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Off the beaten track

They called it the Million Firefly Ride. Recently, Anil Uchil went on a bicycling expedition with six friends to Purushwadi, a village in Maharashtra’s Western Ghat region. The group rode up to Rajgir town, after which they loaded their cycles on a tempo and sat on its roof to watch the firefly spectacle as they drove to their destination.

Uchil, a Mumbai-based PR executive, who runs Ellipsis Corporate Communications, soon realised he’d given an incorrect title to his trip. “Million was an understatement. Zillions of fireflies had lit up the valley, hills and the night sky. The lighting seemed choreographed like a Mexican wave,” recalls Uchil, who spent a weekend in Purushwadi swimming in the river, trekking and watching fireflies by night.

Firefly tourism has put Purushwadi on India’s travel map. “Fireflies come here to mate two weeks before the monsoons,” says Vijay Khanna, CEO, Grassroutes, a social tourism company that has adopted the village and promotes it as an attraction. About 150 people visited the village this year to witness the phenomenon.

Gone are the days when a holiday meant sightseeing, shopping and family photo shoots. Tourism has turned alternative, as Mussoorie and Shimla simply don’t satisfy the urban Indian’s wanderlust anymore. “There is a lot of variety in travel today, as people opt for off-beat holidays,” says Vijay Thakur, president, Indian Association of Tour Operators. He adds that India’s domestic tourism market is growing by 25 per cent per annum. “With 650 million Indians travelling every year, the industry is booming. To attract eyeballs in a cluttered market, it has gone creative by offering out-of-the-box holidays,” he explains.

A Chennai-based travel firm, for example, promotes autorickshaw tourism people travel in the three wheeler, soaking in every smell and bump on the way. Again, learning photography is no longer a classroom activity, as travel firms offer photo getaways where holidayers hone their SLR skills. For foodies, there are “cooking holidays”. A New Delhi adventure firm organises helicopter cruises over the Antarctica, sea kayaking off the Andaman Islands and snow leopard spotting treks in the upper Himalayas. Then there are tribal tours, caravan holidays, Bollywood tourism, green holidays and rural getaways where travellers plough fields, chop firewood and live with village folk.

Nikhil Gonsalves never had any summer holiday surprises through his childhood. “I knew where the family was headed every vacation Goa, Mahabaleshwar or Khandala,” says the Mumbai-based advertising professional, who visited Goa eight times before he completed his teens.

Gonsalves wasn’t going to continue this tradition. Last year, he signed up for a photography holiday to Ladakh where he combined jeep safaris into the cold desert with assignments on framing and capturing the arid mountains on his SLR camera. “Learning became fun,” says the ad man.

Varun Gupta started Travelling Lens that offers photo getaway packages two years ago. Business is expectedly growing. “We took 20 tourists to Ladakh last year. This year, 36 people have already signed up,” says Gupta, whose company also has a tie-up with Club Mahindra to market its product. A 10-day photo workshop in the wild costs Rs 75,000.

In fact, says Santosh Kumar, who runs an online travel firm, Getoffurass.com, “People are increasingly buying cameras to complement their travel. This is making photography holidays popular.” Kumar’s firm conducts eight photo-travel workshops called Photography on the Move every year. “Our workshops are woven around photo-friendly events like the Goa carnival, Alappuzha snake boat race and buffalo race in Karnataka,” he reveals.

As alternative tourism turns trendy, Travelling Lens’s Gupta plans to expand his travel portfolio beyond photo holidays. The company is working on organising a musical holiday in Varanasi. For the gastronomically-inclined, it will offer a food holiday to Calcutta. “People are getting experimental with their holidays. Variety is selling,” says Gupta.

A Chennai-based travel firm, The Travel Scientist, for instance, offers autorickshaw adventure trips for those who don’t want to see India through the tinted glasses of an Innova. The company ran its first Autorickshaw Challenge in 2006 from Chennai to Kanyakumari.

The 25 teams that drove down the Coromandel coast in self-driven autorickshaws stopped in small towns en route. Here, they were given challenges like learning to speak 16 words of the local language and watching a local film to note how many shirts the hero changes in one song. “The auto adventure became popular because travellers see a slice of real India,” says Aravind Bremanandam, who calls himself the chief scientist of the company.

Five years on, the company conducts 12 autorickshaw challenges across India. On an average, there is one Indian team in every event. “It shows that the future of such holidays is bright,” says Bremanandam.

Till a decade ago, Shakti Singh sold spices to tourists in Udaipur. But business was slow. “People didn’t buy my malai kofta masala because they didn’t know how to cook the dish,” he recalls. So he started giving cooking demonstrations in his kitchen, which metamorphosed into the Indian Spice Box Cooking School for travellers.

To begin with, most of Singh’s students were foreign tourists. “Now, a lot of young, metro-based Indians are signing up. Most live away from home and are out of touch with Indian cooking,” says the culinary coach, whose school is mentioned in the Lonely Planet.

Jacob Mathew is yet another entrepreneur who has converted his home near Cochin into a cookery getaway called the Kerala Cooking Holiday. In the last four years, he has taught 400 guests to cook authentic aviyals and appams.

Activity holidays are taking off in India because people want to do something different with their vacations, says Judy Cardozo, who runs a cooking school, India on the Menu, in Panjim. “So far my students have been mostly foreigners. But now, enquiries from Indian travellers are pouring in,” she says.

As tourists head for off-the-map holidays, finding suitable hotels becomes a hitch. Sanjay Saini saw a business opportunity here he started leasing homes on wheels. Five years ago, Saini started Motorhome Adventures, a company that rents caravans to travellers. “Caravans are rented by tourists headed to off-the-track places like the Rann of Kutch, Tibet and the interiors of Rajasthan,” says Saini, CEO, Motorhome Adventures.

Of course, the caravans come at a cost a mobile home for six people costs Rs 12,000 a day. “But people don’t mind spending on travel any more. We get about 10 bookings every month,” says Saini.

Clearly, for the new, adrenaline-driven Indian traveller, the more off-beat a holiday the better.

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