Sunday, December 26, 2010

Idlis in Singapore

Earlier this year, we planned an extended family getaway to a beach destination. The customary demurrals and protestations from my mom followed, but she finally relented and off we all went. On day 2, we were whiling our time away at the all-you-can-eat buffet after another busy day counting the waves, when by brother said something that got me thinking - "You know", he said, "it's you Amriki return people that have started this trend of destination vacations. No one is satisfied any more with just visiting relatives' homes."

All my childhood, every time we had a vacation at school, we would pack ourselves off to a tiny village in Tamil Nadu, navigating crumbled roads and sweltering heat on the way, to my grandparents' tiled and thatched roof home, with its cowshed in the backyard, vast fields of paddy and no running water. My brother and I were thrilled to bathe at the well, 'hrrrumph'-ing as we tugged every bucketful of water up the pulley. We played hide and seek in the yard, looked into the sun with a mixture of awe and anticipation as local men slithered up to the crown of coconut trees, coming back with a fresh loot of green every time. It was fun, no questions about it, but it was - The. Same. Thing. Every. Single. Time.

O how the world is changing. When I started working in India twelve years back, an international vacation was still a novelty - out of reach of most of us. In my second innings here, everyone seems to be either going for an international vacation, or has just returned from one. When I told people at work that I was going to be away for a couple of weeks at the end of the year and was planning to Singapore, the collection reaction was a yawn, not a gasp. More people could give me tourist tips than would have been able to tell me the best train to Goa ten years ago. Indians, it appears, have been bit by the travel bug.

In 2001, 4.5 million Indians made international visits. In 2009, that number was 11.1 million. A compounded growth rate of close to 12% - one of the fastest in the world over this period. These 11 million international trips by Indians created tourism revenue of $8.35 billion last year, up from the $1.3 billion we spent as a nation in 1997.

A total of 880 million international tourist trips were undertaken across the world in 2009. This makes Indian tourists a 1.3% market share segment. That is up from a 0.66% share in 2001.

The numbers on domestic tourism are even more impressive. The total number of domestic tourist visits in 2009 in the country was - hold your breath - 650 million! (Also known as two times the population of the United States) This number was 236 million in 2001. So domestic tourism has grown at the rate of 14% in this period.

Now, let us not get carried away here. While tourism is certainly growing, Indians are starting from a very low base. As I said before, we spent $8.35 billion last year in international travel. The largest spenders in this category are (another surprise) the Germans, who spent more than $81 billion last year. The Americans spent about $75 billion and the Chinese about $40 billion. So global tourist hotspots run no risk of being overrun by thepla stands and idli houses anytime soon. Niagara Falls' dubious honor in this regard is quite safe. But it is appropriate to say that tourism departments across the world are waking up to the Indian traveler. A quick search quickly turned up reports by the tourism departments of Netherlands, South Africa, and a host of other countries on the phenomenon of the rising Indian traveler and how to attract him to their respective countries.

Back to my trip though. I am in Singapore for my end of year break. Random interesting fact - Singapore is the #1 destination for Indians traveling abroad, for obvious reasons. Less obviously, Singapore is the third most visited city in the world in terms of international tourists - behind Paris and London. How common is Singapore as a tourist destination? I ate a hearty breakfast of idlis at Murugan Idli in Little India (yes, there is a Murugan Idli here - and I love it!), only to realize that a good friend from India was there just hours later. I ran into another friend from back home at Clarke Quay yesterday night, and met a third one for lunch today. So long story short, Singapore pretty much IS little India.

My trip is not over yet, which means more lazy mornings, more late nights, more avoiding the blackberry. I am now officially part of India's tourism statistics - One more guy going abroad, one more person visiting Singapore, one more plate of idlis at Murugan. Yawn.


  1. Add another tourist to the list on International Travelers from India..!! Went to Mauritius for a week's break during Diwali and as rightly spotted by you...bumped into a few known faces..!!

  2. Hope you had a good time in Mauritius Nishant! aside - that was where I went for my honeymoon! Great memories!

  3. Yeah...Mauritius was great..the hospitality at Le Meridien was amazing and catamaran cruise was the best of the lot..!!

  4. Idlis in Singapore to me appeared a bit different from your looking at the matter. Is it that most of us in India today plan our vacation based on what I call churning out a "ego-status sandwich" rather than planning vacation as a time"to connect with your family and inner self". It is not surprising that during the so called vacation time, when I interact with people at work place or outside, they seem to know so little about their own state, their own country and yet collect so much data on a land outside India.The thoughts should not necessarily prompt you to derive conclusions about my overused nationalistic fervour but rather the thoughts arrive from the basic fact that today most of us "do things not to remain happy within but to derive happiness from what others feel about us"
    Our children would not be aware of the Gir sanctuary but would definitely be fed by the information as to where all lions can be found and photographed in Singapore or Malaysia.
    I dont know if we are heading in the right direction, even if it is the case of a domestic vacation.

  5. @ Dr. Satpathy: Definitely a thought provoking set of comments there. I am with you that there is certainly an element of hedonism in the craze for foreign travel. Two thoughts though - (1) It isn't clear to me that this is necessarily a bad thing. For too long, our culture has been dominated by emotions of self-denial, sacrifice and guilt. But if we are indeed entering an age of plenty, why not indulge? Why should one feel the need to justify oneself just because for a one-week period in a very long time, he decides to do something that is just for himself? I think people deserve that much of a break. What do you think? (2) There is another point you make in your comments, that there is enough in India to visit as well. I couldn't agree more. And guess what, there is a lot of interest in the general populace as well. Domestic Indian tourism is also at an all-time high right now. So people are indeed getting familiarized with Gir and Kanha and Ranthambore. Let me take that topic up in another post.