With a focus on active holidays, adventure tourism in India has shown an impressive growth. However, for challenges such as connectivity, safety and communication, the government and the industry need to work jointly.
In March last year, Sarita Singh, an IT specialist, ventured far from the comforts of her New Delhi home to the bone-chilling climes of the South Pole as part of the International Antarctica Treaty Expedition 2014 led by polar explorer and environmentalist Robert Swan. For two weeks, she was part of this expedition, with temperatures dropping well below freezing. A Coimbatore-based photo journalist, Rohan Krishnamurthi, recently went for skiing holidays in the depths of Nordic wilderness to watch the Northern Lights.
For a country brought up on a staple of package tours because of its rich past and geography, the opportunity to try something new is being grabbed with open hands. Not everyone is going as far as Sarita or Rohan; some are taking baby steps with a 3-4 day break from Delhi to Rishikesh to experience adventure sports such as bungee jumping and white water rafting.
For adventure tour operators, this growth has come hard way, through creating awareness about the potential of adventure tourism in India, a country with more than 65 per cent of the Himalayas within its boundaries; and to change the mindset of the people towards the primary concern of ‘safety’. The industry has made ceaseless efforts, from approaching the government for safety guidelines to introducing ‘active holidays’ for soft adventures, to promote adventure tourism in India.
Way to go
Now the cheer seems to have returned. With disposable income and need for offbeat experiences, tourists are increasingly engaging in activities like white-water rafting, trekking and mountaineering. In fact, in the last couple of years, travellers from India and abroad have began exploring extreme adventure activities like sky diving, bungee jumping, and deep sea diving to experience the adrenaline rush. India has also witnessed the emergence of adventure parks, where travellers can indulge in adventure sports with a slice of luxury. With such diversity of offerings in the segment, not only the youth but also the middle-age travellers want to enjoy a share of adventure tourism. The segment has also caught the fancy of the corporate segment that, during its outbound programmes, lays extensive focus on adventure activities.
Despite the growth in the industry, adventure tourism remains a relatively small market, compared to the West. According to a survey by the George Washington University and the Adventure Travel Trade Association, the global market is estimated at USD89 billion (around INR 5.34 trillion). While there are no published reports, industry estimates peg it at around INR 25 billion, combining domestic and inbound tourists both. With nearly 15 per cent growth per year, the business is strategically moving in the direction of soft adventures.
In the past five or six years, the industry has doubled in size, thanks to the ceaseless initiatives and promotion of adventure tourism. According to Tejbir Singh Anand, managing director, Holiday Moods Adventures, the most important shift has been the willingness of Indians to look beyond the usual holidays for new experiences. This, in turn, has been backed by upgradation of tourist infrastructure at popular places such as Rishikesh, Ladakh and Uttarakhand. “As people have become more comfortable with the idea of adventure travel, newer options have opened up,” he adds.
While, Akshay Kumar, president, Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOAI) and CEO , Mercury Himalayan Explorations, believes that people prefer to get involved in soft active holidays combined with cultural experiences. “Mindsets of people have changed. They prefer to engage with local people or try to contribute indirectly to the local communities.” Ajeet Bajaj, founder of Snow Leopard Adventures, says, “The major trend that has emerged and will continue next year is that adventureseekers are no longer satisfied with a fiveminute jet-ski or banana boat ride. They want to spend time learning and enjoying a sport. In Maharashtra, paragliding has become a popular adventure activity, with Kamshet near Lonavla emerging as a hub with a number of paragliding schools.”
Rajesh Ojha, director, Banjara Camps & Retreats, opines, “People are bored of going to the hills and mountains and staying in hotels in Shimla and watching the might of the Himalayas from a distance. There is an increasing focus on experiential adventure tourism, even if it is a softer two- or three-day holiday. Surprisingly, it is families who are driving this discovery of adventure tours and activities, by demanding more from their vacations.” For the domestic market, trans-Himalayas jeep safaris; motorcycle tours; short, well-organised treks; and white water rafting trips for family vacations to cover everyone’s interests are picking up.
Caught in a whirlpool
Although India has immense potential for adventure tourism, it is slowed by numerous pitfalls. Tour operators complain that there are few safety standards in place. As a result ATOAI, the industry lobby, has formulated its own guidelines and is pushing individual states to make them mandatory. In their absence, unscrupulous operators flourish. In Rishikesh, for example, the lack of clear safety norms has enabled shoddy raft operators to thrive. These operators pose threat to the organised segment by offering cheaper rides, i.e., INR 150 as opposed to INR 650 charged by the authentic operators. Crooked operators tend to use substandard equipments and flout rules such as not having back-up rafts.
Additionally, India’s unwillingness to permit satellite phones, a standard safety requirement in the boondocks, regulates the tourism. Then, there are many unexplored Himalayan peaks that require permissions to climb that has led the tourists to move to neighbouring countries like Nepal and Pakistan. India’s questioned record with women’s safety and preservation of the environment too are keeping this sector from growth.
To address these issues, the industry has been working hard to get the government support. Realising the potential of adventure tourism, the government of India has been taking initiatives to boost the sector like other niche segments. Last year, the government launched the ‘777 days of the Indian Himalayas’ campaign. It was, however, not successful because of the unresolved issues such as that of safety.
Mandeep Singh Soin, founder and managing director, Ibex Expeditions, says, “Safety is dealt through insurance covers for inbound travellers with benefits such as helicopter rescue that works well with the government. For Indian clients, we need to explore insurance covers with the insurance sector that is expanding in India.” Adding the contrasting image of the west, he says, “West is huge because of holistic infrastructure like small airfields, good roads and developed guiding and certified guides.”
As adventurous travellers queue up for their next escapade, these challenges need to be fixed shortly and efficiently. Good tourism connectivity, infrastructure and communication system are required to push adventure tourism to the next level. Only then, success stories like Sarita’s experience in South Pole or Rohan’s skiing tale can be written for India such as mountaineering expedition in the Himalayas or trekking in the Nagaland valleys.