Kolkata: Slumdog Millionaire, an Oscar winning 2008 movie based on Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, had done enough damage to the already “misunderstood” image of India’s life and heritage for Kaushal Bhalotia to take some action. He was determined to develop a mobile application that could turn things around.
Bhalotia and his friend Visweswaran Gowrisankaran launched an application last year based on the Android platform that provides simulated video tours of Indian heritage sites to tourists. The researched content and self-sufficient nature of the usage could make the product a game-changer for the Indian tourism scene, restricting harassment of foreign tourists, claimed Bhalotia.
As he travelled in Singapore, Mexico and Qatar to pursue higher studies and then as part of his assignments in a consultant company, Bhalotia became increasingly conscious of the myths among foreigners about India’s culture. “People abroad still think of India largely as a land of slums, beggars and snake charmers and all educated Indians as people who could fix their laptops,” he said.
The Danny Boyle-directed movie that told the world the melodramatic story of India’s poverty and explored the underbelly of its crime, reaffirmed the myth, he said. So, when Bhalotia, now 28, sat down with friends at the canteen of the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad—where he did a one-year management course after leaving a high-paying job with the objective of becoming an entrepreneur—to discuss possible projects on a late afternoon in early 2010, he ensured that his first business venture dealt with promoting Indian tourism.
The lack of quality guides in India’s heritage sites and frequent “bitter experiences” among tourists provided ample scope for a simulated application that could act as a virtual guide to tourists.
Though audio guides, a similar service based on only audio experience, is common in museums and monuments across the world, a video guide that uses the global positioning systems in smartphones and tablets to help tourists navigate through the tourist spot is unique.
When Bhalotia and Gowrisankaran set up My IndiEye Travel Companies Pvt. Ltd in 2010, they didn’t have any model in India to follow except for a few audio-guide services in Taj Mahal and Agra fort. The company approached the Andhra Pradesh government and in August 2012 set up a counter at the Golconda fort near Hyderabad to conduct video tours by renting out devices at Rs.300 per person containing preloaded contents that helped tourists know the history of the mud-fort known for resisting Aurangzeb’s invasions for several months.
Although this was the starting point of the project christened My IndiEye GPS Video Tour, Bhalotia soon launched it on an Android platform. By making it available on Google Play store, customers can now buy the application. Once loaded on a phone, the customer can play the content at the tourist spot.
The GPS-supported application tracks the tourist’s location without the need of any Internet connection and constantly guides her through a map, while feeding her all relevant information dramatized by plays and animation. “The content has the right mix of research by professors and local myths that keeps the tourist interested,” Bhalotia said.
My IndiEye at present offers video tours for Golconda fort, Gateway of India in Mumbai, Humayun’s tomb and Qutub Minar in New Delhi, Agra fort and Taj Mahal in Agra. It is planning to develop more contents on heritage sites in Kerala, Rajasthan, Gujarat and the company’s home state West Bengal. In West Bengal, the company plans to develop video tours of Murshidabad—the capital of Bengal during the Mughal period, and Kumor Tuli—the artisan’s colony for making idols.
In all these places, the company would need the support of both central and state governments as heritage sites are protected by the government and its association would make things “smoother”, Bhalotia said.
My IndiEye’s journey so far hasn’t been without challenges. In Golconda, the only place where the company has a counter, its employees had to face protests from local tour guides, who took the project as competition.
“We are no competition either to the high-end expensive tour guides or to smaller local guides but are focusing on the untapped technology-aware tourist categories lying in between, who want to be well informed but at reasonable prices,” Bhalotia said.
The company has invested Rs.85 lakh in the venture, including personal investment, funds from the Centre and the Andhra Pradesh government for the Golconda tour and some venture capitalist money. It earned Rs.1.2 lakh operating profit till now. The firm hopes to break even in 2014-15.
Its application has recorded over 5,000 downloads so far on Google Play. Its source of revenue includes fee collections from the Golconda counter (15% of total revenue) and collections from the Play store. It pays a percentage of the collections to the Andhra Pradesh government and Google.
“The beauty of our model is that it is not very capital-intensive, with nearly zero variable cost and it bets on history, which has an eternal appeal, “ Bhalotia said.
The company can feed new content into the application easily without having to invest hugely. It is also planning to launch its service on the iOS platform and discussing with online tour operators for distribution tie-ups. It has also extended its video content as education courses in a tie-up with Udemy, an online education programmes organization.
Bhalotia is aware that his company needs to keep updating itself if it has to stand the challenge of evolving mobile telephony market. “We betted on Android when it was not even popular in India and would continue to update ourselves with the changing smartphone ecosystem,” he said.
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