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Three years ago, Preeti Ralhan, a 41-year-old homemaker from Gurgaon, was holidaying in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with her family. While they had no plans for adventure, their guide insisted they try a 5-km zip line tour atop the rainforest. “Suspended from cables, zipping past trees and cliffs, we had the time of our lives,” says Ralhan.
They wanted to zip-line again, but didn’t want to go all the way to Thailand. And then, they heard of Flying Fox, a service that offers zip-lining tours in Neemrana, 100 km from Delhi. So, last month, the family drove to the heritage town for a zip-lining tour that cost just Rs 1,500 per person. “Three years ago, we thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But now, we know we can afford to do it twice a year,” says Ralhan. She adds that the Neemrana zip line was more picturesque than the Chiang Mai one because of the view of the heritage fort and the rocky terrain around it.
If you are an adventure junkie, you needn’t pack your bags and take a flight out of India. You can now go zipping at Neemrana, Jodhpur and Kikar Lodge near Chandigarh, or scuba diving off Andaman and Nicobar, Lakshadweep, Goa and at Angria Bank in Maharashtra; paragliding at various places in Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Rajasthan; hot-air-balloon-riding in Rajasthan; parasailing in Haryana, mountain biking at Jalori Pass in Himachal, Manali and Narkanda, heli-skiing in Kashmir, or skiing in Manali.
Even though adventure tourism has been around for at least a decade, lately, it has seen several new companies offering tours in offbeat sports like sky diving, zip lining, and heli-skiing to consumers that include corporate managers, youngsters and families. Mukul Ronak Das, CEO of Bangalore-based Waltair Escapade Thrills, the company that launched commercial sky diving for the first time in India in October 2011 (in Madhya Pradesh, followed by Maharashtra late last year and Punjab in February), says that five years ago, adventure sports contributed not more than 35-40 per cent to the tourism revenue, and most of it came from conventional sports such as skiing and rafting. Now, new and sophisticated sports such as sky diving, heli-skiing, and zip lining are also doing well. And the government realises the potential of promoting the country as an adventure destination. “Out of the 48-second recent Incredible India ad on TV, 60 per cent time is devoted to snapshots of adventure activities,” says Das.
While there were already around 35,000-40,000 big and small adventure operators in India, the last six months have seen them getting more organised and professionally managed. Flying Fox, which began in 2007 in Neemrana, has, over the years, spread to Jodhpur and Chandigarh. Delhi-based Wanderlust Camps and Resorts, which claims to be “the first company to bring bungee jumping to India (in 1999), hot air ballooning in 1989 and sky-walking in 2005” and is run by ex-Army officer Captain SK Yadav, has been organising camps for companies and now even families. Their camps are priced between Rs 999 and Rs 1,999 per person per night. “Adventure activities were first brought into the Indian corporate culture as part of team-building exercises. They used activities, such as valley crossing and flying fox, which the army uses to train its officers and jawans,” says Yadav. One of the most unique activities they have organised so far is sky walking. Participants were harnessed and made to walk vertically on the exteriors of some tall office buildings in Gurgaon.
Trained adventure professionals from abroad have also set up shop in India. India’s first 83-metre-high bungee jump, in Rishi-kesh, has been designed and is run by a team of bungee experts from New Zealand, and the Flying Fox zip lining tours are run by two British nationals. “Since these are not native adventure activities, you need to bring in foreign skills because there’s no domestic expertise to draw upon,” says Flying Fox Asia director Richard McCullum.
Obviously, commercial interests are driving the adrenaline boom in India. Manmeet Ahluwalia, marketing head at travel portal expedia.co.in, says, “Indians travel overseas a lot, and consume a lot of adventure there. Even foreign tourists, who come to India mainly for cultural and spiritual consumption, end up indulging in adventure activities here, especially in Manali and Ladakh.”
Ajeet Bajaj, the first Indian to have scaled both the North and the South Pole, and who runs one of India’s oldest adventure tour companies, Snow Leopard Adventures, agrees: “There are no exact figures but estimates say that there are no less than two million adventure consumers in India every year — domestic as well as foreign.” Vikas Arora, administrator, Adventure Tour Operators Association of India, pegs that number to be increasing at a rate of 20-25 per cent annually, thanks to “corporate getaways and family tourism fuelling the demand.”
Women, he says, are big drivers of adventure tourism. “More than 25 per cent of adventure travellers are women in the 35-60 age group,” says Arora. Chandigarh-based Kanika Khanna and her four college friends, for example, celebrated their graduation by bungee-jumping in Rishikesh, offered by Jumpin Heights, which also organises an 83-metre-high swing and a 1-km-long zip line. “The first sight of that sky-high platform from where I was supposed to jump off , even though the coach had harnessed me well, gave me butterflies in the stomach. I almost chickened out but when I saw another girl my age jumping off the platform without any inhibition, I took heart and gave it a shot. The next day, we took the combo package and enjoyed all three activities in one day for Rs 4,000 per person,” she recalls.
India’s vast terrain makes it an ideal adventure spot. Says Das, “We have the mountains with snow-clad peaks, beaches and coasts, rocks and plains — each state has something to offer,” he says.
The topography apart, affordability lures domestic tourists. Arup Bhowmick, a 32-year-old investment banker from Delhi, went scuba diving in Goa last May, after his “very expensive” adventures abroad, including bungee jumping in Poland and scuba diving in Mala in 2008, and sky diving in California in 2010. “I wouldn’t say that the Goa experience was better than Malaysia — the marine life is equally divine at both places, but we saved a lot of time and money. My Goa trip cost just 25 per cent of my Malaysia one,” he say
The country, often criticised for inadequate accommodation and security, poor connectivity and cumbersome visa facilities, on Tuesday evening won two honours at the World Tourism Mart (WTM) in London.
Pitted against Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Kenya, Switzerland and many other hot spots in the US and Europe, India clinched the ‘Best Destination’ and ‘Best Marketing Campaign’ awards from World Travel Awards chairman Graham Cooke. India was rated highly on wellness, medical tourism and sustainable eco-tourism models in the rural areas.
Encouraged by the awards and the growing appreciation, tourism minister Subodh Kant Sahay immediately announced the launch of the country’s first global travel mart on the lines of the WTM on December 12.
Sahay said: “These awards will go a long way in realising our targets for the next five years. We hope to double the total foreign arrivals by 2016 to ensure that India contributes at least 1 per cent to the global tourist numbers. Currently, India just gets 0.59 per cent of the total global tourists.”
The minister said: “The government needs to construct four lakh hotel rooms to meet the demand. We need rooms for all budgets and airports for world-class connectivity.”
While giving away the awards, Cooke echoed Sahay. He said: “With investments in the next two years, India hopes to break into the top 10 for the first time, surpassing the likes of Australia, Switzerland and South Africa.”