COMPETITION from the Far East, conflict between India and Pakistan and a general lull before the millennium have all been blamed by operators for low booking levels to India in the first six months of 1999.
The most recent figures from the Government of India Tourist Office indicate a slight downturn this year. In January 1998 there were 50,519 UK visitors compared with 49,283 in January this year, and operators say business remained sluggish over the following months.
British Airways Holidays tours controller Tony Bounds said: "By now autumn departures should be strong but we are still finding them below usual numbers. None of our tours are fully booked."
Bounds said tours of Rajasthan, which borders Pakistan and is usually the most popular region for UK visitors, have been particularly affected, prompting the operator to promote its Legacy of the Raj tour in an effort to stimulate sales.
Bales Worldwide also reports a slow year to date for its group tours. Group tours manager Chris Grimes said:"The Far East had such a hit with the currency drop that people who might have gone to India went there instead."
Aware of the intense competition from the Far East, the tourist office is focusing its attention on consumer advertising.
UK director Alka Kohli said: "We have already published a supplement in a national consumer travel magazine and have more planned for others. We are also offering our support to operators to help shake up the market."
However, most operators seem confident that the slowdown will be short lived and are predicting strong sales for the end of this year and 2000. Bales' Grimes said: "We are expecting a 15% increase in 2000."
Cox and Kings said that though bookings in February, traditionally its strongest month, have not been as high as usual, the second half of 1999 appears more buoyant.
Product manager Charlie Ridout said: "The tourist office has been promoting Visit India Year (renamed Explore India) and that has helped. November sales are going to overtake February."
A new 21-day tour aimed at high-spending clients reflects Cox and Kings' confidence in the destination. The Grand Tour takes in all the major cities including Calcutta, Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Bombay, Madras, Cochin and Goa, with prices from £3,295.
"One thing that sets it apart from other tours is that there will be special dinners hosted by local people to give an insight into Indian hospitality," said Ridout.
Both Cox and Kings and Bales have put together tours to the little-known state of Orissa for the first time.
The former 12-night Splendours of the East visits Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa, moving on to the hill station of Darjeeling and then into Sikkim, which only became part of India in 1975 and is still relatively untouched by tourism. The lead-in price is £1,695.
Bales' 15-day itinerary is similar but includes a visit to the Temple of Konark in Puri and costs from £2,190. Departures are in January, October and November 2000.
Bales Worldwide has also incorporated a two-day camel safari into its Rajasthan tour, India of the Maharajas.
"People are becoming more adventurous. This tour involves two days trekking on a camel and two night under canvas, although if you get a bit saddle sore you can do the trip by jeep," said Grimes.
In contrast to the tours, bookings to beach resorts have remained strong. Manos product manager Carol Hulme said: "People still don't think of Goa as part of the mainland and so it doesn't seem to follow booking trends in the rest of India.
"Our bookings have been very strong, way up on last year."
Manos has added a new all-inclusive property in Goa to the third edition of its brochure, the three-star Heritage Village Club. The operator has also extended its coverage with the introduction of three beachfront properties on the Coromandel Coast, in the south-eastern state of Tamil Nadu.
"The area has superb beaches and several important temples," said Hulme.
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