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Riding The Wave

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India, a country as vast and varied in its geographic offerings, offers itself as a perfect adventure destination to test a traveller’s mental and physical endurance to its extreme limit. Water sport adventure activities, a niche aspect within the niche adventure tourism domain, is a profitable option for these tour operators as clients are willing to experience new thrills and would not mind paying top dollar for the operator’s expertise and the activity. Mandip Singh Soin, founder and managing director, Ibex Expeditions opines, “The adventure tourism segment has been being growing at 10-15 per cent year-on-year combining both inbound and domestic travellers. And with more states opening up to adventure activities the growth potential is huge in the future.”

With the country having a coastline of over 7,500 kilometers, covering three sides of the peninsula with picturesque beaches, it is important that this still under-utilised sector be promoted more aggressively. A decade ago, water adventure sports were considered as a luxury product, as the number of water sports operators were less and the sport used to be expensive. Notwithstanding even state government bodies did not give much attention to this segment, but now slowly states like Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Orissa, Andaman and Nicobar, Kerala, Lakshadweep, are seen to be taking advantage of their coastlines.

“The mushrooming came in the mid 2000s.”
Vaibhav Kala
Founder & Director, Aquaterra

It is important to clear the many misconstrued presumptions about the different kinds of water sport activities that people show keen interest to experience. Vaibhav Kala, founder and director, Aquaterra says that sailing, rafting, kayaking, sea kayaking, are the main activities that would qualify as water sports. Putting perspective to the same, Shakeel Kudrolli, founder and managing director, Aquasail India says, “Water sport as the name suggest is a sport activity in water having an adventure element. The initial water sport which presently exist are entry level jet ski, parasailing and banana boat rides, leisure fishing which strictly construed are not within the realm of water sport but thrill rides which have adventure element but in the realm of passive leisure as there is not acquired skills nor any element of competition, etc. Having said that, water sports in the active leisure space include kayaking, swimming, water polo, diving, surfing, sailing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, water skiing, wake boarding and river rafting in the rapids. These activities can be enjoyed without a competition element and can be in the active leisure space but require an acquired skill which is now starting to take roots in India.”

“Scuba diving and snorkeling too has seen a huge response across the country.”
Jagdish Patil
Mng. Director, MTDC

From a state tourism board perspective, Jagdish Patil, managing director, Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) highlights, “There has been a shift from the rather normal jet skiing or para-sailing to more adventurous watersports like diving off platforms both man-made and natural, white water rafting, kayaking, canoeing and windsurfing. Scuba diving and snorkeling too has seen a huge response across the country.” Agreeing to the same, Nikhil Desai, director tourism, Goa Tourism Development Corporation (GTDC) adds, “These activities are now gaining popularity in India. Until now people would choose to indulge in them abroad but slowly people are becoming more open to the idea of trying their hand at these sports in India as well. Safety and availability of qualified instructors and equipment are the prime concerns among enthusiasts.”

Tapping the niche

“Goa Tourism understands that safety is of prime importance and this is why we have in place strict measures.”
Nikhil Desai
Director Tourism, GTDC

With the segment growing rapidly, Major S K Yadav, managing director, Wanderlust Travels points out that apart from leisure, corporate clients are also opting for adventure activities as part of incentive travel which they use for team building exercises. “The segment saw a growth of 22 per cent in 2011 and has been growing since then. India receives nearly 1.5 million inbound tourists for adventure activities,” he mentions.

To cater to the demands of discerning travellers, the market has a number of operators who deliver products and services for the niche segment. Mumbai based Karina Tourism & Adventures launched Infiniti, India’s first scuba diving live-aboard in the waters of Andaman Islands. The project is a labour of love for Sunil Bakshi, co-founder and director, Karina Tourism & Adventures, who had been diving for 17 years all over the world and always wanted to showcase India as a premier diving destination. The Infiniti Live-aboard offers yacht-based holidays and provides adventure activities such as : scuba diving (main specialisation), surfing (seasonal), angling, snorkeling or general cruising and island excursions. “I have visited many such live-aboards in other parts of the world and wanted to build something like this for India. I believe that diving in India is at par if not better – in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep,” says Bakshi. He believes that in many ways Andaman is the last frontier for diving. “All the other diving areas have been explored by diving enthusiasts who are now looking for new destinations and we can offer them that in India. We offer diving at remote islands in the Andamans such as Barren Island or Narcondam Island – these are the spots with the best diving in the Andamans, in terms of underwater landscape, corals, marine life (Manta Rays), visibility etc,” he adds.

“I believe that diving in India is at par if not better.”
Sunil Bakshi
Co-Founder & Director,
Karina Tourism & Adventures

In Tarkali, MTDC started snorkeling in the year 2006, which receives around three to four lakh tourists annually. “The Tarkarli region has lot of caves, underwater coves, tunnels and walls which are indigenous only to this region. Andaman and Lakshadweep has one of the most beautiful coral reefs, which cannot be matched with the other parts of the country,” says Dr Sarang Kulkarni, a marine biologist and scuba diving expert. While Aquaterra Adventures organises water sport adventure activities in most number of rivers in the country today from Jammu and Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh. Along with river base camps on Ganga and Tons rivers, the company also organises treks and climbs in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, Sikkim, and have their first ‘activotel’ Atali Ganga in Rishikesh.

“Corporate have used sailing for networking regatta, team building, mice groups etc.”
Shakeel Kudrolli
Founder & Mng. Director, Aquasail India

Then there are sailing clubs in the country which focus on sailing for competition. While Mumbai-based Aquasail India, has had over 18,000 sailors who have sailed with them, Kudrolli states, “Corporates have used it for networking regatta, team building, mice groups etc and individual have used it for courses, fun experiences etc and based on our experience of providing these through our three sailing centres there is immense potential for holiday sailing.”

With the influx of the western culture, even globally recognised sports like surfing are slowly gaining popularity in the country. But the biggest challenge for surfing in the subcontinent is the geographical structure. For an ideal surfing destination, the beaches should have a sudden depression, which helps the waves to swell, which is quite not the case for India. Still a selected few locations are popular for this sport and enthusiasts are exploring various locations to promote this sport on a large scale.

If state tourism boards have been busy promoting this segment, the travel agents have also not been late in developing new products for discerning travellers. To capitalise on the youth segment, Thomas Cook (India) launched a youth-centric travel product range – ‘Rock-On Holidays’.

As per their customer analysis, an emerging trend that was highlighted was that almost 45 per cent of its individual holiday travellers are youth and the segment is poised to grow at a rate of 25-30 per cent. The product team of Rock-On Holidays has designed itineraries to destinations for young travellers starting from Rs 35,000.

Evolution stage

“India receives nearly 1.5 million inbound tourists for adventure activities.”
Major S K Yadav
Mng. Director, Wanderlust Travels

Giving a perspective on the evolution of the segment so far, Kala states, “In the early 90’s the industry was small and there were few operators. Even though equipments were unavailable clients were well aware of what they were signing up for. The mushrooming came in the mid 2000s, when safety equipment became accessible, the internet finally arrived, and the customer base grew. As the number of outfits grew, the customer base mushroomed and the industry size, supply and demand rose dramatically.”

On the other hand, Dr Kulkarni states that earlier adventure activities like scuba diving and snorkeling were popular only amongst the elite class, but now the trend is changing and everyone wants to try these activities. Everyone wants to learn something new and exploring the marine life is the emerging trend for Indians. “Tarkarli and Sindhudurg have water-sports activities, the state tourism department has taken the initiative to start snorkeling activity in Sindhudurg and launched its first scuba diving school in Tarkarli,” adds Kulkarni. Adding to the same, Patil says, “The coast around Sindhudurg and Ratnagri has warm clear waters, and interesting and varied diving and snorkeling sites and MTDC guarantees some of the best scuba and snorkeling activities. Whether you are a first time diver or a certified diver, Tarkarli in Sindhudurg and Ratnagri is the ideal location for this activity with the assistance of our experienced PADI instructors. We have planned guided snorkeling trips, pro snorkeling trips, and the Discover Scuba programme where anybody above the age of 10 can participate. Also we have planned training courses in diving which starts at the basic level and one can graduate to become a dive master.”

“With more states opening up to adventure activities, the future growth potential is huge.”
Mandip Singh Soin
Founder & Mng. Director
Ibex Expeditions

Goa has a huge market for water sports adventure activities. “One of the biggest advantages that Goa has is that it is blessed with a huge coastline and this, is the main attraction for tourists who come here. Apart from the coast, there are also several rivers and backwaters which provide the perfect backdrop for these activities. Over the years we have witnessed a rising number of people willing to try these water sports activities. This has led to the mushrooming of several operators and diving schools across the state. However, Goa Tourism understands that safety is of prime importance and this is why we have in place strict measures to ensure that tourists have a safe, and an unforgettable experience,” adds Desai. But as per Kudrolli, although there is a great latent demand for water sports like swimming,diving and river rafting in addition to thrill rides have quite a demand, but more sports based activity in the active leisure still have not met its full potential.

 

Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC) has been promoting white water rafting and water sports at the Maharana Ranjit Sagar Dam and the Pong Dam. Rajasthan is looking at promoting lakes in Bundi and Udaipur for water sports activities and promoting river cruises and water sports in Chambal. The rivers of Arunachal Pradesh well known for river rafting are Bhareli or Kameng and Siang or Brahmaputra. Another river called the Subansiri or Kayaking also has rafting facilities. However, the best option for rafting in the state is the Brahmaputra. In India, the first surfing festival was held in February 2012 wherein as many as 30 stand up paddle (SUP) boards were provided to the different boatmen’s associations in the Chilika lagoon by the Odisha government as flat water surfing. This festival was organised by the Surfing Yogis in association with Orissa Tourism Department. The three-day festival started with as many as 31 surfers from nine countries and 44 counterparts from six states of India.

Lakshadweep Islands is a high growth water sport destination. A M Hussain, assistant director, department of tourism development, Administration of UT of Lakshadweep informs, “We are promoting these islands as a unique water sports destination among the domestic and foreign tourists and expect a 20 per cent increase in tourists inflow this year. Nearly, 5500 domestic and foreign tourists visited the islands last year.” A scuba diving academy has been established in Lakshadweep with dive centres at Kavaratti, Kadamat and Minicoy offering PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certified scuba dive courses. A number of islanders have also been trained up to instructor level.

Many challenges

Top notch equipment, safety first, experienced guides are the benchmark of every trip along with detailed communication to all guests. “One of the major challenges is of having locally trained instructors and experts. But MTDC has taken up this challenge and is starting an institute named Indian Institute of Scuba Diving and Aqua Sports at Tarkarli,” mentions Patil.

Lack of a regulatory body for watersports, need for more skilled professionals, availability of good quality equipment and updation of safety norms to be at par with the rest of the world, seem to be the major drawbacks.

Adding to the same, Kala strongly points out that low entry barriers ensured that all kinds of companies came into the fray. “Most did what they could do comfortably without putting themselves and clients into a safe comfort zone. As supply grew, the activity became more accessible, prices dropped, the internet brought each company within an arm’s reach of the customer. Cheap flights and online bookings arrived as well, and it also put an edge of ignorance towards safety and the demands of responsible adventure travel. This led to companies wanting to change the level playing field, mass trekking programmes arrived all over the Himalayas.” Patil also strongly feels, “With the trend of homestays picking up in the coastal region the potential of tourists visiting these spots, and indulging in adventurous activities has gone up. We have identified 26 beaches where we have planned to raise infrastructure like showers, toilets, changing rooms, and cafes to promote tourism and water sports activities,” he adds. “Of course, this is also subject to us keeping ourselves updated with the latest technology, safety standard and skill sets in this field,” Desai sums up.

(With inputs from Joy Roy Choudhury & Akshay Kumar)

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