Tourism takes off as skies open over India

An increase in flights from the UK and the boom in domestic airlines is opening up a new mid-range market for tourists. Robert Nurden reports
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The Independent Travel

Concerns are rising that the deregulation of the skies over India is overstretching the country's tourist infrastructure, particularly its lack of hotel rooms.

Until recently, travel in India was the preserve of upmarket tourists and backpackers. But a booming mid-range market is now opening up, thanks to cheaper flights into and around the country.

The transformation came about because of the government's decision to adopt an open-skies policy in April 2004, ending its previous hard line on limiting the number of flights. Since then, the number of both international and domestic flights has grown rapidly as private operators join the ever-lengthening queue to exploit the new liberal climate.

UK flights to India will reach at least 84 a week by the end of the year. British Airways has doubled its flights to Mumbai to two a day, started a five-a-week service to Bangalore, and increased its flights to Chennai to six a week, up from two. From April, BA planes will fly to Delhi twice a day instead of once, and Bangalore and Chennai will get a daily service. It also hopes to add Hyderabad and Cochin to its schedule. India has overtaken China as the company's second-biggest long-haul destination.

This growth is more than matched by national carrier Air India, which each week offers 17 flights to Mumbai and seven to Delhi from Heathrow. It also operates between Birmingham and Amritsar three times a week. The large airlines have been joined on these international routes by Virgin, BMI and fledgling Indian start-ups such as Jet Airways and Air Sahara. Within the country, Kingfisher, Indigo Airlines, Air India Express and SpiceJet are contributing to the traffic.

"We are operating at very near full capacity on these new flights, which goes some way towards supporting our view that there has been a pent-up demand for many years," said a BA spokeswoman. "It is the middle market that is benefiting. Before the new agreements, 60 per cent of UK passengers to India were on indirect flights. The variety of direct routes gives tour operators more flexibility."

Different factors are fuelling the growth. One, of course, is the price: the average cost of a return flight is about £400. Another is the booming hi-tech capital, Bangalore. While the majority of its visitors will be travelling for business reasons, the frequent flights there are opening up the south of the country as a leisure destination: Kerala now rivals Rajasthan and Goa as a favourite venue.

Against a background of increased fears of terrorism, India is seen as a largely safe place compared with other far-flung destinations. The Delhi bombings in the summer produced hardly any cancellations, according to BA. Add to that the growing number of cheap domestic carriers and it is possible to negotiate the huge distances with relative ease.

Significant, too, are the growing numbers of British Indians and African Asians travelling to the subcontinent. The prosperity of the Sikh community in Britain is behind Air India's thrice-weekly flight from Birmingham to Amritsar, whose airport is getting an £8.7m makeover. Air India said that the service will soon be upgraded to a daily one.

"We are seeing travel to India being completely transformed," said Mehera Dalton, managing director of Greaves Travel, a tour operator specialising in India. "It is opening up to the middle-income traveller from the West. But my fear is that it is happening too fast, and the market will not be able to take it. There are not enough three- or four-star hotels to meet the demand, and five-star hotels are small."

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