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ASTA FAM Trip- 20- 26 April, 2006 India

List of participating delegates of ASTA FAM Trip to India

They came, they saw, they loved

Anindita Chattopadhyay

When Director, Area 12 of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) Betty C. Clement spoke at the farewell dinner hosted by Taj Mansingh in honour of the ASTA representatives visiting India , she referred to the 29 ASTA delegates as 29 goodwill ambassadors of India going back to US. Whether India will be able to strike the nuke deal with US is still hazy as much depends on Bush administration's ability to convince the Congress, but it is amply clear that the travel agent community of the United States will push India as a destination back home.

The delegation of ASTA members that included two board members and 12 local chapter presidents visited India recently on an invitation extended by the ASTA India chapter (ASTA allows travel agents from other countries to become their international members). They attended the SATTE travel expo and then went on a fam trip to Agra and Jaipur.   During my interaction with them at the dinner party, I realised that they were not just visibly a happy lot, their perception about India per se has changed. Let's admit it, India was never a favourite destination with Americans. India is more popular with the western European countries as Europeans feel drawn to its architecture, rich culture and history.

However, of late, numbers from North America have started growing with India 's emergence as a software major and a growing economic power. Availability of direct flights has also fuelled some interest. But still India does not figure in the itinerary of average Americans.   As I chatted with the delegates, I tried to find answers to some basic questions: What is the general perception about India ? How different was their experience from their perception? How will ASTA members try to promote India ? Where do they see the growth potential? Through this column, I would like to share with you what some of them shared with me.  

Betty C Clement, director, Area 12 - I must say people in America have apprehensions about traveling to India . The general perception about India is not really very positive. People think they would have horrible experience, fall sick, get cheated, there are beggars all around. Less than 10,000 people travel to India from Texas , the area I belong to. But my perception about the country has changed completely. I didn't see beggars all around. I was not cheated. The hotels are fabulous. People are so warm; they are always smiling. Yes, there is poverty, but people look contented and at peace with themselves. I don't know whether it is because of spirituality or meditation. I will pitch India in the line of Mexico , a destination Texans already know. I will tell my clients that there is filth and dirt just the way you find in Mexico , but there is rich history, culture, architecture and colour all around. I don't see incentive travel growing very soon, but there is scope to attract special interest groups like doctors, preservationists and ecologists. Leisure travel will definitely grow in the next two-three years.  

Susan Dushane, Travel Consultant from Los Angeles- You want an honest answer? The perception about India is negative. Even I was a bit reluctant to come here. We Americans want two things cleanliness and safety. That is why, most Americans travel to western Europe and Hawaii . But I found all apprehensions are baseless. India is very safe. Though roads are filthy, but hotels are good. You get to buy safe drinking water everywhere. Buffet in every hotel offers some continental dishes, so spicy food is not a problem. I will sell India as an experiential holiday concept. There are beautiful spa resorts and hotels for a relaxing holiday. I will tell my clients to expect dirty roads when they step out of their five-star hotel environment, but to overlook this poverty and dirt to experience a country with warm people, rich history, marvelous art and craft, monuments, beautiful designer wears, gems and jewellery. Right now, I see only high end leisure travel growing. It will be a few years before the lower end of the leisure segment starts traveling to India because – one, it is too far and secondly, a week's time is not enough. You need to be here at least for 15 days to get a small glimpse of this huge country. Conferences may grow, but incentives not immediately.  

Elynn Eiss, Elite Travel, Florida - You know what, we Americans did not have a clear idea of what India is. I was told it is not safe for tourists. People in the street pull your hands, yank your dress, and pester you to buy their wares. But I didn't experience it. Yes, hawkers gathered around me, pleaded me to buy – and that is normal. But they didn't force me. People pee on the road – yes, but what's the big deal. What is paramount for a traveler is safety. And wherever I went I found the place safe. I never felt intimidated. The people on the roads were so warm and smiling. I was impressed not only by history, but also by the art, craft and designer wear. It has so much to offer – wildlife, mountains, beaches, wellness, spirituality. With direct flights available now, I see leisure travel growing. But incentives I believe would take some time to happen.  

These sound bytes reveal how right was former tourism minister Renuka Chowdhury in launching the Atithi Devo Bhava campaign. If this campaign can become successful in changing the milk-the-tourist attitude of Indians, then India would soon be a tourism hub. Dirty roads, cattle on the streets, mosquitoes are no more dampeners. Foreigners have started accepting India with it extremes.  

However, the recent incidents of tourist rape and murder only points to the fact that more should be done to provide safety to tourists – both foreign and domestic. These 29 ASTA members got the best of treatments - hence, their experience was different. But can we vouch for a similar experience for FITs traveling without escorts? The government is doing its bit, but are stakeholders doing their share? Isn't it high time that stakeholders in each small town and city came together to educate locals, guides, taxi drivers, tongawallahs the importance of treating tourists well? Or, initiate regular cleanliness drives? After all, if tourism is hit, they will be the first casualties. What puzzles me is that the travel fraternity always cribs about the authorities' lack of concern for tourism, but never takes the first step forward. These ASTA members made it clear that as long as tourists feel safe and not fleeced and harassed, volume will grow. Be it from America , or any other part of the globe. So, get your acts together to give tourists in general a good experience. 

Interview with ASTA India Chapter President- Capt. Swadesh Kumar

ASTA India chapter recently organized a fam trip for 29 ASTA delegates. Anindita Chattopadhyay talks to chairman of the India chapter Captain Swadesh Kumar to find out more about ASTA plans

Q. After you have taken over as the chairman what have been ASTA's initiatives?

Capt Kumar: After I took over, ASTA India chapter took three initiatives. First we invited ASTA office bearers from the United States to conduct a seminar on how to bring business from US to India and how to use ASTA website as a resource. Then in September 2005 a group of 25 members from the India chapter participated in the Montreal Convention to promote India . Our third initiative has been organizing a fam trip for ASTA delegates. And this was the first such fam trip organized by the India chapter.

Q. You said this was the first fam trip ever organized by ASTA India …

Capt Kumar: Right.

Q. What prompted you to organise the fam trip?

Capt Kumar: We thought that if some ASTA members would experience India first hand, they would be able to further motivate other members to promote India as a destination to their clients. So, we decided to invite the presidents of all the 30 ASTA local chapters in USA and a few other members who are interested in promoting India . Out of 29 delegates, 12 were local chapter presidents and 2 were ASTA board members.

Q. Who were your partners in hosting the guests?

Capt Kumar: We decided to coincide the trip with SATTE so that they get to meet the 250 exhibitors and get an idea of what India has to offer. SATTE promptly agreed to partner us. Further, the Ministry of Tourism, Air India and hotels like Le Meridien, Jaipur, Maurya Sheraton, Taj, Shangri La, Jaypee Palace , Agra and Pramod Palace supported us in our effort.

Q. What are ASTA's future plans?

Capt Kumar: We have already decided to organise another fam trip next year. In September, ASTA India chapter will participate in the Travel Expo in Orlando and will follow it up with a road show. The venue of the roadshow will be decided as per ASTA's convenience.

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