x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Waking to India's wanderlust

India Dispatch: Some of the world's top tourist destinations are not sleeping over the nation's rising number of outbound travellers. Abu Dhabi and Dubai have both made recent overtures and had their efforts rewarded.

Indian tourists take pictures at the Souk Al Bahar. India has become an important source market of tourists for Dubai. Razan Alzayani / The National
Indian tourists take pictures at the Souk Al Bahar. India has become an important source market of tourists for Dubai. Razan Alzayani / The National

In an effort to attract more tourists from India, the Hong Kong Tourism Board wanted to come up with an innovative solution. It noticed how books set in a particular destination often inspired readers to visit that place.

This observation, combined with Indians' love of books, prompted executives at the tourism board to seek out a bestselling Indian author and commission him to set his next work in Hong Kong. The novel, called Hold My Hand, by Durjoy Datta, was launched this month.

Such is the potential of India's outbound travel market - as the country's middle class grows and with more and more expected to venture abroad - that destinations all over the world are turning to the subcontinent as a valuable source of tourists.

"India is a huge consumer market," says Anthony Lau, the Hong Kong Tourism Board's executive director. "The middle class is booming so that propensity to travel is increasing and it's going to be a very, very important market for everyone. I think it is better to be early than late - to come into this market and start to introduce Hong Kong to the consumers."

The number of outbound travellers from India is expected to reach 50 million by 2020, according to a forecast from the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

The total annual travel spent by Indians in the Asia Pacific region is predicted to surge to US$91.2 billion by 2030, up from about $13.3bn last year, according to a recent report by Frost & Sullivan and Amadeus.

Australia, South Africa, and Turkey are among the many destinations that have placed increased emphasis on luring tourists from India. Tourism Australia says that it is aiming to attract 300,000 tourists from the country by 2020, more than double the number it received in 2011.

"Because the disposable income is available for Indians to travel abroad, rather than just travelling in India, obviously the Indian outbound tourism market is growing very rapidly now," says Iqbal Mulla, the president of the Travel Agents Association of India. "Once you know that the Indian outbound tourism market is growing, everyone wants to have a share of that tourism to their own country."

But there are significant challenges.

"The airport infrastructure in India may groan under the strain that outbound travel places on it," analysts wrote in the report by Frost & Sullivan and Amadeus. "National bodies, such as national tourism organisations, will need to focus specifically on the Indian and Chinese markets to address infrastructure and other barriers to travel, such as visa restrictions."

Abu Dhabi has also realised India's outbound travel potential and has been increasingly focusing its efforts on attracting tourists from the subcontinent. Data released last month revealed that India had overtaken the United Kingdom to become the emirate's largest overseas market for tourists.

More than 80,000 Indian nationals stayed in Abu Dhabi's hotels in the first half of this year, up 22 per cent on the same period last year, according to figures from the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA). Indians stayed for 334,238 guest nights in the first half, representing a rise of 43 per cent on last year. They stayed for an average of four nights in the capital, the figures show.

"We are benefiting from increased destination awareness in India following the opening a year ago of a dedicated promotions office there and also of increased air access from the country following Etihad Airways' equity stake in Jet Airways and the move by the Indian carrier of its Middle East hub to Abu Dhabi," says Mubarak Al Muhairi, the director general of TCA.

India has also become an increasingly important source market of tourists for Dubai.

The number of Indians staying in Dubai's hotels surged to 463,175 in the first half of the year compared to 399,994 during the same months last year. India is Dubai's second largest source market for tourists behind Saudi Arabia and ahead of the UK, according to the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM).

The tourism authority said that the increase in the number of Indian visitors has been "buoyed both by the growth in the emerging middle class and first-time international travellers, and by targeted destination marketing campaigns led by DTCM and its overseas offices and tourism sector partners".

"Saudi Arabia, China and India are markets which DTCM has put significant focus on, as we believe they provide substantial opportunities for growth," says Helal Saeed Almarri, the director general of the DTCM.

"DTCM has conducted a number of roadshows, participated in a range of events and operated specific campaigns in these markets to ensure that Dubai is positioned as a destination of choice."

There are significant hurdles in the near term, though. The Indian rupee has tumbled to record lows against currencies including the US dollar and has hurt spending power abroad and driven up the cost of holidays overseas. A report by the Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Indiasaid that outflows of tourists fell 15 to 20 per cent over May and June because of the soft rupee.

It said that as a result of the currency's fall, many Indians were opting for domestic travel rather than jetting off abroad.

"Indian travel companies are also reducing the number of days from packages to make it more affordable for globetrotters," says DS Rawat, the chamber's secretary general.

"Most of the middle income groups are looking to offset those costs by opting for shorter duration stays and looking at budget accommodation options."