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Chugging on wheels of luxuryRoyal trappings: These luxury trains are equipped with world-class facilities, and offer personalised services making the tourist feel like a maharaja

Chugging on wheels of luxury

Luxury trains, with their seven-star experience, bring to life your fantasy of living like a king, even if it is for just a week21 May 2017 | 12:25 AM

The sheer novelty of waking up in a new city every day without the hassle of packing, unpacking, boarding flights, navigating snaking queues at airports and checking in to different hotels — these seem good enough reasons to opt for luxury train travel this holiday season.

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Taru Bahl

The sheer novelty of waking up in a new city every day without the hassle of packing, unpacking, boarding flights, navigating snaking queues at airports and checking in to different hotels — these seem good enough reasons to opt for luxury train travel this holiday season. 

All your travel formalities and hassles end the moment you book your ticket and board. Trained service staff positioned at different levels — from private butlers to guest relations officers and train commandants — provides an impeccable service. The experience is akin to a being on a cruise or on a seven-star hotel on wheels. Chugging along well-mapped routes to provide a personalised and pampered feel, it has an old-world charm that appeals to a certain kind of traveller. 

In India, Palace on Wheels initiated the trend of luxury train travel in 1982. Catering largely to the foreign tourist, it was pitched as “royal” experience, bringing into play the elements that made the guest feel like royalty. There was collaboration between the Rajasthan Tourism and the Indian Railways for both on and off board services, while day plans were geared to promote tourism in the desert state of Rajasthan. Visits to royal palaces, forts, havelis and museums that preserved artefacts of a royal life, cultural shows by native folk artistes and shopping for souvenirs in colourful local bazaars made up the itinerary that showcased the exotic appeal of India to the fullest. 

These trains were equipped with world-class facilities, including a large dining area, bar, lounge, generator, LCD TVs, direct-dial phone, internet, individual temperature controls and in-suite bathrooms — akin to the personal abode of a maharaja.  The royal experience found favour with the foreign tourist, who lapped it up, making the Palace on Wheels one of the most successful luxury trains in the world. In fact, in 2010 it was voted as the fourth largest luxury train globally.

Spoke in the wheels

Come 2016 and the train’s dream run seemed to have gone off track. For the first time in 35 years, a trip had to be cancelled because it did not have the requisite number of registered guests so as to make the run cost effective. The organisers had been struggling for the last few years, trying not to cut corners and yet offer the best, even if the numbers were not enough to make the run profitable. This was a huge setback not just to the promoters but all luxury train travellers for whom this was an intimate, personalised and comfortable way of seeing India. 

Palace on Wheels was not the only one facing low occupancy problems. Three other luxury trains also had been struggling with a similar problem of decreasing number of guests. The Royal Rajasthan on Wheels had to cancel two consecutive trips in 2016 because of no bookings, despite it being the peak tourist season.

While the average luxury train traveller’s profile remains unchanged, for s/he knows the value of this kind of vacation and needs little convincing, the volume in this segment has considerably dropped. According to travel trade analysts, a major reason is the unsafe environment in India. Post-Nirbhaya case and recent attacks on foreign tourists, especially women, many advisories have been issued by various countries advising their people to be cautious while travelling to India. Resultantly, traffic to neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives, Bhutan and Myanmar has seen a jump. Also, somewhere the entire look and feel of our railway stations is enough to drive away any tourist, leave alone a luxury tourist. Teeming crowds, pushing and jostling, touts, pick pockets and general chaos do not really make train travel seem attractive or safe. Then the fact that there are multiple players in an already restricted environment means more competition. In terms of cost, a major expense relates to high-haulage charges of over Rs 80 crore in the last five years alone for these luxury trains. 

Something for everyone

Despite these dismal trends indicating a roadblock of sorts, there are nearly half a dozen luxury train companies promoting as many as eight to 10 routes that cater to myriad travellers — be it the heritage and history lover, the wildlife enthusiast, the avid shopper or the art-and-culture observer. Each of these is gung-ho about catering not just to the loyal faithfuls but also to a new and emerging segment of upwardly mobile Indians who are prepared to pay anywhere between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 10 lakh for an eight-day sojourn running across two or three states. 

The advantages are many — not having to check into multiple hotels and making a dash to airport counters to get boarding passes and hailing cabs and rushing to different destinations. It allows you to experience an old-world charm of a train that chugs along at a leisurely pace while treating you as an honoured guest. As a regular luxury train traveller explains, “If you do your maths right you will see that this is not really an expensive proposition — if you factor in the cost of flight tickets, five-star hotels, local transport, guides, meals and tips — you will realise that you are paying almost the same to see the same number of places. The advantages are more — there is no hurry, no frantic rushing from one point to another and no stress. Everything has been perfected over multiple rounds, with each trip getting even more refined and personalised. 

However, to make the business profitable once again, the organisers need to change their marketing strategy so as to change the perception of Indian travellers. They need to position these luxury trains as an appealing and viable option to the Indian tourists too and not just as the preserve of the firangis. 

The Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation (KSTDC) is in talks with various banks to offer tickets on easy instalments and target corporate customers, with conferences on board and corporate trips. The Deccan Odyssey has added many unique features to its offerings. These enhance the Indian experience which combines a well balanced itinerary, carefully chosen with many insights into the local history, culture, tradition and folklore along with fascinating trivia. Much thought goes into developing the itinerary, which is further finetuned given the age group of the group and the background they come from. 

As summer holidays approach, give this luxury-on-wheels a serious thought.


 Wooing the Indian traveller

  • The tourism and railway ministries are finalising a number of initiatives, including offering INR rates to international travellers and launching aggressive promotion campaigns of Indian luxury trains through their tourism ministry’s overseas offices.
  • International travellers will be allowed to book Indian Railways train tickets online for domestic travel in India from their own countries, using their credit or debit cards.
  • Online travel portals are considering putting up luxury trains on their portals. Although several railway packages, including the semi-luxury trains like the Desert circuit and Heritage circuit, are available on popular travel portals like MakeMyTrip.com and Cleartrip.com. Many of the leading luxury trains, however, are not listed here.

 

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