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JUNE 3, 2007
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Trillion-Dollar Club
India has joined the elite club of 12 countries with GDPs in excess of a trillion dollars. The country's GDP crossed the trillion-dollar mark for the first time when the rupee appreciated to below Rs 41 against the greenback. According to a report by Swiss investment bank Credit Suisse, India's stock market capitalisation has risen to $944 billion (Rs 39,64,800 crore), which is also closing in on the trillion-dollar mark. An analysis of the Indian economy.

Minding The Monsoon
The India Meteorological Department's prediction that the total rainfall in the coming monsoon season is likely to be 95 per cent of the long-period average, with an error margin of 5 per cent, is good news for agriculture. But experts say there's a need to revamp monsoon prediction so that the region-wise and timing of rainfall patterns can be forecast much earlier. A look at the credibility of monsoon models and their impact on agriculture.
More Net Specials

Business Today,  May 20, 2007

Tourism's Experiential Entrepreneurs
A band of new age entrepreneurs is delivering on the Incredible India promise by offering 'experiential' tourism in exotic locales. And foreigners are lapping it up.

Tourism in India, which till the advent of the high voltage Incredible India campaign sputtered along incrementally, may finally be hitting cruise speed; inbound tourists crossed four million for the first time in 2006. But before you reach out for the bubbly, you may want to take a reality check-the 4.43 million foreign tourists who visited India last year are a drop in the ocean when compared to tourist arrivals in Hong Kong (25.25 million), Malaysia (17.55 million) and Singapore (9.7 million). It's the usual litany of complaints-limited entry points, limited and overpriced hotel rooms and high taxes-that squeeze India out of the global market. But, in the midst of this chaos, a few individuals are charting out a new course-of tourism that is socially conscious and environmentally sustainable. Here, we profile a few such entrepreneurs and their ventures.

Francis Wacziarg (L), 64, & Aman Nath, 56
Neemrana Hotels
Rs 16 crore

Fort of call: It took Wacziarg and Nath 5 years to restore Neemrana

In keeping with their business philosophy of offering heritage vacations at affordable prices, Nath and Wacziarg will launch Le Colonial Fort in Kochi in September. The duo, who are best known for their Neemrana Fort Resort, are also restoring two more properties, The Bungalow on the Beach in Tranquebar in Tamil Nadu and Rajinder Kothi in Patiala, that will be launched shortly. The former is in keeping with the duo's recent focus on the south and the latter will be its first property in Punjab. How did they start out? It was while driving down the Delhi-Jaipur highway that Nath and Wacziarg chanced upon the ruins of the 15th century Neemrana Fort in the early 1980s. They purchased it for Rs 7 lakh in 1986 and spent the next 5 years restoring it. "We opened in 1991 with 12 rooms which were very well received by tourists who wanted to experience India beyond its cities," says Wacziarg. Today, the 50-room property, with tariffs starting from Rs 1,600 per room per night, has become the 12-property group's flagship and showpiece. Wacziarg's pet angst: "The single window clearance doesn't really exist in reality and policies can change on the whims and fancies of an individual," he observes.

Samit Sawhny, 35
MD, Barefoot Group
TURNOVER: Rs 4.1 crore

Local flavour: Sawhny plans to open two more resorts in the Andamans

An IIM-A graduate, Sawhny was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug after a stint with Ernst & Young. "I wanted to do something on my own, though tourism specifically wasn't on my radar," says Sawhny, who landed up in Havelock Island in the Andaman islands in January 2002 while compiling a travelogue titled All the World's a Spittoon. "It was a chicken-and-egg situation-there were no tourists because there was no infrastructure, which wasn't built because no tourists ever came," he chuckles. He launched the Barefoot Group's first resort in Havelock Island in 2004 with an initial investment of $2 million (Rs 9 crore then). "The name was chosen to signify an environmentally friendly approach," he informs. "For instance, the cottages are built on stilts so that the water and sand can have a free run," says Sawhny, who serves only local cuisine. Then, tragedy struck, in the form of the killer tsunami, on December 26, 2004. "For a year, we had no tourists and had to cancel all our chartered flights," he recalls. However, the tragedy actually proved to be a boon in disguise. "Havelock was not affected per se; so, it got us publicity as a resort that was safe," he says. After the first full year of operations, that saw him welcoming 800, mostly foreign, couples, Sawhny is now planning to expand his operations by opening two more resorts in the Andaman islands.

Smooth sailing: Sukapha on the Brahmaputra

Ashish Phookan, 50
MD, Assam Bengal Navigation and Jungle Travels India
TURNOVER: Rs 10 crore

The weather looks fine: Phookan is now planning cruises from Kolkata to the Farakka barrage

The idea came from a tourist, Andrew Brock, who later became Ashish Phookan's partner. "Brock did some research and realised that there was no passenger boat in Assam, though they used to ply during British times," says Phookan. The duo approached the Assam government for a boat; and were given RV Charaidew, a passenger and cargo ferry lying idle after 27 years of service on the Brahmaputra, on a 20-year lease in 2002. "We invested Rs 2 crore on restoring it and converted it into a 12-room, air-conditioned cruise liner offering 7-to-21 night packages," he says. After two successful seasons of operating the Charaidew, Phookan bought a second boat, rv Sukapha, for Rs 6 crore; the boat has just completed its first season of operation. "This year, I am taking both boats to the Hooghly to operate cruises from Kolkata to Farakka from end-July to end-August," says Phookan, who ferries around 600 tourists annually; packages typically cost $250 (Rs 10,250) per person per night for a 8-9 day cruise. Phookan also runs a resort overlooking the Biphlu river in the Kaziranga National Park.

Jose Dominic, 56
MD, CGHEarth Hotels
TURNOVER: Rs 70 crore

Rustic setting: Dominic involves the local community in his projects

Come June, and Dominic will launch Visalam, a 15-room heritage property in Chettinad in Tamil Nadu, taking the number of his hotels to 10. Like in his other properties, this one, too, will weave the local culture and involve the local community at every step-be it in the architecture, employment or allied services. The guiding principle also remains the same: environment first, guests afterwards. He's now a veteran at this, but in 1988, Dominic entered uncharted waters when he set up a hotel, Bangaram Island Resort, on Bangaram Island in Lakshadweep. "Our proposal said 'Keep the island as it is, don't spoil it with a hotel'," he reminisces. The 30-room resort has no TV, no room service, no air-conditioning and no geysers. "Probably for the first time, someone was able to tell the customer that he was not the king," he says. It was the land and the locals that came first in order of priority. Dominic recalls an incident where the General Manager of the resort discovered a harpoon in the possession of a guest, took it on the pretext of examining it and then deliberately broke it. Today, Bangaram plays host to just about 1,000 tourists annually, each shelling out $350 (Rs 14,350) a day for a life lacking in conventional luxuries. "However, with a maximum of 30 rooms per hotel, it is difficult to maintain economies of scale," he says.

Sanjay Basu, 46
MD, Far Horizon Tours
TURNOVER: Rs 50 crore

Sun and sand: Basu's Dera Resort is the world's only resort atop a sand dune

Basu started off by organising luxury tented accommodation at various festivals-like Pushkar in Rajasthan. "The turning point came when we came across an old wooden boat in Kerala, which we bought and converted into a houseboat," he says. The Vaikundam, on which he spent Rs 3 crore, is today the largest houseboat in the Kerala backwaters, offering 10 rooms at $200 (Rs 8,200) a night. But Basu faced his greatest challenge in Rajasthan. The Dera Sand Dune Resort, the world's only resort built atop a sand dune, involved a combination of building restraining walls and pouring huge quantities of water in the sand dune to give it stability. Then, water and sandstorms are the biggest challenges in the desert, which is why the resort is closed from April to June. "We had to lay 4 km of cables to get power to the resort," he says. All this cost him Rs 4 crore, which, perhaps, explains the steep tariff of $400 (Rs 16,400) per day. "We will be launching private pool villas in July 2008 that will be priced at $800 (Rs 32,800) a night," says Basu, who is investing an additional Rs 2.5 crore to add a spa, a bar and another swimming pool. In January 2008, Basu will unveil mv Mahababu, a luxury cruise liner operating on the Brahmaputra.

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