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Summer holiday
- With trips galore on offer, Calcuttans are on the move

The Guptas of Alipore are looking for a bit of adventure for the family holiday this summer, after lazing in the sun and going on an extended shopping spree in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore last year. It's a toss-up between a Kenyan safari and a trip to Cairns, Australia, with hot air ballooning, reef rafting, sky diving and more. But the kids are keen on a bit of skiing and the cooler climes of Davos or maybe St Moritz, in Switzerland.

Pack your bags

The Calcutta traveller is not far behind in the race to explore foreign shores or traverse India. The tsunami on December 26 created havoc. The recent scare didn't help either.

But as tourist destinations like Thailand, Sri Lanka, Maldives and even the Andaman and Nicobar Islands pick up the pieces on the road to normalcy, tourists find little reason not to head for their favourite holiday hotspots. Not least because the cheapest fares and best deals for Calcuttans is to Southeast Asia.

'Air travel has increased by 18 to 20 per cent in the past year. We expect at least the same rise this time, particularly in summer. As well as more drop in prices,' says Ankur Bhatia, managing director, India, of global distribution system Amadeus.

But off-beat is where the interesting action lies, says Sanjoy Sett, chairman, eastern region, Travel Agents Association of India and owner of Globe Forex and Travels. 'People are coming to us looking for something different, from Innsbruck in Austria to Auckland in New Zealand.'

Innovations from the travel and tourism industry, first-timers wanting to head out on holiday, frequent flyers looking for something new ' some factors making the travel figures in summer 2005 climb up.

Advance bookings have already started and as Sett puts it: 'We make as much in April, May and June as we do in the rest of the year.'

But before you pack your bags, take stock of what's available.

Sky scramble

The civil aviation industry has been flying high for the past six months. International airlines pouring in, domestic carriers going international, more flights, newer destinations, connectivity the key. And what the customer can really crow about is prices plummeting without a parachute.

Calcutta has seen its fair share of the action. Jet Airways, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and Indian Airlines have added flights, Malaysia Airlines and Air Deccan have entered the fray, new destinations have been added to the list and prices are free falling.

British Airways remains the only direct route to Europe and Air India is planning to start up in May, though the tussle with travel agents over lower commission might make it a troublesome landing. Besides, carriers like Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Royal Jordanian and Gulf Air have made it easier for Calcuttans to catch connecting flights to Europe and the US.

London and back for Rs 28,000; New York and back for Rs 44,000. Fly to Delhi and back for Rs 2,500, or book a return trip to Bangkok for Rs 10,000, half of what the prices were even a year ago.

'Our advance bookings have gone up by 50 per cent this year,' says Bharat Mahadevan, general manager, Singapore Airlines. 'And that's taking into account our increased capacity, with the fourth flight added recently. This is only the start of the summer. People are definitely going to travel more.'

Everyone's cashing in on the summer craze, with special offers and lower costs. Singapore Airlines has a round trip to Bangkok for Rs 10,000 or Kuala Lumpur, Rs 28,000 to Zurich and back. Plus, there are package deals for Kuala Lumpur, from the budget to the deluxe category. Malaysia Airlines's holiday arm also has special offers to Kuala Lumpur.

Gulf Air's summer prices came into effect from April 1. Indian Airlines has added flights to Bangkok and Mumbai from Calcutta, plus special apex fares to Port Blair, to bring back tourists to the tsunami-struck islands in the Bay of Bengal.

But are Calcuttans biting the bait' 'There's much more potential for growth in air travel in the Calcutta market. It's growing at the same rate as the other metros, but it's still behind cities like Delhi and Mumbai. However, while the airports there are saturated, Calcutta's is not,' adds Bhatia.

Travel trade

Experience a Greek fantasy, chill out in the Swiss Alps, glimpse the midnight sun in Scandinavia, cruise in the Bahamas or down the river Nile, walk across the Great Wall of China, go snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef, take a trip to the Kremlin, splurge in Sun City' There is no dearth of choices. By all accounts, package deals are the most popular.

'It's a dynamic market anywhere, and no less in Calcutta,' says Kavi Ghei, director, TRAC, which represents international tourism boards and airlines.

'Travel agents can no longer afford to sit back and let customers come to them. They have to be on their feet. In fact, people are looking for something unique, something they haven't experienced before. A relatively new phenomenon in Calcutta is tourism boards of countries tying up with travel agents. This is a sign that the Calcutta market has matured. In fact, the falling prices have not even bottomed out yet. There will be more cuts as the summer progresses.'

Leading travel agencies like Thomas Cook, Cox & Kings and SOTC have already brought out a varied collection of summer holidays, from Lucerne and Venice to Orlando and the Gold Coast. They're not cheap, but competitively priced.

Destinations like Sri Lanka and China are gaining in popularity through aggressive marketing, while Nepal has special offers only for Indian tourists. Globe Travels has launched the Canadian mountain safari and is hoping to repeat last year's number of about 50 people taking the Alaskan cruise. Even getting visas are not half the hassle they used to be a couple of years ago, adds Sett.

The budget traveller looking for something unique within Indian borders has plenty of variety, too. 'This year, the hill stations are in great demand,' says a spokesperson for Diamond Tours and Travels.

'Also, more families are booking the individual holidays rather than the package tours. Kashmir is very popular, as is Darjeeling, Gangtok, north Sikkim and the Himachal region. Goa, too, is a favourite. Bookings to the Andamans and Nepal, generally very popular summer destinations, are almost non-existent.'

Set off

The Duttas of Bhowanipore were hoping for a cosy honeymoon in Kinnore, with a package tour for under Rs 8,000. With most tours booked up, they're planning to go to Simla and Dalhousie on their own instead, booked through a travel agency. The newlyweds just want to get far from the madding crowd to a serene, scenic spot.

The Calcuttan's appetite for wanderlust is being whetted by the variety, availability and value-for-money pricing of the summer holiday options. Honeymooners or families, corporate honchos or footloose and fancy-free adventurers, they're all game to be on the go. Everybody, after all, is on a summer holiday.

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