Incredible India’s luxury trains or super luxury cruise trains aimed at luring the international tourists with deep pockets are running into serious trouble.
The Economic Times reported last week that the Palace on Wheels had cancelled a trip for the first time in 34 years. It had no bookings in one week and only 18 bookings the week prior to that.
The Indian Railways, first prestigious luxury train, Palace on Wheels, is not the only one facing low occupancy problems. Three other luxury trains are also facing low occupancy.
The Indian Express reported in December last year, that the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels, had to cancel two consecutive trips, because of no bookings, despite it being peak tourist season.
Occupancy levels came down from 35 to 40 percent in these trains in 2014-2015, from nearly 60 percent and above in 2011-2012. This is despite the number of trips being cut down in some of these trains.
However, the silver lining in the cloud, is the Maharajas’ Express, the only luxury train among the five luxury trains to actually see a steady increase from 42 percent to 57 percent in tourists from 2011-2012 to 2014-2015. The most expensive of the five trains, the Maharajas’ Express runs on five circuits covering more than 12 destinations across North-West and Central India.
The Maharaja’s Express has also been winning several travel awards steadily over the years, since 2011, which probably has ensured its flagship status among the luxury trains. The Business Line reported that the New World Wealth survey had ranked the Maharajas’ Express fourth on the list as per preferences of the super-rich, while Eastern and Oriental Express (Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand) was rated the best globally. There is also a request from Mexico to run the Maharajas’ Express in Latin America.
The Indian Railways describes its five luxury trains as, “India by rail offers a fascinating odyssey through time and space, cultures and history offering glimpses of unity amidst diversity, shrouded in enchanting mystery, colours that capture the heart while soothing the soul.”
Today, the Indian Railway stands as one of the largest and busiest rail networks in the world. With a workforce of 1.5 million, it is the single largest employer in the world. “No one offers the multi-dimensional magic of the real India more excitingly than the Indian Railways – the second largest railway system in the world covering around 65,000 km of track laid across around 8,000 stations, running around 19,000 trains every day. The convenient, well-connected routes offer passengers hassle-free tours to some of the most exotic places in the world," states the website.
The five luxury trains, which were created using the plush coaches of erstwhile princes, traverse the length and breadth of the country during the night, leaving the day free for tourists to explore the tourist destination. All the luxury trains were launched with the hope of luring the high-end international tourists. The tariff in these trains, ranges from 500 USD per person per night (Rs 30,000 roughly) to 1800 USD per person per night (Rs 108,000 roughly) depending on the route, season and train.
Among the five luxury trains, The Palace on Wheels was the first luxury train to be launched some three decades ago and is run by the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC). Royal Rajasthan on Wheels came in later and is also run by RTDC. Both the trains have similar routes, starting from New Delhi, covering mainly Rajasthan and Agra.
Deccan Odyssey is run by the Maharashtra Tourism Development Board targeting destinations in Maharashtra and Gujarat and Rajasthan.
The Golden Chariot is run by the Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation is probably the only luxury train that runs purely in the south – mainly Karnataka destinations and Goa.
All the trains have central air conditioning, intercom, TV, Wi-Fi, conferencing facilities, pantry, and lounge, piped in music, money exchange and credit card facility, spas, conferencing facilities, specialty restaurants serving exotic Indian food, well stocked bar, and round the clock attendants. The trains have about 14 to 19 coaches, lined with wall to wall carpeting and princely décor reminiscent of Indian royalty.
So what ails the Indian Railways prestigious luxury trains? Some of the reasons range from:
• Railway tourism has lost its appeal in the last few years with air fares becoming cheaper. The many popular online travel portals have great deals and offers and attractive group packages for tourists.
• In a static market, the luxury trains have ended up competing with each other for a slice of the same pie, as many routes and destinations overlap.
• Political and economic unrest and terrorist attacks abroad has kept away the international tourist.
• Online booking was not available for a while for tourists from their home countries. It was withdrawn after a few cases of misuse of credit cards came to light.
• There are also complaints from the unions that the tourism boards were not interested in running the luxury trains and were looking for a way out.
• These luxury trains are also weighed down with high haulage charges of over Rs 80 crore in the last five years alone.
So what is being done or needs to be done to bring India’s prestigious luxury trains back on track?
Taking cognizance of the dipping occupancy rates, the tourism and railway ministries are already working together on many initiatives, including offering INR rates to international traveler and launching aggressive promotion of the luxury trains through tourism ministry's overseas offices.
The Financial Express reported on Thursday that international travelers will soon be allowed to book Indian Railways train tickets online for domestic travel in India from their own countries, using their credit or debit cards.
What the railways and the different tourism boards running these trains need to also do is to change the perception among domestic tourists that these luxury trains are too expensive and meant only for international tourists.
Prices need to be slashed so as to target the middle class tourists, which is a huge market. In fact, the KSTDC has already gone ahead and slashed prices of the Golden Chariot. It has plans to increase its frequency and introduce a number of short hauls, reports The Deccan Herald. The KSTDC is also in talks with banks to offer tickets on easy installments and target the corporate customers, with conferences and corporate trips.
The tourism boards should also be targeting domestic tourists with disposable incomes. Given the terrorism threat in some countries abroad, domestic luxury tourists can be enticed to look at the luxury trains as a classy tourist option.
The Indian railways needs to reduce the high haulage charges. Initially, these were based on profit sharing and the tourist season, but in the last three years, fixed haulage charges have been levied on the state tourism boards by the Railways.
Online travel portals not only put paid to physical travel agents, they also gave the power back to the tourists to plan their own packages. The railways must look at putting up the luxury trains on these portals. Although several railway packages, including the semi-luxury trains like the Desert circuit and Heritage circuit, are available on popular travel portals, like MakeMyTrip.com and Cleartrip.com the luxury trains, however, are not listed here.
And finally learn from what went right for the Maharajas’ Express. Run exclusively by the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Ltd (IRCTC) this Public Sector Enterprise under the Ministry of Railways is also a mini Ratna and obviously knows it job.
So, should all the other luxury trains be handed over to the IRCTC to run? Perhaps that is what will work best for these luxury trains.