Tell me briefly about yourself and your company Blue Star. What services does your company Blue Star provide to the tourist?
Bookonbluestar.com is an Online Travel Consolidator which has a network of 35,000 travel agents across India, with sales representatives in more than 33 cities. It was started as a family enterprise by my father and uncle in the year 1987. Our products include booking air tickets, IRCTC train tickets, hotels, bus, travel insurance, tour packages, visa and foreign exchange. Any passenger who wishes to travel anywhere in the world (including India) can deal with a Bookonbluestar.com appointed travel agent across India.
When did you start working for Blue Star? What sets your company apart from the rest?
I joined Blue Star in June 2009, and have been associated with my company in various capacities since then. Besides providing a wide range of products under one roof, the USP of our company is its work culture. At BookonBluestar.com we believe, “We are an online company with a face”. Therefore, right from the junior staff to the management level, everyone is accessible to the customer. This is what sets us apart from the rest.
What are the recent travel trends you have witnessed among Indian travelers?
Leisure travel has increased manifold recently, and the Indian traveler has matured. Gone are the days when domestic travellers booked a typical 4 – 5 nights itinerary to traditional destinations for sight-seeing. Today, the Indian tourist is well-informed and yearning for more. They not only want to explore new places, but also want to know about the local people, their culture and cuisine. They are adventurous and want to experience something new.
Weekend travel has also become popular. Whenever there is a long weekend coming, people want a break from work, make short trips to places in India, or even outside to places like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sri Lanka, and Bali.
Which are the hot destinations in India and what makes them preferred destinations?
Travelling in India depends at what time of the year one is travelling. For example, if it is summer, people like to travel to hill stations in North India. Shimla, Manali are favourite destinations. The Shimla-Kalka route is so scenic that people love to travel by the Pardarshi Train from Shimla to Kalka and back. The journey is not only affordable, but is a visual treat, which earlier, travellers could experience only in international destinations like Europe.
If the travel is during winter, then Rajasthan happens to be a favourite choice, followed by Kerala. In Rajasthan, a Jodhpur-Jaisalmer trip (en route Kuldhara, an abandoned village which has a unique story to tell) is popular with tourists. Jodhpur offers a royal experience to the tourist with the Mehrangarh Fort and Jaswant Tada being major attractions. It is also a place to enjoy authentic Rajasthani cuisine like the mirchi vada, dal baati and kachori. Spending a night on the Sam sand dunes in Jaisalmer is an unforgettable experience, which I would urge every traveler must experience. A visit to the Jaisalmer Fort, Patwon ke Haweli, and a city tour are a must do in Jaisalmer.
In South India, Kerala is a preferred destination. People love to take the backwater ride and trips to Munnar and Thekkady. If you are on temple, run then nothing can beat Tamil Nadu or Karnataka.
Which are the preferred international destinations? And why?
Singapore, Dubai and Thailand are traditional destinations where approximately more than a million Indians travel every year. Of late, Sri Lanka and Malaysia have emerged as favourite destinations. The availability of flights to these places, the ease of getting visa/visa on arrival, the shopping experience, et al, have contributed to making them popular with Indian tourists. Indian cuisine, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food, is also easily available at most of these places today, which is drawing senior citizens and people with specific food preferences. Europe is also a preferred destination with Indian travelers for the same reasons.
Of late, Vietnam, Cambodia and Bhutan in Asia, and Croatia, Slovenia, Czech Republic, in Eastern Europe, are emerging as the new favourite tourist destinations. Australia and New Zealand are traditional favourites for families and honeymooners. Fiji has also emerged as a hot favourite.
Do Indian travelers like to travel as a group or do they prefer customised family tours? What are the advantages for those who travel as group as against small family tours?
Indians love to travel as a group, but customised tours for small families are also in demand. Travelling in groups is always more fun, and works out to be economical for the traveler. You also make new friends and memories.
With small family tours, the advantage is you can customise your holiday the way you want to. You have the freedom to choose your travel dates and the time you wish to spend at a particular place. Basically, you are not bound by a particular itinerary; you have your own itinerary.
How has travel impacted you as a person?
Travel has taught me many things. Although, I have travelled to just about 25 countries, I have learnt one thing or the other from every country, which I have then tried to incorporate in my life. For example, visiting Japan taught me the importance of hardwork and quality. Honesty is something one can learn from Swiss nationals. No one can beat the way citizens of Denmark make an effort in keeping their environment green and clean.
I therefore take the liberty of tweaking Hans Christian Andersen quote which says, “To travel is to live”. I would like to say, “To travel is to learn”.
What are the major challenges for service providers like you? Is it a good time to be in the travel business?
Every business comes with a set of challenges, our industry is no different. But trust me, travel business is exciting, and we take on challenges head on. Be it taxation issues or Rate of Exchange issues, we are geared up to deal with it. We are a growing online company, so we have to constantly keep pace with technology and customer support. We consider everyday as a new day, and try to find innovative solutions to every challenge.
As a much travelled person, which are your favourite destinations in India and abroad?
I love visiting Rajasthan any number of times, simply because it is colourful, the food is great, and the place has great history. Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Jaisalmer are my favourites cities, and I have spent many summers at Mt.Abu visiting many old and unexplored temples. Holi is celebrated in a unique way at Mt. Abu and I enjoy being there to participate in the festival.
Among international destinations, it is Copenhagen, Denmark. I love the charming waterways and the classic open-faced sandwich, which is a sumptuous meal. People are environmentally conscious, and the best way to explore the city is by cycle, which most locals use to go to work.
Abroad, tourist can learn to cook a local cuisine or learn new activities, when they travel. Does India offer such options to tourists?
India too has a lot to offer in terms of culinary experiences, as every state has a unique cuisine to boast. Today, there are cooking classes conducted for tourists, who can enroll and learn during their stay. There is also huge potential to develop adventure sports, but the options here are limited due to lack of infrastructure. If we invest in infrastructure, then Indian tourism will be altogether in a different league.
Which are the untapped destinations in India, and what needs to be done to make them popular?
There are many places to list, but Hampi in Karnataka grabs my attention. This is followed by national parks in India – Ranthambore in Rajasthan, Kaziranaga in Assam, Badhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh, Jim Corbett in Uttarakhand, and Tadoba in Maharashtra, all have huge potential, and we must do much more to promote these places to both the domestic and international tourists. Promoting national parks automatically promotes the cities nearby.
Kashmir has always been a favourite destination for Indians. How has the trouble in the valley affected tourism?
The valley has dominated the tourism industry for decades and charmed travellers since ages, and it will continue to do so. Yes, the continuous trouble has affected tourism, particularly the last year has been very bad. I wish the problems are sorted out quickly, and tourists get to enjoy their favourite destination soon.
Is India a safe country to travel, especially for women?
Well, India is absolutely safe, although there have been a few unfortunate incidents with respect to women`s safety. Laws have to be enforced strictly and justice has to be dispensed quickly to restore tourist confidence.
What according to you needs to be done to improve infrastructure in India?
The last few years have seen the Government taking many initiatives to improve infrastructure like roads, toilets, etc., which is laudable. Connectivity via road and railway has also improved, but still a lot remains to be done. We need to improve the quality of railway coaches and safety measures on road. We need more fuel and food outlets on highways, and also accommodation options.
Personally I believe, as citizens, we also need to take up certain responsibilities and ensure that the schemes launched by the Government are executed well. We do not care enough for our environment or respect laws. I have seen many a times, we ourselves don`t use dustbins, litter in public place and misuse toilets. Recently, there were reports of damages on the Tejas Express on the Mumbai- Goa route. This is condemnable. It is the responsibility of every citizen to keep public places clean, and be a guardian of public property.