One step is the installation of retro-reflective display boards giving names of roads and directions to landmarks

With the tourist season being rather dull now, tourists from European countries particularly students, professionals on corporate tours and some domestic tourists are the only relief for tour operators and travel planners.

October to February is the peak season for foreign tourist arrivals and May is when the focus shifts to in-bound tourists, say travel planners. The dip in the demand now is such that the three tours every day during the peak season have been reduced to running just an 18-seater bus every Saturday, says a senior official of Tamilnadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC).

Experts say the off season provides an opportunity to make the necessary changes in preparing for the peak season. While a number of initiatives have been undertaken by the government, much more needs to be done to make the city more tourist-friendly, they add.

One step in this direction is the installation of retro-reflective display boards giving names of the roads and directions to landmarks. The bright boards, which are easy to read from a distance, are bound to go a long way in helping them explore the city on their own, say tourists.

“The name boards in different locations have been installed to mark connecting roads, locations and places. A lot of thought has gone into the signages keeping in mind the tourists,” says Chennai Corporation Commissioner D. Karthikeyan. The names of the locations mentioned on the boards have been arranged in terms of their distance from that particular point. For example, in a sign board on Nungambakkam High Road which reads Porur, Vadapalani and Valluvar Kottam, we have put Porur on the left extreme to indicate that it's farthest. We have also mentioned the exact distances to certain landmarks,” he adds.

“The new sign boards are helpful, but for seasoned travellers like me, directions in the street interiors would help,” says Pablo Crezhe, a photographer from Italy, who is on his fourth visit to the city. On the other hand, for Rajani and Gunjan Gupta, an elderly couple from Rajasthan who spent three days in the city before leaving for the TTDC Navagraha tour, the new boards “gave a fairer idea as to how to reach the airport or High Court, instead of relying on the cab or the autorickshaw driver.”

“Around 80 per cent of the foreign tourists we get here are first-time visitors. Poor quality of guides is a reason why we lose out on a lot of repeat tourists,” says P. Asoka, President, Tourist Guides Federation of India.

The lean season means that only about 10 of the 150 guides certified by the government of India are occupied this month, he says. “While most proper guide courses go on for 16 weeks, some candidates go for the capsule two-week courses and get certified without the necessary communication skills or updated knowledge of historic findings. This is why many tourists carry back a disappointing impression of the city.” Compulsory refresher courses and study tours for guides during this lean season can make a significant difference, he adds.

Many tour designers are coming up with innovative travel plans to lure tourists. TTDC too is in the fray with its 108 Amman temple tour for the Aadi season and the Courtallam tour finding many takers, apart from the special discounts for corporate employees, according to an official.

“Providing escorts, suited meals and soft paced travel plans are getting us more tour orders from senior citizens,” says S. Krishnakumar of Holiday by Choice.

Airlines fares have also been slashed. Also in vogue are trips for college students. “But while an adult is charged Rs.700-800 per day on an average, a student is charged just Rs.500. The extended tourist demand in June owing to the late reopening of schools helped us compensate for the dry season,” says Mr. Krishnakumar. “Sight-seeing trips for families and students who go seeking admissions in various cities are somewhat popular this season,” says B. Palanivel, of Easytrip India.

Most resorts and tour operators have been offering up to 30 per cent discounts in their packages since July. “For instance, during peak season, one would have to shell out between Rs.4,000 and Rs.5,000 for a hotel near the shore. This season, one can get it at Rs.1,700,” says S. Srinivasan, regional sales manager, Yatra Online.

Tourists from other States feel while it is has become easier to find their way and negotiate rates, they often get cheated by small-time tour operators. “They arrange tours at half the price of the bigger tour operators, but there is no attention paid to lodging facilities in between tours as promised, especially if you are in a smaller group,” says R.B. Goel, a tourist from Uttar Pradesh, who is on a visit to Chennai, Madurai and Kodaikanal.

The resorts on Rajiv Gandhi Salai and Mamallapuram are preferred by foreign tourists as many want to stay close to seashore. “It is almost 40 per cent less expensive than a five-star accommodation in the city. Puducherry is close by too. And, we get the food we want here,” says Jonathan Kluz, a month-long resident at Sun Shore Resorts. Many of them, if on a heritage tour, say tour consultants, also opt for the more economical towns of Tiruchi, Madurai or Kancheepuram, especially during long visits.

Availability of suitable food and hygienic lodging places are among the foremost concerns for these tourists, as is transport. “It is difficult for first-time tourists who are travelling alone, especially the haggling with drivers. We usually prefer good hotels for short stay, and known lodges suggested by friends,” says Eparvier Joanna (20), an engineering student from France, staying at a lodge in Triplicane.

Tourists from Malaysia and Singapore, who unlike their counterparts from other countries, plan longer vacations are frequent visitors this season, though the money they spend for the tour is relatively less, say tour consultants.

With many European countries taking time to emerge out of the economic slowdown, the budget of many foreign tourists is quite tight, says Christe Raajan, former chairman, Travel Agents Association of India. “The follow-up of tourists' complaints from tour operators, travel agencies and enquiry counters would help us know what we lack. But that is not being done here,” he adds.

(With inputs from Vasudha Venugopal, Liffy Thomas and Sowmiya Ashok)

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