New Delhi: Having visited countries they find safe and fun, foreign gay travellers are increasingly touring India to get an experience of this varied and beautiful travel destination, thanks to niche travel agencies and a mindset change.
As many as five gay travel agencies in India offer customised packages including surrogacy tours, spiritual camps, weddings and honeymoon packages and a promise of an experience sans negative incidents that they face in conservative cultures.
"Customised packages -- everything from yoga, spiritual, weddings, honeymoon or even surrogacy tours -- are the main attractions for foreign gay tourists to India," Abhinav Goel, founder of OutJourneys.com, an travel gancy dedicated to gay travel, told reporters.
Weddings do not carry any legal status, but gay visitors do it anyway to experience the traditional Indian wedding.
According to Goel, the growth potential for gay tourisis is so high that he plans to further expand his operations to neighbouring countries, adding more destinations.
"There can be no measure for this huge growth we are experiencing. India has everything -- from spirituality, to awesome destinations and a good, caring environment," said Goel, who is also a chartered accountant.
The staff at hotels, resorts where gay visitors stay, the drivers ferrying them around and the tourt guides undergo specific training so that they act normal and in the same courteous manner with which they would behave with straight guests.
Though there is no specific data on the actual numbers of gay overseas tourists, even if one percent of all tourists were from the queer community, the numbers would be huge. In 2010, India welcomes 5.58 million foreign tourists, up by 9.3 percent over 2009.
Goel`s views were corroborated by John Tanzella, president of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), a UN-accredited body which looks after the travel trade industry of this niche segment.
"As the world becomes smaller, more accessible to global travellers, every business is looking at ways to create new itineraries and generate that buzz. With the political climate changing in India it makes it more viable for companies to expand," Tanzella told reporters.
Currently, three dedicated gay travel boutique agencies and 10 general tour operators including travel trade majors like Sita Tours and Travels are also members with IGLTA.
"Currently we are working with an international tour operator for this segment, Tom On Tours, as their India associate. We see huge growth opportunity here. We may even start our own packages soon," a manager with Sita told reporters, who did not want to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
Sanjay Malhotra, founder of India`s very first gay travel agency, IndjaPink, said that domestic gay tourists too were beginning to seek such specialised packages.
"Growth has been phenomenal. It really has started to take off now. Not that only global clients are flocking to us. There is also a surge in domestic demand that really cheers me up," said Malhotra.
He started the dedicated gay travel agency concept in India three years ago and now plans to open a resort to satisfy the demand generated from the niche market segment.
Malhotra`s company has so far catered to about 700 foreign clients from the US and western Europe, while the agency has been constantly getting queries from places as far away as Latin America.
"The travellers like India and especially the culture and places like Khujaraho, Varanasi, Goa and Kerala," he said, adding an agency charges $350-550 per night per person or couple depending on the package.
The success is prompting many international gay travel agencies to consider opening shop in India to cater to the niche travel segment.
"Earlier, the gay tourists used to visit Thailand or Malaysia. Now, India is opening up to this new phenomenon. They want to travel here," Rika Jean-Francois, product manager with ITB Berlin, one of the world`s leading travel trade shows, told reporters.
"Even many international cities like London, Antwerp and Vienna are trying hard to woo `the pink dollar, Euro and Yen` travellers, as the niche market is known."