Heritage tourism has just got more accessible and affordable, with special new tourist trains. And, tourists are hopping aboard in droves
LIANNE HAUXWELL was just seven years old when her father took her on a pleasure trip on a steam engine train from Pickering station to Whitby in England’s Yorkshire county famous for launching explorer James Cook’s seafaring career. Hauxwell, who now teaches English to young students in Vietnam, still remembers one of the stops during that four-hour journey: the picturesque Goathland station, now famous as Hogsmeade, the last stop of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films. “That was one memorable train journey,” says 29-year-old Hauxwell, who arrived at Madhya Pradesh’s Khajuraho railway station on the Heritage Circuit special train from New Delhi with musician husband Ben Green around Christmas last year.
In December, the IRCTC, a public-sector undertaking of the Indian Railways, launched two special trains from New Delhi—Desert Circuit and Heritage Circuit—bundling heritage destinations like Jaisalmer, Jaipur, Varanasi and Khajuraho. “India looks beautiful from a train,” says Hauxwell.
The Heritage Circuit special train symbolises a new wave of tourism in the country in which many new stations like Khajuraho and trains are coming up to better connect people and heritage destinations. With these special trains offering easy connectivity and affordability, many Indians are now enthusiastically hopping onboard to see heritage hotspots around the country.
Back to berth
“Mid-level travellers who can’t afford a very high-end product have the option today to cover more than one heritage destination and experience comfortable travel,” says AK Brar, director (tourism and marketing), Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC).
The Heritage Circuit train offers all-inclusive packages for as low as R18,000 for a three-tier berth for four nights. You can witness the daily evening prayer at the Varanasi ghats, roam around the 11th-century temples of Khajuraho and even steal a sight of the Taj Mahal in Agra. Compare the cost to the R2.50-lakh entry-level travel on IRCTC’s luxury train, Maharaja’s Express, and one can understand why middle-class families are now enthusiastically boarding these affordable trains to see stupas and sand dunes around the country.
Ravi and Vineeta Goyal from Karkardooma in New Delhi were all set to fly to Goa to celebrate their 26th wedding anniversary when a friend told them about the Heritage Circuit train. “We are happy we took the decision to travel on it,” says Ravi Goyal, who boarded the Delhi-Varanasi-Khajuraho-Agra-Delhi special train on December 20. “It is stress-free. We don’t have to worry about booking hotels, hiring guides or finding restaurants,” explains 48-year-old Goyal, whose family has been selling jewellery boxes in Chandni Chowk for three generations. The packages on both the Heritage and Desert Circuit trains, offered during October-April, come with hotel accommodation for two nights when guests disembark during the trip. Round-the-clock security keeps travellers safe onboard, while dedicated attendants serve food in coaches.
A week before the first run of the Heritage Circuit train, the IRCTC launched the five-day Delhi-Jaisalmer-Jaipur-Delhi Desert Circuit train, with a Rs 20,625 base fare for three-tier occupancy (this goes up to Rs 36,900 for a first-class ticket). The launch of the two trains followed the more expensive (Rs 53,225 for eight days in three-tier) Buddhist Circuit special train, which was launched by the IRCTC in 2007. “These special trains are a good option to visit a variety of heritage destinations in one go,” says Mokshada Bajpai of Oriental Bliss Tours, a Delhi-based inbound tour operator. As per the IRCTC, the Buddhist Circuit train registered a growth of nearly 50% in the number of travellers in 2014 over the previous year. New railway stations like Khajuraho, inaugurated in 2010, are helping as well.
“There is a significant increase in the number of people going to heritage destinations in the country,” says Suman Billa, joint secretary, Union tourism ministry. As per Billa, more foreign tourists, people of Indian origin and domestic travellers are “prepared to pay top dollars” to visit heritage spots in the country. A 2015 tourism ministry report says the number of domestic tourists visiting protected monuments rose 5% in 2014 over the previous year, while there was a decline of 6.5% among foreign tourists during the same period. The report says that the Taj Mahal is the most visited monument in the country with a 23.2% annual share of foreign tourists and 12% annual share of domestic tourists. Uttar Pradesh alone, which is home to the Taj Mahal, accounted for 182.8 million domestic visitors in 2014.
Clearly, Indians are travelling more within the country. A whopping 1.2 billion domestic tourist visits were recorded in the country in 2014 as against 1.1 billion in 2013. On the other hand, 22.5 million foreign tourists visited the country in 2014 compared to 19.9 million during the previous year, as per the tourism ministry report. Though no figures are available for the number of tourists taking trains to visit heritage destinations, creating new mid-segment heritage trains indicates a growing interest among travellers in rail journeys. Brar says more states are now writing to the IRCTC, demanding trains to heritage destinations in their territories. The demands include a ‘temple circuit’ train in the southern states, especially Tamil Nadu, which stood first in the country in domestic tourist visits (327.5 million) in 2014. Then there is a plan for a western coastal heritage train running through Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Diu and Kerala to tap an ‘untouched circuit’ with beaches, temples, churches and forts. The first of such demands will materialise in March 2016, which is when the IRCTC plans to inaugurate a new Tiger Trails special train linking three national parks of Madhya Pradesh: Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Pench.
In the budget airline era, nostalgia for train journeys is clearly playing out in the minds of tourists. “There is a rekindling of memories and also good scope to interact with fellow passengers on a train,” says Jyoti Nair of Indebo, a Delhi-based destination management company. “You miss this kind of interaction when you fly. You see the destination, but you miss the journey,” adds Nair. Agrees Hauxwell, “It is not the quickest and easiest way to see places, but it is a more romantic and traditional way.”
Faizal Khan is a freelancer