Trains are one of the oldest modes of mechanical transport and key factor for the success of the industrial revolution. It has been since those early days that the element of comfort in this particular mode of transport was looked for. It was the royalty at that point who had the privilege and the resources to have fully equipped luxurious coaches to their disposal. Slowly it became accessible to those with spending ability. The Orient Express has a network of luxury trains, cruises even hotels. But perhaps its most well known venture is the trans European train The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE). It was on October 4, 1883, VSOE started from the Gare de Strasbourg in Paris bound for Romania. With around 40 passengers it was the Orient Express conceptualised by Georges Nagelmackers of Belgium. In 1906, the Simplon Tunnel connecting Italy to Switzerland became operational and later that year the Simplon-Orient started. It is the Simplon-Orient of the period 1907 to 1914 which was partly emulated by the 1982 venture, but it is fair to point out that the Edwardian train was neither so grand nor luxurious as the one which has been refurbished as the VSOE. The train’s popularity is propelled by the film ‘Murder on the Orient-Express’, the truth is that author Agatha Christie never wrote a book with that title – she called it ‘Murder in the Calais Coach’.
In 1982 the restored version of the VSOE departed from Victoria Station bound for Venice. Today the train offers guests authentic vintage carriages, evoking the era of European rail travel in the 1920s and 30s. Travelling in private cabins, passengers are attended by cabin stewards. Each cabin is decorated in mahogany panels inlaid with individual marquetry patterns. Passengers can choose from two types of compartment: Double and Single. The VSOE has three restaurant cars. All meals are freshly prepared onboard by French chefs; lunch consists of three courses and dinner consists of four courses. Breakfast and afternoon tea are served in the cabins.
The Canadian Rocky Mountaineer is a younger train but offers great experiences as it passes through the untouched Canadian hinterlands. On offer are over 45 Canadian vacation packages and four rail routes through British Columbia (BC) and Alberta. The product has been in existence for 20 years now but has been majorly promoted in the US, UK and Australia. Considering the growth opportunity from India among the BRIC nations, Canadian Rocky Mountaineer is now being promoted here. The packages launched in India include Rail and Cruise Vacations, Rail and Winery Tours and City Stops in four routes.
Trains are perhaps where India has en edge over the rest of the world. Indian Railways with different state tourism boards has taken on the mantle of running luxury trains across India and that too successfully. Taking the lead was the Palace on Wheels – the coaches of the train belonged to the rulers of princely states of Rajputana, Gujarat, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Viceroy of British India. After independence, these coaches were parked and remained so till in 1981-82 the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC) and Indian Railways launched Palace on Wheels. State government and the Railways brought infrastructural changes in the coaches while maintaining the aesthetics of the interiors alive. These coaches were later replaced by the air-conditioned broad gauge new train. Using this as a prototype Maharashtra and Karnataka also have their versions, Deccan Odyssey and The Golden Chariot, respectively. The popularity and advance booking on the Palace on Wheels was such that RTDC and Indian Railways had to introduce Royal Rajasthan on Wheels.
Recently a group of 24 Indian tourists boarded Palace on Wheels from Safdarganj Railway Station, Delhi. This particular tourist group belongs to the Sadabhar Association of Hyderabad, consisting of leading business families. Vinod Ajmera, managing director, RTDC has played a crucial role in motivating this group of Indian tourists , as this will go a long way in promoting the business of Palace on Wheels in the domestic market. In the 30 years history of this luxury train starting from 1982, for the very first time a group of Indian tourists was on board. There has been a myth prevailing among domestic Indian tourists that the Palace on Wheels accepts its tariff in USD and it is not possible for Indian tourists to travel on this train.
Madhya Pradesh had approached the Indian Railways to work out a feasibility study to run a luxury train. The state’s coordination sub-committee, together with the Hotel & Restaurant Association (Western India), had put forth the concept of having a luxury train called the Malwa Odyssey. There have also been some failures like The Royal Orient, a joint venture between the Tourism Corporation of Gujarat and the Indian Railways, which ceased operations in 2004. According to sources from Gujarat Tourism, the train had an attractive itinerary covering the most interesting tourism spots of Gujarat. However, it had to be discontinued as it was metre gauge line and there was demand to change the route to a broad gauge one.
Most Indian luxury trains are listed in the most popular luxury trains lists. These trains now also offer business requirements like board rooms and conferencing systems. The aim now for these trains should be to reach out to different target audiences and not just the baby boomers. There were talks with Rail Europe and IRCTC to bring these trains under Rail Europe’s network to reach out to wider audiences. there is a huge demand for Indian luxury trains in the global travel and tourism market. The demand comes from countries like Japan, Australia, Korea and South American nations.
Chugging away to luxury
The Palace on Wheels, rated as one of the top ten luxury train journeys in the world, offers a seven days trip across the forts and palaces of Rajasthan. Also added is the Taj Mahal in Agra. The train has 14 saloons, two restaurant cum kitchen cars, one Bar cum Lounge and four service cars. The train also has a well-appointed lounge, library and bar. The saloons have four cabins each attached with bath and shower. The newly introduced spa saloon, offers ayurvedic massage, other services include laundry services and doctor on request.
The government of Maharashtra and MTDC in a joint venture with the Indian Railways started the luxury train Deccan Odyssey. The train has 21 coaches out of which 12 are passenger cars accommodating eight people per coach (10 passenger cars, four couples per coach and two presidential suite cars, two couples per coach) one conference car, two dining cars, two generator cars with luggage storage, two staff spare car, one spa car, one bar car. The present capacity of the train is 80 pax. The journey covers some of the best places in Maharashtra namely, Mumbai, Sindhudurg, Tarkarli, Goa, Vasco, Kolhapur, Aurangabad and Nashik.
The stone chariots of Hampi is the inspiration behind The Golden Chariot. A joint venture between Karnataka State Tourism and Development Corporation (KSTDC) and the Indian Railways, The Golden Chariot has two itineraries – Pride of the South and Splendour of the South. Pride of the South covers destinations like Bengaluru, Kabini, Bandipur, Mysore, Hassan, Hampi and Badami in Karnataka, while Splendour of the South covers temple towns of Tamil Nadu and backwaters of Kerala along with destinations in Karnataka. The coaches have been named after erstwhile princely states of the south. There are a total of 26 twin bed cabins, 17 double bed cabins and one cabin for the physically challenged. On board are also two restaurants, lounge bar, business centre, gymnasium and a spa.
RTDC had been receiving overwhelming responses for Palace on Wheels. Owing to the demand RTDC introduced the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels. The train is newly built and designed in a contemporary royal style. The train, in a seven day trip, starts from Delhi and explores Jodhpur, Udaipur, Chittor, Sawai-Madhopur and Jaipur. From Rajasthan the train moves on to Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh, then Varanasi, and ends at Agra. The coaches are divided in two categories – Super Deluxe Saloon (Emerald and Diamond) and Deluxe Saloon (Ruby, Sapphire and Pearl). There are two resto-bars, Sheesh Mahal and Swarn Mahal as well as a lifestyle spa.
The Maharaja’s Express offers five luxury train tours. These tours explore Balasinor, Khajuraho, Jaipur, Bikaner, Taj Mahal, Udaipur, Varanasi and much more. There are 14 guest carriages including one presidential suite. The luxury train features two fine dining restaurants that each seat 42 persons and everyone on board dine together. There are two bars – Safari bar and lounge-cum-bar Rajah Club. This Indian luxury train is owned and operated by IRCTC.
Sailing as far as the horizon
If it hadn’t been for Vasco Da Gama and his voyage, India would have remained undiscovered for a few more centuries. Gama and his crew’s sea-faring abilities were the reason why he landed in India. Cruises as a business has picked up tremendously globally, and luxury cruises have further made a niche for themselves. Companies like Cunard, Silversea, Crystal and Oceania offer services that might make five-star hotels green. Melvyn Yap, regional director for Asia, Silversea Cruises says, “To date, Silversea has one of the highest space-to-guest ratio in cruising, and nearly one to one staff-to-guest ratio. Silversea changes with the times, while retaining its old world elegance. Apart from having your very own butler to attend to your every need, the suites are also customisable – from the size of the bed (twin or queen), the type of mattress (soft or firm), the kind of pillow (there are nine varieties available onboard), bathroom amenities (Bvlgari or Ferragamo, or hypoallergenic products), to the Pratesi bed linen, the cruise is the epitome of luxury.” The need to stay ahead and offer something new is the reason for Silversea to announce Galapagos as a new destination. “We have also announced the 2014 World Cruise 2014, an incomparable 113-day odyssey from Los Angeles to Barcelona aboard Silver Whisper, from January 6 to April 30, 2014,” adds Yap.
Another luxury cruise company, Prestige Cruise Holdings and its Oceania Cruises in 2012 launched the Riviera, which features Bon Appétit Culinary Centre, a Canyon Ranch SpaClub, suites by Dakota Jackson, Ralph Lauren home-furnished owner’s suites, and a grand Lalique staircase lit from above by a custom-made chandelier. Her distinguishing features include a museum-worthy collection of fine art focusing on the works of some of Latin America’s most accomplished and admired contemporary artists and an Artist Loft with hands-on instruction.
Indians have taken to cruising like fish to water. Amit Mathur, country head – India, MSC Cruises says, “Luxury segment in India is growing at a compounded rate of 20 per cent and is currently estimated to be approximately US$ 5.8 billion. Studies published have estimated India to have 1,53,000 HNIs with a liquid asset base in excess of US$ one million. An aspiring middle class with rising disposable income coupled with FDI retail investment and government keen on reforms will help in overall growth of the segment. With an international trip high on the To Do list, cruising offers a unique experience to these travellers.” He further adds that the cruise industry is the fastest growing sector within travel and is set for a compounded 15 – 20 per cent growth annually in India. “With time, more and more people are getting aware of cruises, the interest in an only cruise holiday is growing, this is evident from the growing FIT numbers. Having said that, cruising is still nascent in India and an Indian traveller prefers clubbing a few nights of cruising in his over-all holiday package. In the coming years cruising will gain more popularity, we will have to keep innovating and maintain high standards of service to delight our customers,” he says. MSC Yacht Club is a private club ambience and signature butler service. In August 2011 RCI launched its Cruise Exchange Programme in India to offer timeshare owners dream holidays on the high seas. RCI members can exchange their timeshare week for a discount on the price of a cruise on up to four cabins per exchange booking. Alternately, if a member has already used their deposited week, they can still save on their cruise holiday with RCI’s special members-only rates.
To tap the Indian market further local companies and GSAs are going all out. Vivek Jain, director, Griffon Travels who is a GSA for Louis Cruises in India says, “We have built a very extensive website of all the various cruises of different categories we represent. In this website you can see ocean cruises options, ferry cruises, river cruises etc of different standards. We are constantly promoting and educating the trade and travellers about it. In addition to this we do email broadcasting, brochure mailings and trade show.”
These are signs of the evolution in the Indian market, but very few projects have taken off in India and international cruise companies are skeptical of Indian cities as ports. Louis Cruises which ventured into the Indian market in 2010 with sailings from Kochi eventually stalled operations. According to representatives of the company, the charges for a single call at Kochi port were US$ 25,000. Compare this with the fee at Maldives – US$ 2,500 for 24 hours or Colombo – US$ 4,000.
In comparison Indian river cruises have had a better luck but a lot more needs to be done. Indo-British joint venture Assam Bengal Navigation, that had started its operations in 2003 offering long-distance cruises on Brahmaputra in Assam, initiated its river cruises on the river Hooghli in 2007, extending it to the Ganges in 2010. “Experience counts for everything here, and our expertise in the field of river cruising on both waterways is unrivalled,” states Ashish Phookan, managing director, Assam Bengal Navigation, adding that majority of the company’s clients are from Europe. In recent times Assam Bengal Navigation has had an increasing share of clients from Australia, North America and Japan as well. The company currently has offices in Guwahati and the UK.
Vivada Inland Waterways offers cruises throughout the year ex Kolkata. M V Nath, chairman and managing director, Vivada Inland Waterways says that India has a vast river length and coastline which has great potential. Four important cities are on the river cruise maps – Kolkata, Varanasi, Guwahati and Kochi. Seven major state capitals can get connected with coastline Kolkata, Port Blair, Chennai, Lakshwadeep island, Kochi, Goa and Mumbai. “Further, waterways through Bangladesh offer an excellent cruise opportunity to the Sunderban area and to the remote areas of the north east. If the protocol of trade and cargo is extended for tourism by cruises, both countries will stand to benefit and strengthen Indo-Bangladesh relationship,” states Nath.
One for the road
In 2009, in an effort to further utilise Indian roads for tourism, MoT GoI announced guidelines for caravan tourism. Under the guidelines, the caravans would be popularised and promoted by developing caravan parks in PPP mode. Madhya Pradesh Tourism has taken upon itself the onus to run and manage caravan coaches in the state. Promoted as ‘Holiday on Wheels’, there are several packages that the state is promoting in three circuits with base in Jabalpur, Indore and Bhopal.