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A nation in search of the next destination

Flying for pleasure, road-tripping for thrills or cruising for kicks. Indian travel has been a long journey from the days of modest trips to hill stations

brunch Updated: Nov 23, 2015 18:58 IST
Bhaichand Patel
Bhaichand Patel
Hindustan Times
Indians got tired of visiting Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street and Madame Tussauds on Baker Street. The arrival of cable television transported them to exotic places they had not heard of before.

Cruising on ships has caught on with Indian travellers with disposable income. Trips to Dubai and Singapore are now passé and you can do Europe and America only so many times. Getting on board luxury ships that more or less go nowhere for seven or ten days at sea is the latest craze. Zoya Akhtar’s film, Dil Dhadakne Do, has a lot to answer for. Cruising was catching on, but seeing Anil Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and Anushka Sharma having a ball in the waters of the Mediterranean, in insanely expensive designer outfits, has sent many Indians scurrying to the nearest travel agent.

You will also find an Indian who will turn up his nose at such comfort travel. His idea of a vacation is a trek in Ladakh or Nepal. There are Indians who consider it beneath them to carry their own suitcases. This guy will carry a pack on his back loaded with essentials, he will sleep in unheated tents and dig a hole for a makeshift latrine. It doesn’t bother him that he hasn’t had a wash for a week, or had a drink for that matter. This is eco-travel. I am told it builds character. The man, not always young, will dine out on his stories for months to come. It’s catching on with women too. Sometimes there are more women than men on these arduous treks.

Indian travellers today are more adventurous and are flying as far as Vancouver to see the whales and explore the coast of Alaska on ships. (Photo courtesy: Shubhi Vijay)

Instead of lying on a beach in Goa or Kerala, the young executive in Gurgaon now prefers to go white-water rafting in inflatable boats down the rapids of upper Ganges or the mighty Brahmaputra from the point it leaves China and enters India after discreetly changing its name. Those with money to burn and the nature-minded take time off to go to the Galapagos in the Pacific Ocean, the world’s foremost destination for wildlife viewing.

Since this is a travel piece, let me get back to the Indians’ reluctance to carry their own suitcases. Once, when I was on the plane, I saw a senior Indian bureaucrat get on board with a peon in tow carrying his briefcase. It was an Air India plane. The bureaucrat took his seat and the peon placed the briefcase in the bin above him and got off the aircraft. At another time I saw the British Foreign Secretary, cabinet rank, get out of a car outside the Oberoi in Delhi, pick up his bag from the boot and walk to the reception to check in. No one from the British High Commission accompanied him. Indians like to think they are different from other people. True, but not always in a nice way.

We have come a long way. Traditionally we are not vacation-taking people. When we travelled, it was for a purpose, to attend a wedding, a funeral or on business. The Indian was content to stay put at home. I can’t remember my parents ever taking a vacation. A little later, the affluent started heading for the hills in summer with their families; Simla, Mussoorie, Nainital or, in the south, Ooty or Kodaikanal. Goa did not catch on as a holiday destination until several years after the Portuguese were sent packing.

Until 50 years ago, the maharajas would set sail in their first-class cabins. In this 1938 picture, the Maharajah and Maharani of Bhawnagar with their two sons. (Getty Images)
Mussoorie, 1977 (Getty Images)
Indian tourists taking pictures at the Colosseum in 1948. (Getty Images)
Grazia magazine editors talking to an Air India hostess on a flight to Bangkok in 1965. (Getty Images)

Those with modest budgets took trains to visit relatives in the provincial towns or ancestral villages during the school holidays. There, the children would be pampered by relatives, play gilli danda, climb up trees and get into all kinds of mischief. All in all, they probably had more fun than their well-off friends in hill stations.

For a long time after Independence, travelling abroad was cumbersome and prohibitively expensive for most people. There was the hassle of getting an income-tax clearance before you were allowed to go abroad. The amount of foreign exchange you were entitled to take with you was laughable; it would barely cover the costs of two or three nights in a decent hotel in the West. Citizens, otherwise law abiding, bought their dollars illegally from touts hanging around Connaught Place in Delhi and Flora Fountain in Bombay. Others depended on the kindness and hospitality of friends and relatives living abroad.

The only people who travelled frequently were airline employees and their spouses. Free tickets were doled out to them annually as a perk. Today you may find this difficult to believe, but there was a time when working for Air India was considered glamorous. The staff went to exotic destinations that the rest of us could only dream of. These tickets were subject to availability of seats but no one lost sleep on that account. Flights were rarely full in those days. As for accommodation, Air India staff would stay with their colleagues posted abroad. Often this was an imposition.

Until 50 years ago, before the jet age, travel to England and continental Europe by ship was the preferred mode of travel. It was leisurely, but no one was in any particular hurry. The maharajas would sail out of the Ballard Estate docks in Bombay on P&O ships with names like Strathnaver, wherever that is, and Mooltan. They would be heading for their villas on the French Riviera in first-class cabins, confident that they would not have to rub shoulders with students going to Oxford and Cambridge at the back of the ship in cattle class. (By the way, do you know where the word ‘posh’ comes from? It is from the initials of port out, starboard home. These were preferred berths for Brits between England and India. This way, they avoided the heat of the sun before air-conditioning was invented.)

People who once rarely stepped out of the comfort of their towns now go on group tours to see the lions and ostriches in South Africa or the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

I took one such ship, travelling alone, still a teenager, in 1956. I was coming from Fiji to study in Delhi, Shri Ram College of Commerce if you must know. I am a bania from a shopkeeping family. I boarded Stratheden in Sydney and it took me three weeks to reach Bombay. All meals were included and yet it was far cheaper than if I had flown on a propeller-driven plane, hopping from city to city for fuelling or change of aircraft.

On the Stratheden, to my horror, I found myself seated at the dining table with three white guys digging into their steaks. At that time, I was still a pukka vegetarian and had not yet quite mastered the art of manipulating a fork and a knife. I was served boiled potatoes and string beans. In Bombay I was put on board the Frontier Mail, the fastest train at that time, and when I reached Delhi I had not the foggiest idea where Shri Ram College of Commerce was located. How I got there is a story for another time.

The Arab-Israeli war in 1967 closed the Suez Canal and put an end to travel by ship between the East and Europe. Passenger ships stopped docking in Bombay. By the time the canal was open again more than eight years later, a new era had begun. With the introduction of jet planes, air travel became more affordable. Planes could carry more than a hundred passengers. And the government became a little more generous with foreign exchange.

Indians soon got tired of visiting Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street and Madame Tussauds on Baker Street. The arrival of cable television transported them to exotic places they had not heard of before. We became more adventurous and started flying as far as Vancouver to see the whales and explore the coast of Alaska on ships.

As for the aam admi, people who once rarely stepped out of the comfort of their towns, the diamond merchant in Surat for instance, they now go on group tours to see the lions and ostriches in South Africa. They take along with them a Jain cook who prepares three meals a day, including aloo puri for breakfast. The guy takes over a section of the hotel’s kitchen, as pre-arranged, and the local staff is instructed by the management to leave him alone. I am not sure about this, but I am told that the groups sometimes take handis with them, uncontaminated by meat, and everyone eats out of paper plates.

Vegetarians on “if it is Tuesday, this must be Belgium” bus tours of Europe do more or less the same thing. There is a herd mentality, always groups. Why not? But can you blame the Swiss when they complain that tourists from India, in search of Dilwale Dulhania locations, spend very little money when they come to their country?

The more savvy – the been there done that crowd – now go to Istanbul to visit the souks and spice markets, see the Blue Mosque, the Byzantine Sophia Church and the Topkapi Palace. The Turks are friendlier towards Indians than the Europeans. They will ask you on the street if you know Amitabh Bachchan. Cities of Eastern Europe, dull and drab during the Soviet days, are also enticing the new Indian tourist. Prague has a vibrant nightlife and the best beer in the world. Budapest has the Danube river flowing through it, not blue but still beautiful. There are medicinal thermal baths that look like palaces.

It is impossible to go on a cruise in any part of the world without being in the company of other Indians. That is not necessarily a good thing but I will not get into that here. You will find them boarding ships in Argentina heading towards Antarctica to see the penguins and drink cocktails from glasses holding ice cut from glaciers hundreds of years old.

In the days when we took ships to go from one place to another, the largest ship in the world was Cunard’s Queen Mary that weighed 81,237 tonnes. Now they build ships meant for cruising that are twice that size. These are floating cities. The one I boarded two years ago in Venice had 15 floors and carried over 3,000 passengers. There were 13 restaurants and an equal number of bars. The theatre for nightly entertainment had over a thousand seats and could match anything on Broadway in grandeur if not the quality of the productions.

All the meals were included in my fare and it was fine dining all the way with full table service. For those who preferred to eat more casually, there was a round-the-clock buffet on the top deck. Lunch was international and included chicken curry, dal and naan and the menu varied daily. On board were visiting fathers and mothers of NRIs who could speak nothing but Gujarati or Punjabi. I spent the evenings in the casino – all cruises have casinos – trying to beat the dealer at the blackjack table. Did I succeed? I won’t tell you.

Traditionally we were not vacation-taking people. When we travelled, it was for a purpose, to attend a wedding, a funeral or on business.

Cruises are good value for money. You pay about $1,000 per person for seven days for very comfortable cabins, double occupancy. Everything on board is free except for the booze and no, you can’t bring your own bottle. All cruise ships make stops. A seven-day cruise will take in four ports, a 12-day one will do twice as many. But sightseeing is an option, not a requirement. You will find passengers who don’t get off the ship till it is time to leave. It really is a bargain, considering what you would otherwise pay on land for seven nights’ hotel accommodation and food.

Let’s get back to the guy who went trekking in hills, I mentioned earlier. Cruises are of no interest to him. Right now he is scuba-diving in the Andamans, once the dreaded Kala Pani for incarceration of hardened convicts. His girlfriend from office is with him, geared up for the dive.

Lucky man!

(Bhaichand Patel is a former UN diplomat who has lived in Fiji, London, New York, Caracas, Cairo, Jerusalem, Manila, Bombay and New Delhi. He is the author of four books, including a novel)

First Published: Nov 14, 2015 16:47 IST