Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TIME OUT : May 2, 1999
In search of Utopia
We crave for that one long spell of freedom called a holiday, year after year. In the few places where imagination is allowed to run riot, unfettered by considerations of money or taste, anything goes. Here heaven-on-earth comes in all shapes, sizes and styles, an embodiment of Thomas More's assertion that Utopia is, by definition, indefinable. Moreover it is easiest to be truly fanciful when you are far away from home. On holidays you can pick and choose your dreams without a second thought, you can try them on for size, discard them quickly if they do not fit, grow into them and out of them within a week.
Traditionally the concept of holidaying has been to retreat to one's native place fulfilling family obligations towards parents and relatives. But today there is a distinct change, brought about by the opening up of the economy, more of disposable incomes and easing of foreign exchange restrictions (Earlier $500 was the maximum permitted once every three years, today the traveller can avail of $2000 annually). Growing affluence demands innovation, challenges and a desire to discover the unknown, also bearing in mind that the late 20th century makes demands on both body and soul. Today, a holiday is all about being a family, away from pressures of normal life... no homework, no social engagements, precious few rules and therefore precious few battles.
Holidays, once an opportunity to get away from it all, are now often a chance to get away to it all and this season does open up a mind-boggling choice of getaways. River-rafting in the Rishikesh rapids, casual alpine trekking, jeep safaris and cycle tours are becoming popular. A horse safari among the sandy dunes of Rajasthan can surely sharpen your appetite for fresh challenges. Using a holiday to learn a new skill is a great way to gain a fresh perspective and meet people. The taste for adventure is always good for blasting away the cobwebs... a clear departure from the preferred holiday routine of air-conditioned room, cards, tambola, food, food and more food, with a bit of sightseeing included as dressing.
The Maruti boom has certainly given an impetus to travel, which is a phenomenon of the Nineties. Suddenly, you can just drive out on your own steam, and not bother about rail tickets or reservations. Earlier it was a summer, winter or Diwali break. Now to cope with increasing levels of urban stress, a weekend combined with just one/two days leave is sufficient to take a short break with the family, without disrupting office/ school/ college routines. Moreover, the emergence of smart, small resorts within an easy driving distance from the metros has visibly increased the mobility of the modern nuclear family. It now seems comparatively easy to get away.
One of the most powerful of life-making holidays is the sort that offers you the opportunity to leap from being passive about your interests to being active: Don't just watch wildlife on television, go and watch it in the wilds of Corbett, Kanha, Bandipur and Kaziranga. Tired of concrete accommodation? Why not camp under the skies?
Evening bonfires and shooting stars are sure to boost your spirits and that too at unbelievably reasonable prices. Other new options include fishing trips at Bhimeshwari, skiing at Auli, snorkelling among the coral reefs in Lakshadweep and the backwater cruises of Kerala. And if any particular holiday destination grows on you, you can always sign up with a whole host of timeshare companies for anything between 30 and 100 years, prices ranging from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. three lakhs, and global exchange facilities. (A few even have a money back offer.)
They travel all over the world... four million upper middle class Indians in the quest of a memorable holiday. Just what is it that they are looking for? Exotic destinations, spectacular sightseeing, luxurious hotels, superior touring, delicious food, shopping bargains and essentially the right type of company. Competitive air fares and affordable package tours offered by a number of leading tour operators have contributed to the outbound section increasing by 20 per cent annually. Group travel is also growing dramatically faster than individual travel. Besides, travelling together is cost efficient, safer, comfortable, and of course greater fun as compared to going it alone. Moreover there are 14 million Indians living abroad. This is referred to as the traditional segment (Visiting friends and relatives). Previously, one saved up for basically a single trip abroad, stayed put with the relatives for as long as one could, and then caught the next flight back. Today the same person is a lot more adventurous and uninhibited. The new Indian traveller, for the first time, wants to scuba-dive, snorkel and generally live it up in the most unusual of destinations. But at the same time, Indians have not given up their penchant for shopping - Singapore places visiting Indians as the number one spenders.
Summer is here and that means one thing; it is time to put fizz into your life. What better way than Europe, which has never been so hot... package tour operators falling all over each other in slashing prices. The war is on and it is obvious who benefits. You just have to choose, from all kinds of holidays. There is a range for everyone. For families, package tours to the most sought-after destinations, both in the country and abroad. Once-in-a-lifetime boltholes for honeymooners. Adventure holidays for those who prefer life off the beaten track and the world's most luxurious cruises. Tour operators also strive to make the tourist feel at home anywhere in the world by offering Indian meals and friendly tour escorts. What this translates into, for the consumer, is great prices, all fun and no tension.
Today India has potential tourists who not only have disposable incomes, but also the desire to travel. Alberta, a small province of Canada, has a representative in the country and wants to woo Indian investments, as well as the new traveller. (Alberta's claim to fame are the original dinosaur relics.) Other countries that are also in the race are Israel, South Africa, Cyprus, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand and even Uzbek tourism.
Needless to say the Indian tourist has indeed arrived. Plenty of people make big decisions after a holiday, they come home with a slightly different view of the world and look at life and what they want to achieve in the new context.... Gazing up into a sky of incomparable blue, you understand how a visit that lasts just a few days can alter a whole life. It's another existence. Things you thought mattered to you drift away. Flying hair? Who cares? Make-up? For what purpose? This is what the new breed is aspiring for. As we edge wearily towards the new millennium, the new age tourist is constantly in search of a simple, yet all too rare formula; elegance mixed with formality. But beware: Utopia, as More reminded us, is an imaginary place; when you try to make it real, it becomes reality, which, let us face it, always disappoints. Alas, a castle set in stone is never as good as a castle in the air, and at worst, one person's paradise can be another's purgatory. But yet as holidays must go on... we all live happily ever after despite the squabbles and sleepless nights. A quick week away is supposed to put right what went wrong the rest of the year, mending broken hearts and broken promises with sand, sun and a swift round of golf. That's the theory anyway.
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