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EXPLORING INDIA : From Kaziranga to the Himalayas to the desert of Jaisalmer to the backwaters of Allepey to the sun baked coral beaches of Lakshadweep....A first hand account of exploring this beautiful country.



Thursday, October 09, 2014

Timeshare Holidays : Sterling vs Club Mahindra

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I was always opposed to the idea of timeshare as this does not suit my style of travelling. I am a traveller rather than a tourist. However, a couple of years back, an intelligent Club Mahindra salesman managed to convince me to buy a timeshare. Returning home that night, I did a detailed research on Club Mahindra. I made lot of startling discovery and promptly invoked the free look in clause. Thanks to few fellow netizen’s posts, I managed to get my initial deposit back without any hassles. This bolstered my aversion for timeshare. It may surprise many that despite having researched so much about timeshare in India, writing a blog post here few years back on this topic which attracted a lively discussions and comments including those of Club Mahindra team, I finally took the timeshare bait this year again with Sterling Holidays. The concept still has flaws. But after spending this year’s quota at Corbett and Mussorie, I felt that my decision to invest with Sterling has not been bad.

So what made me took the bait this time. One of my senior colleagues had a Sterling membership which he wanted to sell. Another wanted to buy it. But the seller backed out at last moment, apparently at the advice of his children. This was a 99 year old membership that is valid upto 2094. The prospective buyer saw the potential benefits of buying a resale unit. So he started exploring the market and found some offer on olx and quickr. He finally managed a resale unit from someone in South. He got a bang deal for 1 BR Premium season for 1 lakh. Another colleague then jumped into it and got a fair deal for his budget – 1 Studio Offseason for 65K. Then another one. I had followed the discussions over lunch. Gradually I started developing interested as well. With my experience of Club Mahindra, I had gone through all pros and cons. I found it to be a win-win situation for both the seller and buyer.

The sellers are generally in the age group of 60-80 and have probably visited all of Sterling’s resorts several times over since 1994 or so. They have also seen the period when Sterling was in red and virtually closed down for couple years. A premium season studio with 99 years membership was sold around 59k in the 90’s when Sterling was launched. Therefore many of these old members see this revival of Sterling as an opportunity to get their investment back which at some point were assumed to have sunken. Any appreciation of investment will be a bonus.  If they can manage to sell it for anything above cost price, then they will recover their investment, well after enjoying their membership to the maximum.

The potential buyers also stand to gain from this deal. These are 99 years validity units as against a new unit with only 25 years validity. I am not sure of the latest prices, but a new Sterling studio unit for premium season will not cost less than 5 lakhs. Similarly an off-season or blue season unit cost you not less than 1.7 lakhs. That too for 25 years. All my colleagues, including me, had managed to find peak season studio unit on resale for around 1 lakh and off season studio for around 75K. This is definitely a win-win situation for both. Transfer of membership was smooth. Only issue was that we all that shell out the amount in one go.

One will be interested to know as to how Sterling compares with Club Mahindra? Well, Club Mahindra is the major player in this field, have a good brand equity and hence costlier in all respect. CM also has the largest number of resorts, 40 as in 2014, and most of them are reputed to be quality facilities. The total room inventory is about 2500. A purple season studio of CM will cost around 7 lakh and red season studio will cost around 5L. Sterling Holidays, based in Chennai, was more south oriented with most of its better facilities spread across South. It has 21 resorts with a room inventory of about 1500. It owns only two resorts in North at Mussorie and Manali. All other resorts in North are on lease. However, Thomas Cook had taken over Sterling it early this year. This piece of news brought smiles to all members. As expected, the involvement of Thomas Cook has already started showing. As per Sterling’s update, almost all resorts had undergone massive renovation this year. Two new locations have been added recently (Oct, 2014) at Sariska and Nainital. This has expanded the options at North with 6 locations – Mussorie, Corbett, Manali, Dharamsala, Sariska and Nainital. It is also claimed in their website that Sterling will be adding 15 more resorts in coming years. The annual maintenance fee of Sterling is also low. For a studio unit it is around 2600 rupees as against Club Mahindra’s 10K plus. There also is a third player in this field named Magic Holidays. For some unknown reason it has stayed low profile and hence not much is known about it.
I had stayed at Sterling’s Corbett facility in June this year. It is a leased facility. Rooms were upscale, but open space were at a premium. Renovation was going on at the site. The resort was closed down since then for maintenance. Nested on a hill facing the Ramganga river, located 12km further from the Dhanagiri gate on NH172 to Ranikhet, this will be a lovely place once renovations is completed. I was just back from Mussorie enjoying 3N/4D at Pine Hill Resort of Sterling during the long weekend of Dusserah. It is a sprawling campus with more than 70 rooms. This is a Sterling owned facility. Half the resort is under renovation. Already renovated rooms were upscale. We had enjoyed a relaxing holiday away from hustle bustle of crowd. One afternoon, we walked down to the Mall road only to be felt cramped for space. It was too crowded for comfort. We slowly walked back to the comfort of our resort. Timeshare is meant for relaxing holidays as against sightseeing holidays. I have grown enough grey hairs to deserve one week of relaxing break every year. On our return, we both felt that the investment in Sterling was worth. With validity till 2094, may be even after great grandchildren can use them.


Before closing, I must warn you of problems of timeshare in India. These companies are selling membership all though the year. Both Sterling and CM has a member base of over 1.5 lakh and is touted to be growing @15-20%. But their room inventory has not expanded that fast. This means that while members are increasing, room inventories are not. None of them clearly informs the ratio of total no of members to total no of rooms. One might get shocked at this reality. This means you need to book well in advance. I can afford to plan such breaks 3 months in advance, but can you. Further if you have a non-peak season unit, then your options to get rooms during peak holiday season is bleak. Keeping this in mind, you should look to buy premium / peak season units only. Finally it depends on your style of travelling. If you are a sightseeing holidayer, then you will not enjoy timeshare as most of these resorts are off the centre of action. So, are you ready for timeshare!

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Spiralling prices of travel in India

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Indians are definitely travelling a lot more these days. The unprecedented mad rush  witnessed during last long weekend (15-18 Aug 2014) of people trying to get way from Delhi was a good example. Many had to eventually come back for lack of hotel accommodation.  I had to skip breakfast because all eateries were overcrowded and was unable to cater to the sudden rush. You cannot afford anymore to travel without prior confirmed hotel booking, especially on such long weekends. People are travelling to even remote unheard of destinations. Hoteliers are reaping huge profits of this sudden charge of tourist ready to travel any season. The ever burgeoning travel cost had sent alarm bells ringing.

Source: TOI
First piece of news came in the last week of August, 2014 from none other than the Union Minister for Tourism. PTI reported quoting him that the Union Tourism Ministry has appealed to the Finance Ministry to lower taxation on tourism products and related services, which will result in increasing footfalls in the country. "We have requested the Finance Ministry that the taxation on the tourism products and related services should be lowered so that we can attract more visitors to the country," Union Tourism Minister Shripad Naik told PTI. He said that the services like tourist taxis, hotel tariff should have lower taxes, which will make destinations cheaper compared to international rivals. "The tax rebate can be offered to hotels so that they will have low tariffs. We have also asked the ministry to consider cutting down the visa fees. We have 100 US dollars as Visa fee while Sri Lanka charges only 25 US dollars. We need to bring visa fee at par with other world destinations," Naik said. He said that the Finance Ministry has in-principle agreed to look into the demand and lower the Visa charges. 

Things like lowering Visa charges can directly impact tourism as more tourists will be inclined to come. On my trips to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, I had paid Visa fee of 1250, 850 and 2000 rupees. Thus at $100 or roughly 6100 rupees, India is definitely pricey.  This percolates down to entire tourism industry, specially the hotels. I beg to disagree with the honorable Minister that inflated prices of hotel charges are because of high taxes.  It is because of greed of hotel owners. I had written an article earlier – ‘Is travelling in India cheaper’ where I explained why travelling to Phuket or Langkawi is cheaper than to Andamans. Hotel prices in India are much higher than its competitors Thailand and Malaysia. Even the dirty, filthy hotels in India tend to charge around 1500 these days. If you are looking for decent accommodation, then you need to be ready to shell out 2500-3000 per night. Most of my travel is for wildlife photography. Crores of black money had been invested in building luxury resorts across most wildlife parks in India. The tariffs of some of these resorts during season will make you giddy. The published AP rates for many of these resorts are around 8000-10000 rupees per night for two. Fortunately no frills alternatives are available for people like us. I do not go to wildlife parks for a swimming pool, spa and gym. However, I do go to these places during off-season when parks are closed for monsoon, to enjoy these facilities at half the price.

  
As travelling to Thailand or Malaysia is cheap, many Indians prefer to spend their holidays in those countries. One of my guides in Bangkok politely queried if income of Indians had gone up significantly because she had observed that number of Indian tourists had gone up significantly in recent times.  Disposable income had certainly increased with economic growth, but mindset had also changed. If your holiday budget is 40K per head, then one would prefer to spend it on a foreign trip. Because of relatively lower hotel rates, tourists tend to stay for longer duration awhile travelling abroad. This is probably one of the reasons for Indians figuring among highest spenders on hotel overseas.

These stats should open the eyes of Indian hotel industry. Rather than looking to profiteer and mislead people in the name of high taxes, they should look to improve occupancy by better services. Indians travel all season. So rather than making quick bucks in so called high season, one should look to make entire year a season with improved occupancy.

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Thursday, September 04, 2014

Unusual India

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Sharing these piece of information about interesting destinations in India from the net


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Friday, August 29, 2014

Govt of India launches Comprehensive Sustainable Tourism Criteria for India

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26 August, 2014 : The Union Minister for Tourism Shri Shripad Naik here today launched the Comprehensive Sustainable Tourism Criteria for India (STCI) for Accommodation, Tour Operators and Beaches, Backwaters, Lakes & Rivers Sectors. Speaking on the occasion the Minister said, his Ministry is committed to develop tourism in India based on the principles of sustainability, minimizing the carbon footprints. Government has ensured that strategies for development of tourism are not in conflict with the environment and have minimal negative impact. Shri Naik urged all the stakeholders in the Tourism industry not to over-exploit natural and other resources for short-term gains. 

He said, when we talk about sustainability we should not only talk about conservation of resources but also our culture and heritage. The authors of the STCI have adopted a comprehensive approach. The principles of the Sustainability as has been elaborated earlier include conservation of water, energy, culture, heritage, revival of ancient architecture, involvement of communities, protection of wildlife and non- exploitation of women, children and weaker sections. 


Shri Naik said, the exercise of implementation of Sustainable Tourism Criteria must be all inclusive. The criteria must be implemented for success by all of us together - the hoteliers, the tour operators, the tourists, the opinion makers, the media, the community leaders and members. The Ministry would like sustainability criteria to be implemented on voluntary basis based on the principles of providing incentives. 


Referring to the priority of the Union Government, the Minister said, tourism development is one of the five major priorities of our Government led by Shri Narendra Modi. He said, the Prime Minister sharing his vision had stressed upon the need for development of tourism, neighborhood cleanliness and conservation of resources for the economic development of the nation. The Finance Minister as part of the common vision of our Government in his Budget Speech has made special allocation of Rs. 900 crore for development of five new tourism circuits, development of pilgrimage centers, archeological sites and heritage cities. He said, the issue of sustainability assumes greater significance in context of India as we support one fifth of the population of the world with only 2.3 percent land mass available. 


Shri Naik urged all the stakeholders in the Tourism Industry to be eco-sensitive and adopt the Sustainable Tourism Criteria for India and do business for long-term benefits with the objectives of creating employment, generating national income, preserving our cultural & natural heritage, enhancing the status of women and underprivileged and facilitating growth of a more just and fair social order. 


Later, Shri Naik also inaugurated the Sensitization Workshop for the stakeholders on STCI wherein panel discussions were held. Both the initiatives are part of activities/programmes that have been taken up by the Ministry of Tourism for completion within the 100 days of the incumbent Government. Deputy Director for Sustainable Development of Tourism, UNWTO Ms. Sofia Gutierrez, President of the Development Alternative, Mr. George C. Varughese, leaders of Tourism Industry and experts in the field participated in the two events. 


Ministry of Tourism constituted a Steering Committee with representatives from all the 14 sectors of the tourism and hospitality industry of India to formulate the Sustainable Tourism Criteria. The Committee has since finalized the Comprehensive STCI. These are the guiding principles and minimum requirements that any tourism business for State Governments should aspire to reach in order to protect and sustain India’s natural and cultural resources, while ensuring development of tourism in India are not in conflict with the environment and have minimal negative effect. Sustainability is imperative for all tourism stakeholders and must translate from words to actions. 

(Source : Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Ministry of Tourism )

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Flow of Foreign Tourists to North East States on Upward Trend: Tourism Ministry

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Good news for tourism industry in North East. The tremndous potential had not been harnessed because of political and social unrests in last decade. The flow of foreign tourists to the northeastern states has been on an upward trend since 2011 and the growth rate in 2013 was more than double compared to 2012, according to Tourism Ministry data.

A jump of 12.5 per cent was registered in foreign tourist visits (FTVs) to the northeast in 2012 as against 2011, which further rose by more than 100 per cent to register a growth of 27.9 per cent during 2013 in comparison to 2012, the data states. There were a total of 58,920 FTVs to the northeastern states in 2011 with the figure going up to 66,302 in 2012. That number further increased to 84,820 in 2013.

In Assam, there were 16,400 FTVs in 2011 and the number rose to 17,543 in 2012. The following year, 2013, saw the figure rise to 17,638. According to the data, Sikkim drew 31,698 FTVs in 2013 as against 26,489 in 2012. There were 23,602 FTVs in Sikkim in 2011.
(Source : PTI)

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