Monday, August 30, 2010

Kerala’s on top

Kerala has been ranked the top holiday destination in Asia in a poll conducted by online travel mag Smart Travel Asia.
Kerala, third on Smart Travel Asia’s ‘best in travel’ poll last year, has trumped Bali and Phuket this year. Rajasthan and Goa are the two other Indian destinations that figure on the top 10 list.
What’s rather telling though, is that just one hotel from Kerala seems to have made it to the list of top hotels. The Taj Garden Retreat, Kumarakom is number 24 on Smart Travel Asia’s list of ‘top 25 leisure hotels and resorts’. Several other hotels from India including The Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur; Neemrana Fort; and The Aman, New Delhi figure on this list.
The only Indian entry on the ‘top 25 spa hotel and resorts’ list is the Ananda in the Himalayas. Indian entrants on the ‘top business hotels in Asia’ list include The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai; The Oberoi, New Delhi; and The Leela Palace Kempinski, Bangalore.
The Smart Travel Asia online poll ran for three months May-July this year and 60 per cent of the respondents were from Asia. The poll says that 91 per cent of the voters “drew their primary image of brands from the Internet and 85 per cent said they made travel decisions online.” Yet only 38 per cent said they book online. The Net, according to the Smart Travel Asia poll, it seems is still a traveller’s first port of call for information and independent reviews. All issues for tourism and travel mavens to chew on.
Meanwhile, though Kerala has reason to celebrate its recognition as a holiday destination, it’s also time for some introspection on the hospitality front. So perhaps, we should not break out the bubbly just yet.
Picture used courtesy Kerala Tourism

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A filmy boost for tourism?

King Khan seems to have a pretty strong fan club in Berlin. According to this piece in The Hindu, the folks who run Berlin’s tourism agency seem to be tickled pink by the news that parts of the film Don 2 — starring Shah Rukh Khan — will be shot in the city.
This got me wondering whether a place’s tourism prospects improve substantially merely because it features in a film or a television series. I dug around a bit and came up with some interesting possibilities.
For one, I can see why Berlin Tourism is so excited at the possibility of reaping a Bollywood dividend if Don 2 is filmed in the city — they have the Yash Chopra–Switzerland tourism experience to inspire them.
It is widely believed that Chopra almost single-handedly transformed Switzerland’s tourism prospects in India by filming large chunks of several of his movies there. So much so that there’s now a tour run by Chopra’s company Yash Raj Films, travel company SOTC and the Switzerland-based Brandinvest AG that attempts to leverage the Chopra-Switzerland connection.
The YRF Enchanted Journey takes tourists to sites and locations in Switzerland featured in Yash Raj Films’ films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Mohabbatein, Veer-Zaara and Chandni. Obviously, Berlin Tourism would love to attract Indian tourists in droves with similar Bollywood-inspired itineraries.
Film tourism is a growing phenomenon worldwide, write Simon Hudson and J.R. Brent Ritchie of Canada’s University of Calgary in Promoting Destinations via Film Tourism: An Empirical Identification of Supporting Marketing Initiatives. Though the paper, published in 2006, focuses on crafting a model for exploiting film tourism marketing opportunities, it throws up some interesting figures on the impacts of film tourism. For instance, it says that the Wallace Monument in Stirling, Scotland witnessed a 300 per cent increase in the number of visitors the year after the film Braveheart was released. Similarly, it says that the locations in which the Harry Potter films were shot saw a 50 per cent rise in visitors.
Stately Attraction - How Film and Television Programmes Promote Tourism in the UK, commissioned in 2007 by a consortium led by the UK Film Council, presents a more nuanced picture. The report’s key conclusion is that “British films and television programmes have a significant, positive effect on tourism.” It also speaks of films and television programmes shot in the UK contributing to the “wider branding of the UK”.
More interesting, perhaps, for tourism mavens is the report’s assertion that “Typically, it is the associated sites, rather than shooting locations, which benefit the most, as is the case with Braveheart.” Equally significant, especially from Berlin Tourism’s point of view, is that the report suggests that “A specific Bollywood Tourism Strategy be developed in order to tap into this substantial but, currently under-exploited market.
Closer home — in Kerala — too the tourism authorities have been making noises about film tourism. The Kerala Tourism web site, for instance, promotes ‘shooting locations’ in the State. Segments of several Hollywood and Bollywood films have been shot in Kerala — Mistress of Spices, Bombay, Dil Se and most recently Ravan (Ravanan). A few years ago, Kerala Tourism also supported the filming of a couple of episodes of a popular Hindi television series in the State. Whether being a location for all these films has done much to boost Kerala’s tourism prospects is, of course, another matter.
So does being a film location give a place a tourism high? Perhaps.
In the UK’s case, for example, the ‘Stately Attraction’ report points out that in 2000 eight Indian films were shot in Scotland. According to figures from VisitScotland, the number of Indian visitors to Scotland rose from 8,000 in 2000 to 14,000 in 2003; and the money spent by Indian visitors in the region rose from £2 million to £7 million during the same period. Of course, it could be argued that the rise in Indian tourists to Scotland may also have been an organic process; rooted more in the growing interest in travel among well-to-do Indians as an off-shoot of the country’s economic growth.
And as VisitScotland itself, in a case study on New Zealand, states: “Film locations and tourism impacts remain a difficult area to draw hard correlations and cause and effect relationships.”
Perhaps what a film or a television series does best is create widespread awareness about a place; like The Lord of the Rings films did for New Zealand. Or perhaps, a film transforms the way we look at a country or a city.
At the end of the day, a film creates an image of a place; tells a story about it. But that image needs to be supported by savvy marketing if it is to grow into a strong tourism brand that attracts a large number of visitors. So it seems Berlin Tourism has sufficient reason to be excited about the Badshah of Bollywood shooting a film in the city. If it plays the right cards and plays them well, being a location for Don 2 may just transform Berlin into a popular destination for Indian tourists.
Pictures courtesy Berlin Tourism and YRF Enchanted Journey

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Condor flies to Kerala

A few weeks ago, German airline Condor announced that it would start flying to Kerala from November this year.
Condor says it will operate one flight a week on the Frankfurt-Kochi sector. The flights will be “seasonal” and will also touch Bahrain for what I assume will be just a refuelling stop. While it’s good to hear that one more airline will start flying to Kerala from Europe, I’m not quite sure just how much of a boost this is going to give Kerala’s tourism industry.
To begin with, though Condor — owned by the Thomas Cook Group — describes itself as a “leisure airline” or a “tourism airline”, it is essentially an airline that operates charter flights. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. What worries me is that the charter flights to Kochi are going to be only for the ‘tourism season’. As the airline itself says, the flights to Kochi are for the “winter season 2010/11”. I would have been much more excited if Condor had decided to operate flights to Kochi through the year. Of course, that’s still a possibility, but I’m not very optimistic about that happening.
Second, I’m not too sure if the Condor flight is going to add significantly to foreign tourist arrivals in Kerala. The airline intends to operate just one flight a week to Kochi. From what I can gather, the flights will start in the first week of November and end by April 1, 2011; that’s about 22 flights across five months. I understand that the airline will operate Boeing 757-300 aircraft on the Frankfurt-Kochi sector. Each of Condor’s 757-300s can seat 265 passengers. So I would imagine that we are talking about the airline carrying around 5,803 passengers from Frankfurt to Kochi over 5 months. That’s less than 1 per cent of the 598,925 foreign tourist arrivals in Kerala in 2008 (the last year for which Kerala tourism stats are available).
All this makes me wonder just how the Condor flight is going to “increase manifold” the tourism prospects of Kerala. The way I see it, at best, the Condor airlines flight to Kerala may be a pilot venture; an exploration of sorts. Whether it will yield significant dividends in the years ahead is, however, anybody’s guess.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Goa gets an ambassador

Kerala Tourism talked about it, but now Goa tourism’s gone and done it — sign on a celebrity brand ambassador. With this, Goa is arguably the first tourism destination in India to have a brand ambassador.
Goa, of course, hasn’t been able to rope in the Big B as its brand ambassador, like Kerala Tourism hoped to do. Goa’s tourism department has, instead, signed on actress Prachi Desai as its ‘brand icon’.
Based on what I’ve read in the papers, Goa tourism is now focusing on attracting more young people and therefore the choice of Desai as brand ambassador. I’m a little fuddled by this strategy for two reasons.
First, I thought Goa, as a holiday destination, already attracts a large number of young people. So how has this market been suddenly discovered? And if the youth are a significant market segment for Goa’s tourism sector, wouldn’t it make more sense to invest more in leisure facilities that appeal to young people and make holidays in Goa more fun for them. I haven’t seen any mention of such investments or plans for such investments in any of the news reports on Goa tourism’s deal with Desai.
And second, the way I understand it, there is generally a fit between the brand and its ambassador. The ambassador sort of personifies the brand and helps position it as something the target market should aspire to. With this in mind, I’m not too sure if Desai quite fits the bill though she reportedly said: “I've been to Goa quite a few times and found out that there's so much more to explore.” Wouldn’t a youth icon like Mahendra Singh Dhoni, for instance, capture the youthful, edgy spirit of Goa better? He would have cost much more though, I guess.
Meanwhile, there’s been no news since March about the Kerala Tourism-Amitabh Bachchan courtship. Perhaps it was the ‘red card’ that nixed the budding relationship and caused a potential blockbuster to crash after the first weekend.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Not quite goodbye

I guess the relationship between technology and travel has always been direct and incremental. Every advancement in technology, particularly in that related to travel or communication, has, arguably, had significant implications for travel.
For some time now, I’ve been looking at the equation between technology — information and communication technologies in particular — and travel. The Internet, for one, has transformed the way we travel. The Net’s effect is visible on virtually every aspect of travel — from planning a trip to booking the tickets and hotels, and from applying for a visa to ordering foreign exchange cards.
What’s less visible is how personal communication devices such as smart phones are beginning to revolutionise travel. And leading this revolution are the “apps” or applications, which are pieces of software that run on a bunch of electronic devices including mobile phones.
So it was great to read this thoughtful piece by Tom Robbins, travel editor of the Financial Times. Robbins focuses on how the Internet, smart phones and smart phone apps like Google Goggles are likely to flush printed guidebooks down the drain.
It’s an insightful and entertaining read. And it sure sounds sexy to be able to dig out more dope on something interesting by simply taking its picture and then using Google Goggles’ image search power. But I wonder if it is a trifle premature to be writing a requiem for the guidebook.
Robbins is spot on when he writes that an app like Google Goggles allows him to “have at my fingertips more information than exists in any guidebook ever written – perhaps more even than the combined wisdom of all guidebooks ever written.” And that, perhaps, is also exactly why an app like Goggles may not be able to completely replace a good guidebook.
I’ve not tried Goggles, but I assume that a search would throw up at least several hundred results. And if it uses algorithms that are similar to those used by Google’s keyword search engine, I expect you’d end up with many results that may not have the exact information you are looking for.
So while apps like Goggles do make information accessible, a good guidebook goes one step further by filtering information to make it accessible and relevant. In a nutshell, a good guidebook will mostly dispense the wisdom you need and not all the wisdom in the universe.
Despite this, the guidebook in its present avatar may slowly disappear in some parts of the world over the next few years. But canny travel publishers, I believe, will develop guidebook apps that could give Goggles some competition. Along with this, they will also need to explore electronic versions of their guidebooks for devices like the iPad.
Robbins, himself, touches on this possibility, writing “this summer there’s a buzz in the world of travel publishing, a sense of being on the verge of a totally new era. The Internet allowed people to research their trips themselves before setting out, but smart phone apps and iPads travel with them.”
The buzz Robbins talks about will in all probability grow, as travel publishers realise that smart phones and similar devices are a market they need to create compelling products for. Of course, they’ll also need to invent business models for this market; models that compete with the ‘give it away free’ strategy that companies such as Google adopt.
Simultaneously, guidebook publishers will also need to create business models that cater to emerging outbound travel markets like India and China. In a market like India, where some 9.8 million people travelled out of the country in 2007, printed guidebooks may sell well for many more years, but quality and affordability will be key.
Of course, guidebook publishers could also decide to give printed guidebooks a miss and instead tap India’s exploding mobile phone market. But with smart phones not as ubiquitous in India as in many other telecom markets, guidebook apps may need to be offered at lower price points and also tweaked so they work reasonably well on phones that are not very ‘smart’.
Accessing guidebook apps while travelling aboard could also be a challenge for many mobile phone users in India, given the rather high international roaming charges the country’s telecom companies charge. This, I imagine, is an issue in many other markets too. So guidebook publishers are going to have to find ways around high roaming charges — working with telecom companies to create innovatively structured and priced guidebook apps could be one solution.
In emerging markets, travel publishers are also going to have to look very seriously at the mechanics of venturing into guidebook apps in local languages. In India, for instance, this could open up an entirely new segment of the market and generate significant returns. Global travel publishers may even be able to create a market for high quality, printed guidebooks in Indian languages.
Therefore, the guidebook strategy for markets such as India, I suspect, will have to be a hybrid — a model that builds on the publisher’s brand salience and uses innovative pricing to hawk both old-fashioned printed guidebooks and cutting edge guidebook apps.
And to answer the question that Robbins raises: Is it the end of the guidebook? Not quite. It’s more like the end of the guidebook as we know it. Make that ‘knew it’.