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Great Asian holidays at Indian prices

Great Asian holidays at Indian prices
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First Published: Tue, May 13 2008. 10 22 PM IST

Updated: Tue, May 13 2008. 10 22 PM IST
One year ago, Outlook Money set about trying to answer a question that had been on the staffers’ minds for long: Can we Indians, earning in rupees, afford to see other countries and not feel much of a pinch? We were not talking about the 50-odd people on the Forbes billionaires list. They could even get and out-of-the-world experience on Richard Branson’s spacecraft. We were talking about the guy next door, who, too, wants to see what lies beyond India’s borders. The result of that search was a cover story, Rupee-friendly Holidays, published in our 15 April 2007 edition. In that, we were able to come up with a list of 30 countries that would not cost an Indian tourist more than twice what he would pay in India. Our underpinning was purchasing power parity data published by the World Bank and the then foreign exchange rates.
A lot has changed in the world economy since then. To begin with, the Indian rupee has gained almost 9 per cent against the US dollar, which has currency in almost every corner of the globe. Of the other currencies, most gained, some as much as 20 per cent or so. However, others, such as the South African rand, have lost. What that has meant is that not only does the rupee command more dollars now, the dollar actually gets you more of the currencies that have either weakened or not gained as much as the rupee against the dollar. And, of course, countries whose currencies have gained more than the rupee against the dollar have become more expensive. The ability of currencies to command similar baskets of goods in their own countries, too, changed, depending, among other things, on varying inflation rates. An unfortunate development has been that the global oil price rise has led to higher airfares across the board and made reaching the destinations more expensive.
Travelling in Asia: A Ready Reckoner (Graphic)
In any case, we decided to repeat the exercise this year and see whether all these changes will alter the list of countries that are affordable this year to rupee-earning Indians. Like last time, this year too, we have used the most recent World Bank data available to run the numbers. We have also looked at consular travel advisories to ensure that you are unlikely to be ducking bullets or be kidnapped for ransom in the countries on our list. In fact, this exercise has taken out countries like Sri Lanka and Cameroon, which have seen increased insurgent activity and/or other political unrest. A decrease in such activity has allowed Nepal to enter the list. Besides, we also checked that there was enough to see and do for the average tourist. Alternative holidays have not been considered since there is no way we can cover all or even most of the options. Overall, we have been quite enthused by the results.
To begin with, the list is longer—42 countries against 30 last year. The increase has come from all continents. Most of the countries that made it last year have remained on the list this year too. Some countries, such as Montenegro, which we had expected would be attracting a growing number of tourists, have become too expensive to remain on our list. Some others, such as Cuba, are heading the same way, but are still on the list. The first screening of countries has been done on the basis of affordability. Like last year, we have omitted countries with overall prices at more than two times India’s level. The multiple is usually higher for tourists, especially in countries where tourism is a significant contributor to the economy. So, to arrive at the list, price levels of services and goods typically used by tourists, primarily hotel rooms and meals, have been considered.
This is by far the most affordable region in terms of price levels. The other advantage here is the airfare. Since India is in the middle of the region, no place is too far, and the journey remains inexpensive compared to areas such as the Americas. And there is no dearth of places here, from seasides, mountains and deserts to historical places or hip party spots. The other advantage is that English has currency in almost the entire region. So you will not have to buy that phrasebook before going in. Apart from Nepal next door, this year Jordan, Syria and Laos have entered the list.
This region is also the weakest economically, which makes local food really cheap. Think of India. If you can eat rajma-chawal or curd rice, you will spend just Rs 100-150 a day on food because that is what locals will be willing to pay at small but clean restaurants. So, while we have considered mid-level stays and meals in our listing, if the local food suits your palate, you can really cut down your spends on food and also, literally, get a taste of that country. This, of course, holds true anywhere in the world.
Nepal has been attracting tourists to its magnificent mountains for a century now. Laos is still less popular than its neighbours such as Vietnam and Cambodia and might be a little bit tougher to negotiate, but it has retained more of its distinctive nature. Jordan and Syria can make long-forgotten history books come alive for you with their legacy of millennia. Again, because these two have been below the tourists’ radar they are not overcrowded and prices have not gone through the roof.
This and North America have been the most economically prosperous continents over the last two centuries. So, prices are the steepest here. But it is one of the best-organised regions to go to as it has most of the infrastructure in place. The weather is good, so getting around does not sap your energy as it would in hot or muggy places. Compared with the more affluent western Europe, the eastern part of the continent is less of a tourist attraction. It, however, has an equally rich cultural history and architecture. In fact, till many of these countries went behind the Iron Curtain, they enjoyed economic development on a par with their westerly cousins. But now, almost 20 years after the Iron Curtain era, they find themselves a lagging a little. That has kept the prices in these countries down. Of the four entrants from this region in our list this year, Hungary, Romania (with Moldova), and the Czech Republic (with Slovakia) are surely worth visiting. The good thing is that these are not very large and close to each other. So, if funds and time permit, and you are willing to move around, you can cover them in one go. Also, it works out cheaper to fly to one place and travel to the rest by trains, which are quite comfortable. While the European mountains will not seem as dramatic as the Himalayas to an Indian, they are nonetheless incredibly pretty. They also give you a chance to go on less strenuous hikes and treks.
Those who like big game cannot afford not to visit Africa at least once in their lives. But beyond the stereotype, there is much else to see. Unfortunately, this continent is poor and, partly because of that, strife-ridden, often violently so. That puts a lot of places out of bounds for tourists. Except for South Africa, Namibia and Egypt, most of the rest is off the standard tourist map, at least as far as Indians are concerned. If that does not deter you, there is a wealth of nature and a fair bit of human history to see and feel. Europeans have been taking short flights out to this continent for many years. That is also partly because the maritime nations had colonised very large tracts here. After their exit, most of which happened 30-40 years ago, many of the countries are still trying to come to grips with themselves. One problem is finding good air connections to countries in western Africa. You will, in most cases, have to fly through Europe. That will bump up your costs. But that said, it is still worth going to countries like Senegal, Mali and Morocco for a taste of the Sahara. An advantage that colonisation has left tourists with is that some of the European languages, such as French, have fairly good currency on the continent. So, if you can brush up on your skills, you can get by fine. One country that has entered the list this year is Sao Tome & Principe. If you are looking for an equatorial island getaway, check it out.
Although Indians broadly refer to the US as ‘America’, that is unfair to the rest of the continent as there is a lot more to it. Cuba still remains the cheapest way to experience the Caribbean. This year’s list also includes Brazil, but you will need to do the money math a little carefully here. Then there is Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile and Uruguay. Peru, although affordable, had to be dropped for security reasons. There is a lot of native cultural history here, the most famous being those of the Incas. And then there is the Spanish legacy—cultural, architectural and culinary—to be enjoyed. While some blame the Spaniards for ruining the local culture, if you are not judgemental and can enjoy what there is, you are likely to have a good time. Chile can give you a one-of-a-kind experience, hanging precariously as it does between the high Andes and the Pacific. Mexico will take you back to the Aztec ruins. Costa Rica, peaceful and almost pristine, can delight with its flora and fauna, which is very different from that found in the Eastern Hemisphere. Just one thing, flights will be expensive because you will have to travel halfway around the globe to get there.
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First Published: Tue, May 13 2008. 10 22 PM IST