Offbeat experiences edge out the run-of-the-mill in new travel itineraries

Topics Holidays | tourism

Go fishing for Pulasa in the Godavari and bring back the catch to the resort where the chef will cook it and serve it to you
Imagine going all the way to Agra and skipping the Taj Mahal. Unthinkable? Not really. A friend who did just that said she'd seen the monument half a dozen times, and on this trip she attended a marble inlay workshop run by local artisans instead, and took interactive cooking lessons on Mughlai cuisine from a local family.

Many travelers like my friend are no longer interested in undertaking tours and covering the typical must-see places. Doing a 15-day tour covering as many places is passé, says Peshwa Acharya, a Chennai-based senior marketing executive who shares his own example of how he spent an entire fortnight exploring Turkey, and came out richer with experiences and quaint discoveries about the country's art and culture, food and society.

Today’s discerning traveler is willing to pay a premium for unique cultural and culinary experiences, history walks, guided tours on art and architecture, tribal homestays, learning a craft, food strolls, privately arranged musical experiences and craft workshops, among several other things. And tour operators and hospitality chains are catching on. Holidays today are all about discoveries and experiences, says Ramesh Ramanathan, CMD, Sterling Holidays. “Breaking from the monotony of a generic tour plan, the Indian traveler is now looking for something more personalised -- something that satisfies his idea of “wanderlust,” he says. Sterling Resorts recently collaborated with NIFT to create a series of art installations at its Ooty resort that captures the essence of the place – Did you know, for instance, that snooker was invented in Ooty? Gin and tonic too? And there were tribes such as the Todas and the Kotas who lived in Ooty way before British came in? Or that the Niligiri mountain railway is the only one in the world that uses the rack and pinion system? All of this is captured at Fern Hill Resort, which offers rare insights into the rich, albeit rapidly depleting culture and history of the hill station. And once holidaymakers get initiated, they tend to book tours based on what they wish to explore, be it a visit to tribal home or tea plantation guided tour.

Visit a life-size Toda hut in the Nilgiris and enjoy anecdotes of how men could only marry if they were able to lift the traditional marriage stone of the tribe

Getting the ethos of a place is growing in importance for travelers now and it is the “insiders” who can weave stories, who are most sought after. Airbnb is a good example globally of a company that has successfully diversified into adventure and experiences, says Martin Barth, CEO & President, World Tourism Forum Lucerne, adding that experiential travel is now a fully recognised opportunity. Airbnb experiences offer a deep dive into the world of local hosts, who are quite passionate about opening their homes and hearts to guests, sharing special knowledge and giving access to local places and communities that guests wouldn’t be able to find on their own. Barth adds that the industry across the different segments has been making efforts to avoid mainstream tours served in the same cookie cutter fashion. There are, in fact, many examples of tailor-made, unique activities and trips hosted by locals that give tourists an authentic flavour of the destination.

"We have observed a surge in heritage walks and tours across various cultural heritages in India such as Delhi, Jaipur, Udaipur, and Fort Kochi, among others. A walk-through of the rich cultural avenues of the ingenious art forms and folklore is considered to be the upcoming travel trend for 2020 as well," says Daniel D’souza, President and Country Head, Leisure, SOTC Travel.

Kerala is the most sought after monsoon season destination for experiential tourism, with its annual snake-boat races and splash monsoon carnival, held between July and September. Leh’s Buddhist monasteries, the Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand, and the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat are fast catching the fancy of customers. D’souza says that his company incorporates exciting activities as an on-the-go feature. For instance, at the Rann Utsav it has curated a mud and mirror art workshop, a visit to the wildlife sanctuary in the Nani (Little) Rann to spot the rare Indian wild ass and a jeep safari.

A cooking class at Souful Spoon. Food is an important pillar in experience-based travel. Culinary sessions with in-house chefs teaching local cuisines, food and beverages is a big hit

Another recent festival that has seen an influx of tourism is Shillong’s Cherry Blossom Festival. "The North East as a region is becoming a major tourist destination, attracting travelers for its promise of cultural and experiential extravaganza," says Ankit Rastogi, head of Accommodation and Activities, Cleartrip, who cites the Hornbill Music Festival of Nagaland's Kisama village, for which flight bookings for Dimapur (the closest airport) almost trebled as compared to normal days.

Self-drive tours are also becoming popular as they allow travelers to experience the destination in a unique way, stopping as and when anything catches their fancy -- quaint shops, wayside cafés or sheer scenic beauty. D’souza says his company's self-drive tours cater to all budgets, and incorporate unique inclusions and local experiences customised to suit the traveller's requirements.

“Travel is no longer about going on tours and visiting tourist spots. Travellers today are seeking rare, exclusive and signature experiences,” says Hari Ganapathy,  Co-founder of Pickyourtrail, a travel company that delivers tailor-made international holidays. Some of the offbeat experiences include ghost walking tours in Edinburgh, wildlife and game reserve experiential stays in Kenya and Tanzania, and fiction-led tours like Game of Thrones Tour in Europe, the Harry Potter Tour in London and The Lord of the Rings Tour in New Zealand.

Technology is an essential enabler in experiential travel, says Jaya Kumar K, Vice President and Managing Director, Sabre Global Development Center–Bengaluru, Sabre Corporation. Best buy experiences and localisation of the languages are taking travel choices to the next level through technology. Smartphones have made it easier than ever for travelers to visit unexplored corners of the world, navigate unknown neighbourhoods, make last-minute itinerary changes, and book unique experiences and read reviews of restaurants, activities, and accommodations through mobile apps.

The approximate cost of an experience at a resort, with typical workshops and activities. Most activities are priced reasonably and some even are free of cost, or built into the package. For more detailed training, there are separate charges.

Inlay marble stone or Mandawa art workshop 
4 hours | Rs 500 plus taxes per person

Art and architecture walk
7 hours | Rs 1,500 plus taxes per person

Guided colonial and cultural heritage tour 
7 hours | Rs 1,000 plus taxes per person

Explore the Unexplored: Picturesque plantations, tea trail (guided tour)
7 hours | Rs 1,500 plus taxes per person

Fishing (angling) experience
7 hours | Rs 1,500 plus taxes per person

Honey collection 
7 hours | Rs 3,000 plus taxes per person

Guided nature and lakes tour
7 hours | Rs 1,250 plus taxes per person

Guided mountain and caves trek 
7 hours | Rs 500 plus taxes per person

Village visit (tribal experience)
4 hours | Rs 500 plus taxes per person

Below is a list of Experiential Tours by Pickyourtrail, a travel company that delivers tailor-made international holidays. Credits: Pickyourtrail 


● Bali instagram Tours, ranging from Rs 5,000
● Mount Battur Volcano trekking, from Rs 3,000
● Island Snorkeling Adventure, from Rs 3,000


● Mt. Titlis Snow Experience Day, from Rs 15,000
● Glacier Express train one-day round trip with private tour guide, from Rs 20,000 
● Magic Christmas Tour in Zurich, from Rs 50,000


● Moulin Rouge Show Late Night Show with Champagne, from Rs 8,000
● Bistro-Style Seine River Dinner Cruise on the Seine, from Rs 3,000
● Catacombs Tour with Access to Restricted Areas, from Rs 7,000


● Private Helicopter Flight around the top tourist attractions, from Rs 13,000
● Premium Red Dunes & Camel Safari with BBQ at Al Khayma Camp, from Rs 5,000
● Bateaux Dubai Dinner Cruise, from Rs 8,000


● Bangkok Midnight Food Tour by Tuk Tuk, from Rs 5,000
● Bridge on the River Kwai and Thailand-Burma Railway Tour, from Rs 5,500
● Floating Markets Day Trip from Bangkok, from Rs 3,500


● Hobbiton and Lord of the Rings Movie Set Tour, from Rs 8,000
● Whale Watching in Kaikoura by Boat, from Rs 7,000
● Franz Josef Glacier helicopter tour and hike, from Rs 23,000


Holidays of India special curated top five cultural/food driven travel experiences and packages with their ballpark costs

● Wonders of Himachal starting from Rs 22,999 (7 nights-8 days)
● Golden Triangle with Ranthambore Rs 27,999 (6 nights-7 days)
● Marvels of Kerala Rs 28,000 (7 nights & 8 days)
● Rann Utsav Rs 4,500 (2 nights) and Rs 3,38,100 (8-day Deccan Odyssey Hidden treasures of Gujarat)
● Ladakh–Chadar trek Rs 47,999 (6 nights-7 days)

Apart from the ‘on-the-go’ feature SOTC also caters specifically to food driven experiences:

Jammu and Kashmir:
● Kashmir culinary tour
● Kashmiri cuisine classes with local family

Delhi and Agra:
● Agra walking and tasting guided tour
● 4-days Golden Triangle tour with cooking class

● Cook and dine with a local in Ahmedabad
● Homemade Gujarati Thali with a local in Ahmedabad

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