India has always been a huge market for South Africa, and this is our chance to pay back by crafting the safest holidays that offer excellent value for money for those looking to travel. With its wide range of immersive socially distanced experiences as well as breath-taking self-drive routes, South Africa naturally continues to be an Indian traveller favourite. The fact that there are a variety of experiences within driving range and that Indian driver licenses are valid in the country, only makes the deal sweeter. Reflecting demand for offbeat, non-touristy experiences, we are also packaging and selling itineraries that include the new regions of South Africa, which go beyond the popular cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban,” says Nkani.
As with travel agents in India, destinations have also prepared packages keeping budgets for large families in mind. “Our packages for the year-end period have been designed accordingly with a large focus on value for money family adventure and unique cultural experiences in each of our nine Provinces. These are extremely popular with Indian travellers and can be accessed via any of multiple trade partners including Yatra.com, MakeMyTrip, Kuoni, Thomas Cook, Akbar Travels and more,” Nkani adds.
Norwegian’s Holland is also eyeing the market beyond the winter season and says there is excitement in store for Indian travellers in the months ahead. “Looking ahead, Norwegian Prima (cruise ship) is breaking booking records. When she debuted, she became our most in-demand ship ever, notching up the single best booking day and week of any new ship in our 55-year history. She will sail in Northern Europe in the summer of 2022, to destinations like Iceland, Norway and the Netherlands. As an international cruise line which sources guests from all over the world, my advice to Indian travellers considering a cruise in 2022 or 2023 is to book early to ensure you secure the itinerary, departure date and stateroom of your choice,” says Holland.