Anvar Alikhan looks at the cultural divide in India that separates the generations who grew up before the economic reforms of 1991 and those who came after.
There is a fascinating cultural divide in India between the generation that came of age before 1991 – in the old Nehruvian socialist India – and the generation that followed after the economic reforms of 1991. This divide still shows up in many ways, but one of the most vivid is their holidaymaking rituals.
For the pre-1991 generation, holidays meant a mandatory annual trip back to your 'native place' by train – essentially, a ritual to renew the bonds with your extended family and reconnect with your small-town roots. You returned carrying jars of pickle made by your mother for yourself, colleagues and neighbours. Other, less common, alternatives were the pilgrimage holiday, or the hill-station holiday, sanctioned by long-standing custom – though the ultimate aspiration was a holiday in Kashmir, which you knew from the romantic scenes of the Bollywood movies. The defining features of these holidays were austerity, thrift, and an instinctive socialistic discomfort with flashiness of any kind. As for overseas holidays, they were such a rarity that 'what about foreign travel?' was one of the questions most commonly asked of astrologers.
The late 1970s, however, saw the first signs of change, thanks to a small uptick in the economy, and the emergence of pioneering brands such as Raj Travels, which began to take middle-class Indians out on overseas package tours – albeit with the reassurance of accompanying Indian cooks to serve you pooris in Paris or theplas in Tokyo. And when you returned, you brought back empty cans of Coke and Pepsi, which you turned into pencil holders to discreetly signal your 'foreign-return' status.
Today, the generation born in 1991 has turned 26, having grown up in an increasingly consumerised society, with a very different worldview – as a result of which the Indian holiday market is now quite unrecognisable. Today, India is one of the world's largest, and fastest-growing, outbound markets. In fact, according to the World Tourism Organization, by 2020 over 50 million Indians will take a holiday overseas. Indians are also moving up the value chain towards becoming one of the world's biggest spending groups of travellers.
In the process, of course, the traditional Indian emotional button of reconnecting with one's hometown roots has been replaced by a set of universalised buttons – like releasing the stress of today's highpressure lifestyle; finding the leisure time to reconnect with members of one's nuclear family; and discovering new experiences and new dimensions of one's personality. But, underlying these, there seems to be an element of social one-upmanship, making holidays a kind of competitive sport whose results must be displayed on Facebook. A sign of the times: my garage mechanic told me he'd been away on leave. I asked him if he'd gone back to his village. "No sahib," he replied proudly, "I went to Mauritius", showing me photographs on his smartphone.
Thanks to these trends, great business opportunities have opened up for a variety of global travel brands – from national tourism boards to airlines – and India has, in fact, been designated as a priority market. But while the new Indian holidaymaker may now have a set of universalised emotional buttons, it is important to remember that some core instincts still remain the same. One example is food habits – which is why the Indian edition of Lonely Planet incorporates a special section on how to locate Indian and vegetarian restaurants; airlines like Lufthansa stress their special Indian meals; the German Tourist Board points out that the country offers nearly 2,000 Indian restaurants. Another unchanging emotional button is the power of Bollywood – which is why Dubai Tourism appointed the superstar Shah Rukh Khan as its brand ambassador; the Spanish Tourism Board cleverly leveraged the fact that the hit film Zindagi Na Milegi Dubara was shot there; Kuoni has even gone to the extent of tying up with a Bollywood production house to create a customised European tour based on locations featured in Bollywood movies.
Meanwhile, Indian holidaymakers, getting over the novelty of overseas holidays, are moving on to explore new experiences back home in India, as well – from hang gliding in the Himalayas to ayurvedic wellness holidays in Kerala. In fact, some boutique travel houses say their domestic business is now being turned on its head, with their Indian clientele overtaking inbound overseas clientele.