New windows to the world
E-tours: From living in strangers' homes to joining new friends on impromptu adventures, young, urban Indians are using online travel-based networks to get off the beaten track.lifestyle Updated: Aug 03, 2013 23:33 IST
Entrepreneur Viral Jhaveri and his wife Rhea were on vacation near the Jim Corbett national park in Ramnagar when the devastating floods hit Uttarakhand in June, forcing them to cancel their onward journey to the hill station of Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh.
Unsure how to proceed, the couple turned to the travel-based social networks that they had used to plan their trip, and sought advice on alternative destinations.
"We ended up having a wonderful, impromptu vacation in Rajasthan," says Viral, 27. "We compared flight rates on the Make My Trip and Clear Trip websites, picked out hotels based on reviews on TripAdvisor. We even picked the restaurants we wanted to check out. It was seamless and efficient."
The Jhaveris were already familiar with these networks, since they had planned their Uttarakhand trip entirely by themselves.
In a country where more young urban adults are travelling every year, a growing number, armed with smartphones and tablets, are moving on from traditional travel agents, trusting their trip arrangements and itineraries to travel-based social networks such as Airbnb.com, TripAdvisor.com, Hostelworld.com and Wayn.com, exclusive lifestyle clubs such as A Small World, and travel-oriented mobile phone apps.
The ability to put together an 'evolving itinerary' is just one of the perks.
In many cases, travellers can scour affordable accommodation options in homes, villas and even on cruises owned by local residents registered on these networks. These willing hosts offer perks of their own, including the loans of bicycles or specialised equipment such as underwater cameras.
Some travellers also team up with other guests at the same accommodation who are more familiar with the country, for insightful tours of local haunts and even free lessons in the local language.
"These DIY-style trips are most popular among singles aged 20 to 35 and young couples," says Rajiv Dingra, CEO of social media consultancy WATConsult.com.
"They plan their entire trips on the basis of curated reviews and choosing from among hosts listed online, tapping into what is now a virtual global travel community."
Growing internet penetration and the proliferation of smartphones and tablets is fuelling this self-reliance. US-based digital data analytics company ComScore, for instance, found that 18.5 million Indians visited travel websites in 2011, a 32% increase from 2010.
"This is as a sign of tourism coming of age in India. The Indian traveller is learning to become a globe-trotter," says sociologist Gita Chadha. "Holidays are becoming about 'real' experiences and 'authentic' local cultures rather than simply about shopping and sightseeing. In a network society, people are learning to take greater risks and trust the unknown virtual other as if it were a real person."
Holidays for the young Indian are no longer just about escaping from routine, adds social media expert Dingra. "Youngsters want to show off about exotic experiences through real-time updates on social media platforms. And technology can help them get more bang for their buck."
Ajay Jain, a Delhi-based travel blogger who also runs a café that hosts exhibitions and talks on travel, says such exclusive user-generated travel sites are just what Indian travellers have been waiting for.
"The circle of consultants has exploded with the advent of online media. One need not hunt for someone who has undertaken a particular kind of trip," says Jain. "The population of acquaintances and friends-of-friends has grown infinitely. You can find people to consult on any question, any destination, at any time of day or night."
For Jhaveri, peer-to-peer virtual travel advice has the added advantage of being trustworthy. "People spend time sharing their experiences for the benefit of other travellers, with no payment or reward points involved," he says. "That makes their opinion dependable."