A wildlife tour operator, a cruise holiday planner and a story teller. What they share in common is the fact that they function in the newly created space of niche tourism. The tourism industry in India is the largest in the services sector, contributing 6 per cent to the nation’s gross domestic product, providing almost 9 per cent of national employment and generating revenue of U.S. dollar 100 billion in the year 2008. With the figures being encouraging, various young entrepreneurs are investing in the industry by establishing new avenues for exploring the ‘other’ side of a travel plan. In this story, we have showcased three promising innovative tourism start-ups that cater to a niche audience thus making their travel idea unique.
FICUS WILDLIFE & NATURAL HISTORY TOURS
If wildlife excites you, then this is the place for you. Founded by Ravi Kailas and Ganesh K.R., Ficus Wildlife & Natural History Tours (Ficus) (www.ficuswildlife.net) organises customised tours of south India, targeted at a niche audience that likes to experience a variety of flora and fauna including places like The Anamalais, Ghermalam, Point Calimere, the Niligiris. “Starting Ficus was both an academic interest as well as a passion for me,” says Kailas. Describing the variety of tours offered by Ficus, Ravi says: “Our tours are primarily theme-based and can be broadly divided into birds and wildlife tours.” South India has some varieties of birds that are unique to the region. The aim of these tours is to observe esoteric animals apart quite unlike the usual variety one gets to see at the zoo. The tours allow you proximity to endemic species that are found nowhere else. Describing his target segment as a global audience, Kailas asserts: “People who enjoy nature and have an interest in wildlife would enjoy our tours.”
Natural history, simply put, is the observation of nature. Kailas feels that something like natural history would never become mainstream. “India has very little natural history left but there are still certain regions that hold fantastic biodiversity,” he says.
Ficus has tie-ups with research organisations in the locations they visit and give a part of their profits to them. While any sort of tourism leads to a footprint, there is some kind of trade-off Their tours create awareness about the lesser known species while providing livelihood to the local community. “We make sure we use some local assistance when it comes to conducting our tours,” explains Kailas. They also hope to cover the north-east as part of their tour ensemble.
CruiseBay is India’s first cruises-only company which provides options for planning a cruise holiday. They work closely with cruise companies to constantly update their cruise database while leading the customer throughout the process of a cruise holiday. Nikhil Thakurdas, the founder and chief executive of CruiseBay is armed with statistics: “The traffic of people travelling abroad from India was 8 million in 2008 while those who chose to go on cruises was a mere 70,000,” he explains. Clearly, less than one per cent of the travelling population opts for cruises, leaving them a small base to begin with. “This is how the opportunity got created for us,” recalls Thakurdas. Additionally, cruise companies have little representation in India, with only well known cruise liners like Star Cruises being recognised.
CruiseBay operates on a dual model which combines online and offline models to engage the customer while making his choice. “While online ticketing is a prevalent concept in India, we assist them throughout the process by encouraging them to come to our lounges,” says Thakurdas. CruiseBay Lounge is a unique concept that is currently operating in 3 cities, Pune, Chennai and Ahmedabad. They are dedicated lounges in a space of 200 sq. ft. which simulate a cruise like atmosphere. “The idea is to encourage the customer to kick start the cruising experience right from the booking stage,” explains Thakurdas. These lounges have trained consultants who have extensive knowledge about selling cruises. There are television facilities with images of ships and cruise lines for customers to skim through their
options. They have an Internet facility where clients are encouraged to browse their website with inputs from the consultant.
“The expansion plan is to cover the top 10 metros in India by 2011,” says Thakurdas. Their future plans also include expanding their cruise database to include 1,500 cruises. With a robust base of cruises and an accessible booking option, this company will have you cruising the seas in the near future.
Have you ever wondered why women in India wear a bindi? Or why you ring the temple bell? While these are things that we witness in our day-to-day life, we never take a moment to ask why. StoryTrails is a company that turns to stories to answer all those questions about a city. Based out of Chennai with a newly opened branch in Mumbai, Storytrails is certainly unique. “I have travelled extensively and whenever I visit a place I find it important to understand the local way of life, common customs and believe that there is a fascinating story hiding behind every aspect of a culture,” says Vijay Kamalkara, founder, Storytrails. Storytrails delves into the stories that are inherent in any culture and custom, thus exploring the depths of its tradition. They have various trails which are basically themed walks wherein you experience a certain region or element of a culture. From Peacock Trails (which explores the Mylapore area in Chennai) to Dancer trails which takes one through a tour of Chennai’s dance saga, these trails have something to offer everyone. Even children can have their own fun with custom made trails just for them like the Stargazer’s Trail and Nature Trail. Corporate events, birthday parties and even cultural workshops are conducted as part of Storytrail’s initiative to involve people in this charming story telling adventure.
Kamalkara says, “Every incident or aspect of the city would lead to ten different stories, which makes this an exciting exercise. Each trail takes three to six months to conceptualise.” The research includes inputs from first and second-hand sources, libraries and the Internet. These are followed by dry runs which are timed to perfection. But, there is more to a trail than just research. The whole story has to be presented creatively making it a story telling session rather than an exchange of information. In fact, their guides are referred to as ‘storytellers’ and are people from various walks of life including teachers, lawyers and students, who go through training for every story they narrate. Here, the trail is the hero while the storyteller is merely a voice who makes enriches and enlivens the process.
While Storytrails is looking to scale up in terms of both scope and geographical spread, it continues to bring to the fore age old stories that are buried deep beneath a city’s landscape.
So, if it is variety that you desire this summer, look beyond the clichéd options and discover a travel plan that you can truly lay your claim on.