Despite having 70 per cent of the Himalayas, around 7000 kms of coastline, India being among the one of the three countries in the world with both hot and cold deserts, ranks 10th in total area under forest cover and 6th in terms of number of recognised UNESCO Natural Heritage sites, a varied flora and fauna, Indian adventure tourism is yet at a nascent stage but charting its own growth path. The latest emphasis of the Ministry of Tourism to make adventure tourism as the next engine of tourism growth by opening of 124 new peaks definitely augurs well for global adventure market. Of late, adventure tourism is emerging as one of the fastest growing segments in India with more and more travellers are opting for experiential tourism.
As per industry guestimates, inbound adventure tourism in India is growing 5-7 per cent annually and domestic adventure tourism is growing by 20-25 per cent. According to market research expert Nielsen, over one billion travellers experienced adventure tourism globally and India attracted just over 3.4m adventure tourist visits in 2015. Of this number, about 15 per cent are foreign adventure tourists. Meanwhile, revenue generated from domestic adventure tourist visits to India amounted to approx. US$ 190 mn in 2015, according to Nielsen, while foreign adventure tourist visits to India generated about US$ 70 mn.
Adventure tourism is resilient, supports local economies, attracts high value customers and encourages sustainable practices. However, adventure tourism remains a relatively small market in India as compared to the West. The main reason for the slow growth is the lack of clear cut policy and regulations as well as infrastructure. Historically, India has also suffered from an image problem - in particular relating to safety standards. Hence, the facility and support staffs need to be developed to the global standards.
Also, one of the contributors to the accelerated growth of this niche segment is the growing number of operators across different adventure beats. While there is an increase in the number of service providers, the larger question about their regulation needs to be dealt with. The adventure tourism industry still includes an unorganised sector that needs to come under immediate scrutiny.
According to Akshay Kumar, CEO, Mercury Himalayan Explorations and Former President of Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOAI), adventure travel in India is estimated to be above Rs 2000 crores. “However, this is only a guesstimate as no official statistics are available. Globally the adventure travel market is valued at US$ 683billion (ATTA figures) and 41 per cent of all global travellers have been known to devote a part of their holiday itinerary to active and adventure tourism. The segment has been witnessing an average annual growth of 21 per cent. However, all these figures do not take the Indian and Chinese market into consideration but the study suggests that the next decade of growth in the industry will be driven by India and China,” Kumar says adding that India is primarily and un-organised adventure market and we still need to work hard to realise our true potential.
Tejbir Singh Anand, MD, Holiday Moods Adventures and Vice President, ATOAI, states that the domestic market is booming and it is one of the few segments of the travel trade where the business is hands full and operators and camps are busy throughout the year. “There was a time when only in summers we used to operate adventure trips but now we are busy throughout the year because of the demand. The Gen "X" and the millenials are keeping us hands full. The segment is growing at 15-20 per cent CAGR. The corporates are using adventure activities and trips big time for their offsites and training programs. The school and educational institutions have finally realised the great potential of being outdoors and the real time learning that a child inculcates from adventure and nature based travel,” Anand opines.
Daniel D’souza, President and Country Head Leisure, SOTC Travel, says that while India is evolving in adventure tourism, there is still a long way to go. “The SOTC India Holiday Report 2019 revealed that exploration and adventure are major reasons for holidays in the country. 59 per cent of Gen Z travellers choose to travel to experience adventure sports and activities, 42 per cent of Gen X travellers also choose to explore adventure tourism with their families,” he reveals.
The Union Ministry of Tourism has come out with Guidelines for Adventure Tourism in 2018. However, it has not received desired support from the states. While few states are more proactive, others have not paid heed to the guidelines. “States like Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Chattisgarh have already adopted the Guidelines. Many other state governments are in the final stages of adoption. Kerala have gone a step further by making regulations around adventure activities which will soon be passed by the state cabinet. This will make Kerala the first state in the country to do so,” Kumar informs.
Echoing the similar sentiment, Anand says that the Ministry has requested all states to implement these guidelines. “Few states have been very forthcoming but majority are still yet to adopt and promote them. Not only the safety guidelines, but all states need to immediately adopt the registration and licensing process of recognizing an operator as an "Adventure Tour Operator". I feel that these guidelines should be made mandatory for practising safe adventure travel,” Anand adds.
Prahlad Singh Patel, Minister of State for Culture and Tourism (IC), also emphasized at various forums on the need for ensuring safety of those travellers going for adventure tourism. He urged the states to exercise utmost caution while registering adventure tourism operators and also to ensure that the adventure tourism guidelines are followed by the states.
Giving a major boost, the Ministry recently opened 124 peaks to foreigners for mountaineering and trekking. While this is a welcome move by the industry, there is a rider here as well. “This is a very positive and welcome step. However, mountaineering expeditions now require an 'X" climbing visa to come to India and this further complicates the matter. Ministry of Tourism has promised all possible help to remove this stipulation and also to try and get many other peaks opened. India has 1000s of mountains even in open areas that remain unaccessible to adventurers. We look forward to all our mountains being thrown open in the near future,” Kumar says.
According to Anand, there is no doubt that this is a game changer. “However like all good things, this news also has a rider. A person coming in to India for climbing a peak has to apply for an "X" visa, which sadly takes almost six months to process making it a very frustrating experience. We have been requesting MOT & MHA to kindly consider removing this and letting adventure enthusiasts use the Tourist Visa. Once this is implemented, there would be a surge of adventurers thronging India and promoting inbound adventure tourism,” Anand says.
The segment faces hurdles of centralising safety standards and streamlining practises. There is no framework that adventure tour operators must adhere to which means nearly anyone can begin to conduct adventure sports activities without adequate regard to safety.
Outlining the challenges, Kumar says that Indian adventure travel market is primarily unorganized as only a handful of operators even bother to take the voluntary recognition. “Most of our prime adventure locations either fall in forest or restricted areas limiting the choices for the adventurerers. The new market is focussing on cheap and mass adventure travel. This not only devalues the product but also compromises on safety and ends up ruining pristine natural heritage with no checks on numbers,” he says and adds that there are no set procedures to provide rescue and medical assistance in remote regions. “Communications are a challenge as Sat phones are not allowed in Ladakh, Kashmir and North East regions which are the hot bed for adventure travel. Also, an absence of a national adventure travel policy remains a challenge for growth. We also do not have proper training facilities,” Kumar reveals.
Anand feels that there is a need to have focused strategy. “India has all the ingredients to be the best seller, but what is holding back? There is no dearth of vision, skill set, talent or leadership. Geographically, we are endowed which no other country can boast of. Perhaps a focussed strategy with a very strong intent is what is lacking. Globally, people don't even know that 73 per cent of the Himalaya lie in India. We need to launch a persistent campaign of creating awareness globally,” Anand says. Kumar agrees that there is a need to have a dedicated promotional campaign for positioning India as a adventure tourism destination. “The time has come for India to realise its potential through utilising our natural heritage. We have to move away from selling only monuments and culture and focus big on selling our mountains, rivers, forests and deserts,” he says. Anand also feels the same when he says that it is high time Incredible India wakes up and focuses on the ‘Incredible Indian Himalaya’ as everyone now knows where the Taj Mahal, Rajasthan, Goa and Kerala is.
According to D’Souza, lack of basic infrastructure facilities, appropriate tented accommodation sites, scarcity of skilled and professional trained instructors, lack of financial support from government or private entities for procuring and maintaining equipment, establishing high standard of safety and need of up-scaling the marketing and awareness campaigns to promote adventure destination are some of the challenges that this niche segment has been facing.
Replying to a question on quality and standards, Anand says that our safety standards in the organised sector are comparable to the best in the world. “In service standards, we leave the world behind. Nowhere in the world, a client gets so much attention and personalised services as in India. The "Athiti Devo Bhavo" is very true sentiment in every tourism stakeholder.” Kumar also shares the same thing. “A few operators are as good and even surpass international standards. However, most adventure travel operators in India are still way below par,” Kumar adds.
Commenting on the trends, Kumar says that soft adventure still remains the most selling product. “However, more and more Indian travellers are now looking at harder and more active holidays. Amateur Mountaineering, long multi day treks, scuba diving, off roading, motor bike trips, cycling holidays, Ziplines are all growing exponentially,” Kumar informs.
Anand says that cycling and motorcycling, marathon, travelling with family, health and wellness travel, school groups and honeymooners are the emerging segments.
They are of the opinion that it is the domestic market that is and will drive the adventure segment. “A majority of adventure travellers in India are domestic. However they remain a budget market. There has been a subtle shift towards high paying adventure holidays picking up for domestic tourism,” Kumar says. Anand feels that Indians are trailblazing new destinations across the globe. “The future of an Indian traveler is not in sedentary travel for sure. It is the bucket list driving the business. Indians are seeking some of the latest aspirational destinations such as Trans Siberian train journeys from Moscow to Beijing across Mongolia and Siberia,train travel in South African covering lesser visited wildlife national parks, experience Gorilla's in Rwanda, experiencing Northern Lights and exploratory cruises to Antarctica, North pole, Amazon River, Nile River, Mekong River and Yellow River where ancient civilizations flourished.
The issue of sustainability does come on the fore with the growth of this segment. “Sustainability and responsible tourism is now the main objective of our business now. We have even gone to the extent of removing itineraries that do not support the ethos of sustainable tourism. We firmly believe in conservation. Our trips have minimal impact on the physical, cultural and social environment of the area,” he says. Mercury Himalayan Explorations takes pride in its SOPs that focus on responsible and sustainable practices. “Our maximum group size is 12-15 pax. Our instructor to client ratio is 1:5. We follow no single use plastic on treks, lodges and camp sites we operate. We ensure to bring back all non bio degradable waste to nearest town.And, we leave the maximum profits with local communities,” Kumar adds.
In conclusion, there is an immense potential for development of adventure tourism in India since India has all the requirements for developing all kinds of adventure tourism activities possible. Globally, people are looking for experiential tourism and are not satisfied with just looking at monuments. Adventure Tourism is a low-hanging fruit for India and with a little bit of investment and focus the country can become a preferred adventure travel destination. Adventure tourism is a space that needs to be looked upon in more depth as it does not only contribute to the overall growth of the industry but ensures the ecology, mountains and the forests are safe.