It’s almost downmarket to holiday in Switzerland now, or any place your parents and grandparents are likely to have seen.
Instead, India’s young, urban luxe travellers are paying lakhs to live in an igloo, take a Michelin-star food tour, or charter a private plane and get the VIP all-access experience at a European music festival.
In December, for instance, digital and ad film producer Aashish Maini, 30, took off for Lapland, in Finland, with his wife, to spend Christmas in a glass igloo, chasing the Northern Lights in a snowmobile by day and eating pizzas topped with bear meat for dinner.
The igloo cost Rs 3.5 lakh for four nights, including breakfast and dinner, and the snowmobile ride. “But the Lights were magic in the sky. It was a spiritual experience and worth every penny,” Maini says. “There were also reindeer sleighs and the official Santa Claus. When I first read about this experience online, it sounded out of this world and I knew I had to do it.”
He admits that his wife, film producer Shanti Sivaram Maini, needed a little convincing, given that the temperatures hovered around -30 degrees -- and the trip would take up the better part of a year’s savings.
“But the Lights were on our bucket list,” says the Mumbai-based Aashish.
Bucket lists, Instagram and the DINK (or Double Income, No Kids) factor are among the factors driving the change.
“Luxury trips used to be all about plush brands, plush decor and plush service. Now, it’s more about unique and adventurous experiences,” says Daniel D’Souza, head of sales, India and NRI markets, SOTC Travel. “Castle holidays in Ireland, England and Germany are becoming popular. So are Mercedes self-drive tours of Europe, and nocturnal swim-and-sauna experiences under the Scandinavian midnight sun.”
The focus has shifted from ‘vacation’ to ‘travel’, says travel and food writer Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi. “People now take pride in going to ‘weird’ places, being exhausted at the end of each day, and having a bucket list of things they have experienced,” she adds. “This is also linked to the rise of social media. The more obscure your location, the more comments or likes you are likely to get. You’re projecting an image of yourself by the places you choose to go to.”
In the words of Vikram Ahuja, founder of the year-old Byond Travel, which planned the Mainis’ trip: “Everyone wants to be doing -- and be photographed doing -- something extraordinary.” This, and companies like AirBnB, have opened up the experience economy, he adds. And with rising incomes, more people are jumping on board.
So, Byond offers experiences such as lunch with a family of Bedouin nomads in Jordan; a masterclass by a local artist in Bali; a cooking class in a royal kitchen in Rajasthan.
Broken Compass offers horse-riding on the beaches of Mykonos, and road trips across Iceland.
And five-year-old Delhi-based BreakAway offers art tours of Rajasthan that end with a descendant of the local royal family.
“We even helped a couple renew their vows in Las Vegas, with the priest dressed as Batman because the husband is a big fan,” says Manjari Verma, co-founder of Broken Compass.
Notes from all over
Not all the luxe travellers are from the metros either. Sahil Wahid, director of music-tourism agency Revel Travels, says he didn’t think much of a gig tour enquiry from a group in Vishakhapatnam in 2013. “Flight tickets were unavailable, so I cockily offered them a private jet — a Rs 75 lakh ride to ferry 10 people from India to Belgium. Much to my surprise, the payment was at my office the next day,” he says. “It was a wake-up call that luxe travel is not restricted to people from Mumbai and Delhi. There’s a huge Tier-2 market from places like Vishakhapatnam, Raipur and parts of Gujarat.”
Solo travellers and young couples are also helping redefine the luxury travel market as they pick destinations individually, instead of making family decisions.
“When we started out, 80% of our clientele was international. Now, about 45% is Indian, including a large number of solo women travellers,” says Shilpa Sharma, founder of BreakAway.
Revel Travels has seen similar growth, starting its music vertical five years ago with less than 100 people sent to a single festival, Tomorrowland in Belgium. “This year, we sent about 1,000 people to festivals around the world, including Tomorrowland, Coachella in California and Ultra in Miami,” Wahid says.
Most popular among Wahid’s packages is the VIP all-access experience that his agency has tied up with Tomorrowland to offer. Guests can take private jets to the city of Boom, get plush VIP tables at events, and backstage passes to meet and party with the bands. Each pass, without the airfare, is Rs 1 lakh for three days.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” says Bengaluru-based businessman Lalith Balraj, 30, saved up for four months to buy the VIP pass in 2014. “I went with five friends. We just really wanted to be part of this spectacular event. We met so many people from around the world; it was overwhelming,” he says. “The experience was about music, but also peace and love. Everybody is your friend. That’s what counts in these times of terrorism — to have 12 lakh people from around the world in one place, where everyone is happy.”
Food, glorious food
A growing interest in food cultures and culinary adventures is driving young Indians towards luxury food tours, perhaps the fastest growing sector within the experiential luxury travel segment. These tours typically involve Michelin-star restaurants, interactions or private meals with star chefs and insights into culinary history.
“This growing trend of vegetarianism worldwide has been a big boost to this segment,” says Sanghvi. “Even if you go to Madagascar, where the population feasts on meat, they will whip up something vegetarian for you. This has opened up a lot of new territory for luxury Indian travellers.”
One such veg adventurer is equity analyst Salonee Sanghvi Doshi, 30, who writes her own food blog and took a solo trip to Italy last May, built entirely around food. Doshi swapped the Rome-Florence-Venice route for a circuit of smaller towns known for their produce. So she had truffles in Turin; lemon risotto along the Amalfi coast; tried the balsamic vinegar in Modena and the pesto in Cinque Terre.
The highlight of her trip was a meal at the Michelin-star vegetarian restaurant Joia in Milan. “When I visited, it was spring, so the menu featured edible flowers and preparations with exotic cheese that the restaurant matures in its own cellar. The meal cost 100 Euros [about Rs 7,500] for eight courses, without wine, but it was spectacular,” she says. “Overall, I was happy to find that all the clichés about Italian cuisine are true — the ingredients are so fresh and so juicy that you don’t need seasoning. The lemon risotto at the Amalfi coast was unforgettable. I didn’t know of anyone else who had visited these towns, and now people are contacting me for recommendations on where to go and what to eat.”
Similarly, Mumbai-based healthcare consultant Tanay Surkund, 27, saved up for five months for a tour of the UK in August, centred on one eight-course meal the at Michelin-starred L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in London, which cost him £240 (about Rs 18,000).
“It was the best meal of my life,” he says. “The amuse bouche was foie gras in the form of foam. There were scallops, cod, lobster, quail. I’ve always been a foodie, and with the explosion of food writing and restaurants, I’ve become increasingly curious about food from other countries. You learn a lot about a culture from its food.”
To cater to growing demand, there are now agencies like the three-month-old Culinary Social, based in Mumbai, which focus on ‘gourmet travel’ with a special emphasis on Michelin-star dining.
“There are enough people who are well-travelled, and are looking for exquisite meals. We have food critics and experts on board to help curate itineraries, and usually spend time with the traveller beforehand, so as to customise each trip to their palate,” says co-founder Ricky Barot, 40, who used to work in the jewellery industry. “We’re very clear about our target audience — these aren’t people travelling for the first time. These are people who are looking for experiences rather than sight-seeing.”
Jet, set, go
* Visit Santa Claus’s hometown in Lapland on Christmas day, while chasing the Northern Lights and living in a glass igloo. Along with a Christmas buffet and an outdoor activity - snowmobiling, riding with huskies or deer - a package can cost you about Rs 3.4 lakh for four days
* Set off to Belgium’s Tomorrowland, one of the world’s largest electronic music festivals, in a private jet. It could cost about Rs 75 lakh for the ride, plus another Rs 1 lakh for VIP access at the festival, where you could attend celebrity-stocked after-parties and not have to stay in tents
* Live like a medieval king, and book out a historic castle in Ireland, England or Germany. The cost for this depends on the size of the castle and its location
* Treat your tastebuds to a culinary journey, and plan your trip around Michelin Star dining. Prices depend on the restaurant you choose, but could cost an average of Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000 per person