Saturday, March 27, 2010

When heroes visit

I’m walking towards the eastern entrance of the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram and towering over me are five figures draped in billowing red robes. The Pandavas have stopped by on their annual visit to Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital.
In March/April every year, the Padmanabhaswamy temple celebrates the Painkuni utsavam, one of its two major festivals. And every year, the imposing figures of the five Pandavas are erected during the 10-day festival. Once made of wood, the fibreglass figures are an integral part of Painkuni utsavam.
In Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple, Gouri Lakshmi Bayi of the royal family of Travancore writes that the figures of the Pandavas are put up to ward off rain during the festival. The belief, she adds, is that the figure of Arjuna, believed to be the son of the rain god Indra, is especially useful to keep the rains away. Which is why the Painkuni utsavam is sometimes also called the 'pancha Pandava utsavam' or the festival of the five Pandavas.

While the figures of Yudhishtira, Bhima and Arjuna are large, those of Nakula and Sahadeva are smaller, with Sahadeva’s being the smallest. A nod, perhaps, to each brother’s place in the Pandava pecking order.
The figures are a big draw, even today. People gather around them; some gawk, some take pictures, while some touch the feet of each idol and whisper a prayer.

The Padmanabhaswamy temple itself is, arguably, the spiritual heart of Thiruvananthapuram. The presiding deity — Padmanabhaswamy — is an avatar of Vishnu and the idol in the temple is carved in the anananthasayanam posture; in which Vishnu is depicted reclining on the serpent Anantha. It is, in fact, believed that the name Thiruvananthapuram is derived from Ananthapuram or ‘the city of the one who reclines on Anantha’. The temple also has smaller shrines dedicated to Narasimha, Krishna and Ganesha.
For centuries, Padmanabhaswamy was the spiritual overlord of the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore. But in 1750, the deity also became the temporal overlord of the kingdom when Marthanda Varma, the then ruler of Travancore, literally handed over the keys of the kingdom to Padmanabhaswamy. Since then, the Kings of Travancore have described themselves as ‘Padmanabha dasas’ or servants of Lord Padmanabha and ruled in his stead.

Located bang in the middle of the city’s frenzied ‘fort’ area, a stone’s throw away from the always-busy arterial MG Road, the temple radiates tranquillity. The sight of the temple, especially the view of it across its pond, is like popping a serenity pill — the heart, dust, automobile fumes and the din from the roads around simply melts away.
While the temple celebrates many festivals, two big annual events are the 10-day Alpashi and Painkuni utsavams; the first held in October/November. Like the Alpashi utsavam, the Painkuni utsavam also ends with the Arat ceremony. During the Arat, processional idols of Padmanabhaswamy, Krishna and Narasimha are taken in a splendid parade and immersed in the sea off Thiruvananthapuram before being brought back to the temple.

An interesting aspect of the Arat procession is that it wends its way from the temple to the seashore by taking the most direct route, which involves passing through the city’s airport. Even today, the Thiruvananthapuram airport’s flight operations are paused while the Arat procession passes through the airport.

What also makes the Arat unique is the strong spirit of religious harmony that enfolds it, particularly as it passes through Vallakadavu, a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood. Residents of the area line the road to catch a glimpse of the procession. The most moving sight though, is that of the boys from the Vallakadavu Muslim orphanage lining-up outside the orphanage to see the Arat go by.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Kerala and Big B: Over before it even started?

About a week ago, I wrote about Kerala Tourism’s budding relationship with actor Amitabh Bachchan. A relationship that could culminate in Bachchan signing on as an ambassador for Kerala Tourism.
But much quicker than expected, the fledgling relationship has run into some rather strong turbulence of the political kind. The CPM politburo, or many of its members, it appears, is against the idea of Bachchan being Kerala Tourism’s brand ambassador. Their objection, it seems, stems from concern about the possible implications of Bachchan promoting the Left-ruled Kerala even as he endorses BJP-ruled Gujarat.
This ‘red card’ to Bachchan has proved to be manna for Kerala’s television channels over the past 24 hours. Excitement levels ran high on some channels on the evening of March 18, as panellists debated the possible ramifications of the politburo direction, including the perceived insult to “Amit-ji”!
In the midst of all the excitement, everyone seemed to have forgotten the teeny-weeny point that Kerala Tourism and Bachchan have not yet signed on the dotted line. For that matter, they haven’t even discussed the contours of the deal yet! All that has happened is a preliminary expression of interest — from both parties — in working together. So commercial, not political, factors may yet scuttle the relationship.
Meanwhile, Kerala Tourism, it seems, is unruffled by the ruckus and is set to go ahead with its planned discussions with Bachchan. The actor, himself, was on Malayalam television earlier today saying that the ball is in the Kerala Government’s court.
The Kerala Tourism-Amitabh Bachchan courtship really does have all the makings of a Summer blockbuster!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Come to America!

Everybody knows that tourism’s big business. And that’s why most countries have national agencies or boards that promote tourism. Think Visit Britain, Tourism Authority of Thailand, Atout France or India Tourism.
The US has been the exception; perhaps, one of the few industrialised nations without a national tourism promotion organisation. That, however, is changing.
Early this month, the US President, Barack Obama, cleared a new law that aims to boost the flow of tourists to the US. The Travel Promotion Act 2009 facilitates the creation of a non-profit national tourism board — the Corporation for Travel Promotion.
Significantly, the US taxpayer will not finance this tourism board. Instead, it will be funded by contributions from the private sector and, here’s where it hurts, foreign travellers! Or to be more specific, foreign tourists who currently do not need a visa to enter the US on holiday provided they have completed the online Electronic System for Travel Authorisation application.
So travellers from ‘visa waiver’ countries, such as those from the UK and the EU, will now be charged a small fee to enter the US. “The initiative will be funded through a matching programme featuring up to $100 million in private sector contributions and a $10 fee on foreign travellers who do not pay $131 for a visa to enter the United States. The fee will be collected once every two years in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security’s Electronic System for Travel Authorisation,” says the US Travel Association.
Quite predictably, the imposition of a fee on tourists — even a rather low $10 — has evoked mixed responses. The US Travel Association has welcomed the Act, fees and all. Others such as the International Air Transport Association are not very happy as this Guardian piece points out. Opposition to the Act appears to hinge on the apparent absurdity of a measure that tries to encourage more foreign tourists to visit the US by charging them for the privilege. But that really shouldn’t bother tourists from countries such as India: we already pay for that privilege.
Instead, what interests me is the mandate of the US’ soon to-be-set-up Corporation for Travel Promotion. Its objective appears to be to “develop ad campaigns and raise awareness of United States security and visa procedures.” I do wonder if this is going to encourage more tourists to visit the US.
Are marketing campaigns, ad films and information on security and visa procedures going to make more people, especially from growing outbound travel markets such as China and India, interested in visiting the US. Instead, wouldn’t it make more sense to invest money, time and thought in improving the application process for US tourist visas? To invest more in making the visa process less cumbersome, tiring and humiliating? To make travel security processes less intrusive?
I know, of course, that many of these issues are not unique to the US. Travellers to India, for instance, have much to be unhappy about. Yet, with the US, in a sense, telling the world to ‘come to America’ with the Travel Promotion Act, it has the opportunity to do things better.
So let the Corporation for Travel Promotion run marketing campaigns that showcase the very best of what the US has to offer. Let it do all it can to “better communicate US entry policies to international travellers and promote leisure, business, and scholarly travel to the United States.” But let it also do things that make the US an easier and more welcoming place to travel to, especially from countries such as India. That would make the US a more inviting destination; one that more people want to visit.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Will Big B tie the knot with small Kerala?

We now know that actor Amitabh Bachchan loves Kerala. So much so, that he is said to be willing to become a brand ambassador for Kerala Tourism.
Bachchan apparently expressed an interest in the brand ambassador’s role a few weeks ago. Hearing this, Kerala Tourism swung into action and dashed off a letter to the actor, saying, in essence, “We’d love to discuss this with you.” And now, Bachchan has responded saying that he “would like to go ahead with the offer extended to him by the State he loves.”
It appears that this is young love; love that has blossomed in recent months. For this affection for the State was not in evidence a couple of years ago, when the same Kerala Tourism tried to get him, and daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai, to promote God’s Own Country. But then, love is a strange emotion and it can strike like a bolt from the blue!
So is it a done deal? Can we start distributing the payasam to celebrate the consummation of a beautiful relationship between Kerala and Bachchan? Perhaps not. For all Bachchan has done is say that he’s willing to talk about the contours of such a relationship; work out the fine points of the pre-nup. And that’s where the catch lies.
For a moment, forget about whether having Bachchan as a brand ambassador makes marketing sense for Kerala Tourism. Also forget any political undertones that could be attached to such an association. Instead, consider whether Kerala Tourism will be willing to fork out the couple of crores required to get the actor on board.
This story in Business Today magazine says that in the year ended September 2008 AB Corp, Bachchan’s company, clocked revenues of Rs 22.45 crore from endorsements by the actor. It also adds that in 2008 he endorsed 19 brands.
From these figures it is difficult to estimate the exact value of each endorsement deal and for how long each deal is valid. It would, however, be safe to estimate that the value of each Bachchan endorsement ranges from around Rs 1.5 crore to Rs 2.5 crore; perhaps a little more in some cases or for multi-year deals. Figures that people working in marketing and branding agree with.
So for arguments sake, let’s assume that Kerala Tourism will have to fork out around Rs 2 crore for having Bachchan as brand ambassador for a year. Now, that’s about 8 per cent of Kerala Tourism’s marketing budget for fiscal 2011. In addition, I guess there will be expenses — flight tickets, hotel accommodation and so on — to be met for each appearance he makes as Kerala Tourism’s brand ambassador. So the final figure could be a bit more. The mandarins of Kerala Tourism will have to take the call on Bachchan’s fee, based on the perceived return on investment.
Of course, these back-of-the-envelope calculations could be totally off. More important, Bachchan could agree to work for a vastly reduced fee or even no fee given his love for Kerala! Now that would be a really great deal for Kerala Tourism. Perhaps like its deal with actor Jayaram to be the brand ambassador for the Vazhiyoram project to build “wayside amenities” or travellers’ pit stops along major highways in the State. A venture that still has some distance to go.
Meanwhile, Kerala waits with bated breath to break out the bubbly when — no ifs and buts here —Bachchan says: “I do.” And how can he not, for Kerala is ‘the State he loves’ and Kerala loves him too!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Europe’s set to travel

There’s optimism in the air. First, there were reports from the UNWTO and PATA that 2009 wasn’t as bad as it was expected to be for the global tourism industry. Now, a survey done at the behest of the European Commission shows that around 80 per cent of EU citizens will travel for their holidays this year.
The Eurobarometer survey on ‘The attitudes of Europeans towards tourism 2010’, found that only around 20 per cent of the respondents were almost certain that they “will not travel” this year. This figure, it appears, is down from the approximately 33 per cent of respondents who had not travelled in 2009. At the same time, 28 per cent said they were undecided about the type of vacation they wanted to take.
About 50 per cent of those surveyed said they would like to spend their holiday in either their own country or another EU country. Now that’s good news for tourism businesses in Europe. For tourism accounts for 5 per cent of Europe’s GDP and 6 per cent of employment, the survey adds.
Done in February this year, the Eurobarometer survey sought the views of 30,000 randomly selected Europeans from 27 EU member states.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


On Friday, the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) released some preliminary figures on the tourism sector’s performance in the Asia-Pacific region in 2009.
The organisation’s estimates indicate that the number of international visitors to the region fell by around 3 per cent year-on-year in 2009. The good news though, is that the drop in international arrivals was not as bad as the industry feared; more so if you look at the 6 per cent decline in international arrivals to Asia-Pacific in the first half of last year. These numbers are also in sync with the figures released by the UNWTO several weeks ago.
PATA also says that the only sub-region in Asia-Pacific to chalk-up full year gains in 2009 was Southeast Asia. And from this sub-region, countries that drew more international arrivals last year included Myanmar (+26 per cent), Malaysia (+7 per cent), Indonesia (+1 per cent) and Cambodia (+2 per cent).
For India, though, there doesn’t appear to be much to cheer about. PATA says: “South Asia recorded a three per cent decline in visitor arrivals in 2009, driven by a similar three per cent fall in arrivals to India.” India’s Tourism Ministry also indicates that international arrivals dropped to 5.11 million in 2009, down from 5.28 million in 2008; a drop of approximately 3.3 per cent. Of course, these are preliminary numbers and not the final ones, which could be very different!
What is encouraging for India though, is that there was a pretty sharp rise in foreign tourist arrivals in December 2009; 21 per cent over December 2008. Foreign tourist arrival numbers for January and February this year also seem pretty healthy when compared to last year.
Despite this, I wonder if it isn’t a trifle premature to talk about India’s tourism industry being back on track as the country’s Tourism Minister did on Saturday. I’m also not too sure if there’s any real substance in the Minister’s statement that visas on arrival for citizens of Singapore, Finland, New Zealand, Luxembourg and Japan are going to boost arrivals this year — none of these countries is a major source market for India, at least in terms of numbers. On the contrary, figures from India’s Tourism Ministry itself show that these countries together accounted for less than 10 per cent of international arrivals in 2008; while the UK alone accounted for 14.7 per cent of international arrivals in the same year!
Meanwhile, Kerala Tourism has been uncharacteristically quiet on its numbers for the last year. In almost a decade of writing on tourism, I’ve generally found Kerala Tourism to be quite candid about sharing its tourist numbers, with detailed statistics from 2003 onwards available on its Web site. It’s another matter, of course, that there have been questions about the reliability of some of these numbers.
Kerala Tourism has, however, so far not published the figures for 2009. There was this report in The Hindu announcing that Kerala had registered a 17 per cent growth in tourist arrivals in 2009. It appears that this is a consolidated figure calculated by considering both foreign and domestic tourist arrivals.
The report is based on a comment made by Kerala’s Tourism Minister at an event in Kochi. The Minister also appears to have added that the 17 per cent year-on-year growth in arrivals in 2009 is due to an increase in the arrival of domestic tourists in Kerala.
However, there has so far been no mention of just how many foreign and domestic tourists visited Kerala last year. Which makes me wonder whether foreign tourist arrivals to Kerala entered negative territory in 2009. If there indeed was a dip in international tourist arrivals last year, it will be the second such drop in almost a decade — in 2001 there was a marginal 0.53 per cent fall in foreign tourist arrivals to the State.
So I am quite looking forward to the ‘official’ numbers from Kerala Tourism. What I am also interested in seeing is just where domestic tourism fits into the picture in the months ahead. For while it is clear that domestic tourism is growing, what is not yet clear is its impact on revenues. For instance, does revenue generated by an increase in domestic tourist arrivals balance possible revenue drops from a fall in foreign tourist arrivals. And this applies to India as much as it does to Kerala. Finding concrete answers will require more number crunching, I guess.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The moonlit market

Over the years, I’ve had my fill of atmosphere-laden bazaars and their surrounding neighbourhoods.
I am quite fond of some of these swarming repositories of humanity — the horseshoe-shaped market that embraces the Mylapore temple in Chennai, the themed-markets of Jaipur’s old city and the many-limbed Chalai market in Trivandrum. But even these favourites tend to grate after a while: the obstacles that threaten to trip you most unexpectedly; the skirmishes with hustlers and tricksters and potential pickpockets; the pong of God-knows-what which overpowers the more pleasant aroma of flowers, spices or incense; and the din caused by ten thousand voices and a million vehicles.
So it was with some reluctance that I set off, a few weeks ago, with my wife and a favourite uncle to explore the area around Delhi’s Jama Masjid. With just about half-a-day to spare, there wasn’t much bazaar-tripping we could do, but Chandini Chowk and lunch at Karim’s were very firmly on the whistle-stop itinerary.
The Metro ride to Chandini Chowk was a ‘suck your stomach in or you’ll hit someone’ experience, but endurable as we didn’t have too far to go. Chandini Chowk itself was — perhaps predictably — a scrum, with the usual hustlers thick on the ground. Surprisingly though, it was a scrum that could be negotiated without too much of a strain. Perhaps what made it bearable was the mellow Delhi winter: the nip in the air balanced by the warmth of the early afternoon sun beaming down from a cobalt sky.
Wandering down Chandini Chowk, dodging vehicles, bits of garbage and the odd pedestrian intent on running us down, we wended our way to the Red Fort. After paying our respects to the fort from across what Google Maps says is Netaji Subash Road, we hired a cycle rickshaw for the ride to Karim’s.
After bouncing around three sides of the Jama Masjid, we were suddenly at the mouth of the little lane that led to the Karim experience. Inviting us in was a welcoming committee of lurid lights and the aroma of grilled meat, spices and warm rotis fresh off the tandoor.
Soon, our table was chock-a-block with plates — a platter of burra chicken, a portion of sheer mal and another of brain curry, a paneer dish, a half-portion of chicken biryani and a couple of rotis, each as large as a mid-sized flying saucer.
My wife gorged on the brain curry and says it was wonderful, despite the robust garnish of a layer of oil; or perhaps it was the grease that added to its taste! I, however, gave the brains a miss and started my meal with some luscious burra chicken and the sheer mal, which reminded me of a rather eggy waffle. After struggling to finish an entire roti, I simply gave up and moved on to the biryani.
Now chicken biryani, for me, is comfort food. It’s also something I try to sample wherever I travel in India. So it was with a sense of anticipation that I dug into the Karim’s chicken biryani. Since the first mouthful is not necessarily the best mouthful, I took a second and a third and possibly a fourth and then stopped.
The biryani was, to put it politely, sad and stone cold. I’m just not able to say what was wrong with it, but it left an awkward, synthetic aftertaste in my mouth. So much so that I had to clear my palate with another piece of the delicious burra chicken!
A satisfying meal, bar the biryani, over, we waddled out of Karim’s, turned a corner and were faced with a row of shops selling a mind-boggling assortment of products: from vehicle parts and hardware to musical instruments and the principal ingredients of the next day’s brain curry and mutton biryani!
More delightful, though, was browsing the sidewalk stalls that line the perimeter of the Jama Masjid — hawking clothes, bags, perfume and religious bric-a-brac. It was also good fun to indulge in some ‘retail signboard spotting’, with the motor market around the Jama Masjid throwing up gems like Sami Shockers and Cheap Traders.
However, with the afternoon almost over and evening with its slew of appointments beckoning, it was time to take a few final photographs and find our way to the nearest Metro station, at Chawri Bazaar.
As we trudged down Chawri Bazaar, looming over us was the elegant vastness of the Jama Masjid, its minarets reaching up into the sky, obscured occasionally by the manic tangle of wires overhead.
And then, the road took a gentle turn and suddenly, the Jama Masjid was gone.