By Nishiraj A. Baruah
Anyone for Coimbatore, Kodaikanal, Kanyakumari, Ooty? Oh, I see a lot of hands going up. How about Masinagudi? Kumbakonan? Tirupur or Karaikal? Uh, can you repeat that, please?
If there is one takeaway from the first ever travel mart in Tamilnadu, it is that the touristic vocabulary of the state has expanded beyond the tried, tired and tested names to include places that we, especially in the north of India, hardly know about. And while so far, a southern vacation largely meant Kerala among the upwardly mobile, now the vagabond hearts have a choice: Why not Tamil Nadu?
It took them long – the travel and tourism community – private and government, to get their acts togather under a common umbrella. “The concept of collective promotion of the state wasn’t there,” said S. Sundar, Secretary of Tamilnadu Travel Mart Society. “Everyone was promoting their own properties, their own brands.”
This, despite having a very successful model in the neighboring state’s Kerala Travel Mart. But then Tamilnadu is no. 1, you know, in India in terms of tourist footfalls, thanks to its thriving temple tourism. So why bother with extra promos! Complancency kept this tiger sleeping.
Which alone would not have been a problem, only that the other pretty parts of the state that had no religious connect were blissfully ignored.
Enter impartial bodies like CII and India Tourism that roped in the tour operators, the transporters, the hoteliers, the airlines to form the Tamilnadu Travel Mart Society with just about 18 members. There were apprehensions, of course: Will it be backed by the state’s tourism ministry? Is it possible to organise a travel mart in just three months? Will they get enough funds? Will the foreign buyers (read travel agents) come? The society members fanned out across the state trying to convince everyone to join in. More the merrier. And they did a hell of a job!
It was in Madurai that the action plan was inked. “Madurai is an auspicious town to start a new initiative. It’s a temple town. There is good energy there,” said Shreevats Sanjay, Regional Director, South, India Tourism.
But it was in another toursit hotspot, also starting with the letter M, where the inauguration happened. The event at Confluence Banquets and Resort in Mahabalipuram was high profile: The state was represented by tourism minister Vellamandi N.Natarajan while Reshmi Varma, Secretary, Ministry of Tourism, represented the central government. Besides, the heavyweights of CII added, well, weight. The cultural show itself was mind blowing, what with a high-tech multi-dimensional, multi-media extravaganza that showcased the various regions with live dancers creating a connect of the virtual with the real. Outside, in the sprawling lawns, hundreds feasted on a spread that had Tamil dishes in all its diversity. We loved the roasted fish! We also enjoyed oranges that actually turned out to be ice cream within natural orange peels. This, even as delegates were GIVEN A ROYAL welcome across a red carpet to folk beats.
Next day, it’s time for business at Chennai Trade Centre. With 300 stalls and buyers from several countries, the venue was buzzing with excitement. “Never knew this side of Tamilnadu,” gushed Parin Bhuta, owner of Mumbai based travel agency Select who had gone for a pre-event fam tour to Masinagudi. “We went to a forest which was entirely created by a couple. In the middle of it, they built a resort. It was fantastical!” he said.
“Oh my god, this is a state where my clients in South Africa would love to come to,” said a J’berg based agent. “Tamilnadu knows how to keep its culture alive. I specially liked the fact that one has to take the shoes off and cover up appropiately before entering temples,” she said.
Besides, the options for holidaymakers are endless. One tour follows the planets as per the Indian astrological chart; another tour takes you not to experience the sights and sounds of Chennai, but tells you stories behind those sights and sounds. There are coasts to be toured and seas to be surfed. There are unique boutique properties, Yoga centres and eco lodges. And a cruise from Rameshwaram to Colombo is about to set sail.
It’s all about packaging and the TTM did it right, dividing the state into four regions as per the dynasties that ruled these places: The Chola, The Pandya, The Chera and The Pallava. Each reason represents a different form of tourism: Buddhist circuits, palace tourism, water sports, luxury tours, hill stations, etc, etc.
With so much to offer, is Tamilnadu going to give Kerala a run for its money? As Gupta (of Peekay Holidays) says, “Kerala has just wellness and backwaters. Tamilnadu, on the other hand, has these and so much more. It is an all emcompassing state. Name it and you have it here – beaches, mountains, sports, luxury resorts.” Oh yes, it’s the only state in India that has five hill stations, “and the kind of railway connectivity Tamilnadu enjoys, Kerala doesn’t”.
That didn’t stop the organisers of TTM to follow the Kerala Tourism Mart model. However, it would be unfair to compare it with KTM. “We are a crawling baby while KTM is a teenager,” as someone from TTM Society said. “It’s not about competing with Kerala but complimenting each other,” said Sanjay from India Tourism.
Considering there were some resistence from the industry to the idea of a travel mart, it was a pleasant surprise that at the end everybody pitched in. “The hotels were generaous about offering accommodation to the delegates, the transport companies helped in ferrying in and out participants, airlines helped in ticketing,” said Gupta. Even students of IHM, Chennai, came forward to volunteer. “It is a great exposure for us. We are meeting so many people,” said Rohit, an IHM student responsible for escorting delegates to the venue.
While stalls sold for Rs 70,000 onwards, the organisers have also sold ‘tables’ that enabled the smaller players to showcase their offerings to a global audience. Yes, the hotels from Madurais and Mahabalipurams and Madras were all there, but for the first time, properties from lesser known places also got their moment in the sun.
Like with any new venture, there had been a few glitches. Exhibitors complained about the bad timing of the event – it shouldn’t have been in November, a busy season for the industry. June or July would have been appropriate. Others expected more international buyers. And a few travel agents compalined about the lack of lunch arrangements. For those of us in media, there was no media centre nor anyone to guide and inform.
No wonder, despite a high profile inagural, there was not a word written about TTM in local media. Even The Hindu ignored it. “We had no time to rope in agencies for publicity. We couldn’t even create a descent website,” said Gupta from TTM Society. The point was to make the Mart happen.
With two years to prepare – the next TTM is in 2019 – all teething troubles will hopefully be history, even as the organisers go into a huddle to figure out the losses and how to cover it up. A series of road shows across the country will further put Tamilnadu’s less explored region in the tourist map.
The sleeping tiger has just woken up, and growling, making it impossible for tourists from India and abroad to ignore this southern comfort.