Educational Tourism: Catching Them Young

/ New Delhi
Educational Tourism: Catching Them Young

Educational tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of outbound tourism in India

One of the fastest growing segments of tourism in the post-pandemic era, in terms of outbound tourism from India, has been educational tourism, where students are taken on short-term visits combining learning with sight-seeing and pleasure.
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For decades, for students of all ages and all over the world, one of the most exciting things on the school calendars are the field trips. They come in all the forms imaginable. Be it to the city zoo, museum or to an ‘out station’ destination some distance from the city, in some other part of the country or even across the oceans.

Scientific labs and museums overseas are amongst the top attractions for Indian students

There is a school field trip to fit all ages, all budgets and all aspirations. They can last anything from half a day to half a month, can cover culture as much as cutting edge science and be a short drive or a long-haul flight away. While earlier most of the field trips, even for college-going students were within the country, over the past two decades, the schools and the students have begun to spread their wings and enhance their ambitions and are now increasingly travelling to numerous overseas destinations as well, both near and far.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic brought this niche segment of outbound tourism to a screeching halt for well over two years, it was amongst the fastest growing segments of the outbound tourism market and not just from India. According to a report by Future Market Insights, a market research firm, global travel companies have spotted a new pot of gold in educational tours, as demand for education with travel as students begin to explore the world outside their classrooms and even outside their country of residence. FMI says that the segment will grow to USD 1.95 trillion by 2031.

It adds that one of the main driving factors behind the growth in the segment is that the concept of informal learning is more appreciated than formal learning and “education with travel” is the new buzzword.

‘‘Further, the thirst for knowledge has also increased thereby encouraging people to travel across the globe to gain knowledge of different concepts and technologies that they had studied earlier,’’ says the report.

Educational tours are becoming increasingly important for India in part thanks to the poor quality of Indian education as it is almost entirely focused on classroom teaching with little practical application. It also helps that these tours are mainly popular amongst children from well-to-do families, which anyway travel overseas at least once a year. In addition, the cost per person is easily affordable for the targetted families, whose children go to schools that often cost more than twice the average per capita income in India.

Many schools and colleges have also begun to advertise these ‘international exposure trips’ in their brochures as a means to distinguish themselves from the market and to catch the attention of the student, if not the guardian.

Little wonder then that educational tours as a segment of India outbound market have been growing at a rapid clip, year on year, for over a decade, ever since the Indian economy began booming in the middle of the first decade of this century.

And though the Indian outbound educational tourism market was totally shut down for over two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the recovery since international routes reopened last year has been astounding and travel agents all over the country are reporting a very robust demand for such trips.

Delhi-based TBO is one of the biggest travel distribution platforms in the world. Its co-founder and Managing Director Ankush Nijhawan says that even though educational tourism is a very niche segment, its growth has been rapid.

“We recognise the growing Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 17.2 pc in educational tourism and its adoption as a developmental strategy by various countries, we understand the potential it carries. It is a very niche market and very few of our skilled B2B agents manage this business effectively. We participate in enriching the experience in terms of the offerings we bring to our agents, to fulfill their customer experience. Thus, in this context, educational tourism does complement moderately to our business ecosystem,’’ Nijhawan tells India Outbound.

Nijhawan adds that just as overall the outbound tourism has bounced back strongly, so has this particular segment. He adds that in the post-pandemic era, the agents active in this sector have implemented some key changes in the way they operate and primarily how they service their customers, leading to significant improvement in client satisfaction and outcome levels.

“Various of our agents have enhanced their service offerings by ensuring a more organised approach, and they have made notable improvements. One of the key changes implemented is transitioning from a mixed or shared resource model to a dedicated resource connect when engaging with the clients. This strategic shift has allowed servicing of customers, leading to improved satisfaction and outcomes,’’ says Nijhawan.

A visit to a NASA centre in the United States is very popular amongst Indian students and schools

It is not just the way the travel agents worked that has changed in the post-pandemic era. Nijhawan says he has spotted a shift in the source markets as well. “In the past, the key source cities for the education segment in India were primarily Tier I cities, such as Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, and Kolkata. However, post-Covid, there was an observed shift in the importance of Tier II cities as emerging source cities for educational travel. Cities such as Pune, Dehradun, Jaipur and Indore, witnessed increased interest in educational tourism,’’ he adds.

Nijhawan is hardly the only travel professional who is extremely bullish on the segment and its future. Romil Pant is Executive Vice President and Business Head, Holidays, at Thomas Cook (India), which is the largest travel agent in India, with an extensive footprint across the length and width of the country.

Pant shares Nijhawan’s assessment on the market’s growth potential and its expansion beyond the metros. “With educational tourism making the learning process interesting with practical and interactive experiences for students while introducing them to different cultures, education institutes across the country are showcasing high interest in this concept. We have witnessed a 20-25 pc increase in demand compared to pre pandemic for the segment from across source markets like Delhi, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal,’’ Pant tells India Outbound.

Not just a big boys’ club

While for large establishments like TBO or Thomas Cook, the market’s future may lie more in Tier II cities and beyond, Edutour, a travel agent, hyper-specialised in education tourism, based in Jaipur has for long found its bread, butter and more in smaller cities as much as in the metropolises.

Unlike TBO and Thomas Cook and indeed many other players in the Indian market, for Kaushalendra Kumar, who is a Director of Edutour, the educational tourism segment is at the heart of his company, which has been active in this domain for over a decade now and runs tours for school and college groups to a variety of destinations like the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Malaysia, the United States, with focus on the East Coast, where the American space launch centres are located, as well as many European countries.

Kumar says that the segment is a very important part of his business. “It is very important for Edutour because participating in an educational tour, students gain first-hand exposure to different cultures, historical sites, and natural landscapes. It helps to broaden their understanding of the world and encourage them to think more critically about the world around them,’’ Kumar tells India Outbound.

Kumar adds that on an average, the number of students in each group can vary from 40 to even 100, depending on the school. He says that the sector’s bounce back could partly be attributed to the change in people’s mindset since the Covid-19 pandemic, as has been observed around the world and also in India.

“The travel and tourism sector in India is bouncing very high after Covid-19, because the mentality of public in India has changed. Now, everyone has a dream to travel around the world because no one knows about the future. That is why people are spending more money in travelling,” says Kumar.

Kumar says that the growth in demand has led to a lot of other companies and even individuals trying to enter the market and offer educational tours, but without any knowledge. “After Covid-19, there were so many companies that opened and closed in our educational tourism sector. Even those operators who normally organised family tours also started working in educational tourism. But very few of them understand the market, its needs and what the students or schools expect. I am very sure these new competitors can’t explain about educational tour and can’t even explain the basic requirement for students on their excursions,’’ says Kumar.

‘‘Educational tour is a very high-risk business as we need to ensure the safety of each student and we must understand the basic requirement of each and every student on the tour so that they find it fulfilling. Hence, quality and service for students is a major point on educational tours,’’ he adds.

Top destinations

Whether for bigger companies like TBO or smaller players like Edutour, the most popular destination is the United States, at least for schools looking at tours that last 10-15 days. Within the US, though the canvas is immense and offerings diverse, the most popular learning experience for students are the space centres on the eastern coast, be it the Kennedy Space Centre or Johnson Space Centre, along with numerous other sites operated by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) across the country.

For destinations like Florida, it helps that the space centres are located near cities that offer a diversity of entertainment and tourism sites, of which Orlando, is perhaps the biggest magnet, thanks to its numerous theme parks, notably the Disneyland.

But in the United States, it is not just the east coast or Florida that has good colleges, NASA sites or entertainment sites. Across the country, in California, Los Angeles is also a major draw for Indians, whether students or tourists and even amongst the students, whether those pursuing their degree courses that last at least three years or those on educational tours that last less than a fortnight.

“Los Angeles attracts both domestic and international college students due to its 63 universities and year-round sunny weather. University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is one of the top public universities with a prestigious reputation and exceptional educational offerings that rival its Ivy counterparts. University of Southern California (USC) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) are other institutions that attract a high number of Indian students due to their diverse academics and successful research programmes,’’ Seema Kadam, Regional Director, India of Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, tells India Outbound.

Kadam says that beyond the colleges, Los Angeles has several other features that attract students. “California is home to some of the world’s biggest tech ventures and entertainment studios like Apple, Meta, the Walt Disney Company and Warner Bros. Be it agriculture, technology, film and entertainment, manufacturing, or consumer products, the state is an important economic hub,’’ adds Kadam.

Los Angeles is also perhaps the most glamourous city in the world, thanks to the presence of Hollywood and its numerous studios, which are big tourist magnets. Kadam says that the destination offers an all-round experience for tourists, including visiting students.

‘‘Los Angeles offers more museums than any city in the US, including New York City. With over 100 museums, students can find themselves in an epicentre for arts and culture with world-class institutions like the Getty, the Broad, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, LACMA, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, that is opening in 2025. Known as the entertainment capital of the world, students can also visit working studios such as Warner Bros. Studio, Paramount Studios, and Fox Studios to learn the art of cinematography, theatre, and other performing arts,’’ says Kadam.

Besides the United States, it is the United Kingdom that attracts Indian students in big numbers, thanks to its historical links with India, its numerous tourist sites as well as several of the world’s top universities in the world.

Other destinations include Australia, Dubai, Singapore and even Turkiye. ‘‘These destinations provide a conducive environment for students and travellers to explore and learn from diverse cultures, academic institutions, and global perspectives. As for the average duration and cost of educational tourism packages, it varies based on the destination, programme duration and inclusions,’’ says Nijhawan of TBO.

‘‘In United Kingdom, England is an excellent destination for literature students and Shakespeare lovers. Students visiting England can explore Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Globe Theatre and the Jane Austen House. While in Turkiye, the destination offers bountiful sights that evoke distant memories of Byzantine History and ancient cities. Students can visit the destination to see the Trojan Horse, the artifact that turned the tide of the Trojan War and Ephesus, the most magnificent ancient ruins in Turkiye,’’ says Pant of Thomas Cook (India).

Rapid growth & intense competition ahead

As India is home to the world’s largest chunk of young population and with rising disposable income, even if for a small share of the total population, the demand for educational tourism is unlikely to stop its rapid growth for the foreseeable future. Most analysts estimate that along with the broader outbound tourism market, the educational tourism is also set to continue its unhindered growth for well over a decade.

For a segment that has already attracted so many newer players, much to consternation of relatively old-hands like Kumar of Edutours, this pot of gold will continue to attract an increasing number of players, whether qualified or not, knowledgeable or ignorant. Nijhawan says that TBO is already preparing for mounting competition, in this and other segments of outbound tourism and has prepared and implemented his competition strategy.

‘‘It involves positioning uniquely in the market to attract and retain partner agents. It is thus we focus on offering the right inventory, at the right price at the required location, thereby empowering our partners. We make sure that we provide customised solutions, which keep our agents retained for the long term,’’ says Nijhawan.

Whatever else the future beholds, it is certain that educational tourism will continue to be as much of a learning experience for Indian travel and tourism companies, as it is for the students and schools. And just as in the school, only those who have the merit and the knack can bag the gold.

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