#VanLife for India: is this the future of travel?

Ankita Kumar and Sharanya Iyer on their holiday to Sikkim   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Sometime in early 2018, I began researching the camper lifestyle for this newspaper, a trend that was picking up speed in the West. Social media was flooded with stories of millennials leaving well-paying jobs to live off the grid, embracing the #VanLife way: a “one-word lifestyle”, as The New Yorker put it, “denoting a renewed interest in road trips, a culture of hippie-inflected outdoorsiness, and a life free from the tyranny of a nine-to-five office job”. Many early adopters have also made money from product placements and partnerships.

But back home it seemed travel junkies were not in step with their peers; it was barely even a trend. Just not the right time, perhaps? Two years on, however, things could be changing. While Indians might not be ready to move into a caravan full-time or even try to monetise a new lifestyle, the pandemic is making them rethink how they holiday. And renting campers could be one of the options.

Sharanya Iyer

Sharanya Iyer  

Call of the road

At a time when lockdown is lifting, travel, either on work or for pleasure, which had come to a screeching halt is stuttering back to life. Maldives, a popular luxury destination for the one-percenters, recently announced the reopening of its borders post July 15, and it is just a matter of time before others follow suit. With the Indian hospitality sector reportedly taking a beating of close to ₹90,000 crore in revenues in 2020 (with a corresponding loss of an expected 20 million jobs), it is also heartening to hear that homestays and hotels, especially those promising isolation and high standards of hygiene, are seeing a spike in bookings.

Soneva, the luxury resort chain in the Maldives and Thailand, has seen inquiries picking up by 135% this month. “We have more bookings for August this year than we had for the same time last year. And October has 50% more,” reveals Sonu Shivdasani, the CEO, over a webinar on luxury travel. “I think people who were planning to travel for Easter are now doing so later in the year. [The fact that] we are ‘one island one resort’ also helps.”

The LuxeCamper

The LuxeCamper   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

But not everyone wants to go through the hassle of flying, especially with inflated costs and the hours of checking and sanitisation. Instead, driving holidays are becoming the post-Covid answer. And everyone from start-ups to state governments are looking to cash in. “We think people will want to travel closer to home and we see a great opportunity for road trips,” says Valsa Nair Singh, Principal Secretary of Tourism of the Maharashtra government. “We plan to identify existing amenities on popular routes and help them become Covid-19 compliant. We are working on upgrading infrastructure and identifying spots where people can set up camps on beaches along the Konkan coast. We are also looking into the feasibility of promoting RVs.”

Have wheels, will travel

Close on the heels of the Madhya Pradesh tourism ministry’s launch of luxury caravans in early June, the Karnataka government has now announced a Caravan Tourism initiative in collaboration with Campervan Camps. According to Tiger Ramesh, founder of the Bengaluru-based start-up, the caravan ecosystem is set to change for the better. “People might reluctantly fly for work, but not for holidays,” he says, adding that families are showing the most interest in his LuxeCamper motorhomes (assembled on an Ashok Leyland chassis with a 4,200mm wheelbase).

Three thousand kilometres away, Guwahati-based Harsh Sharma, co-founder of Camping Co, has been seeing traffic on his website surge, thanks to ongoing social media campaigns, discounts and advance booking offers. Known for promoting #VanLife with his own spin on the traditional campervan — with roof top tents mounted on a Tata Xenon — he says, “Our product is optimal for social distancing as we travel to remote areas and avoid crowds.” Others like Captain (retired) Suresh Sharma, of Chandigarh-based Green Dot Expeditions, are also addressing the global challenge of lack of access to stores (which are either closed, offering reduced services, or pose a high-risk of exposure), by creating additional storage. He is adding a trailer to his overland camping truck, to stock groceries.

An interior snapshot of Ankita Kumar and Sharanya Iyer’s vehicle

An interior snapshot of Ankita Kumar and Sharanya Iyer’s vehicle   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Money matters

While #VanLife originally meant hopping on a caravan and roughing it out, the culture mushrooming in India offers a range of experiences. The LuxeCamper — complete with facilities such as queen size beds and imported toilets with waste incinerators — will take you to lesser-known places in Kabini, the forests of Bandipur, and the ruins of Hampi in Karnataka, with packages between ₹40,000 and ₹90,000 for two. They currently have two RVs, with plans to add another 10.

Yes, costs can be a challenge. Travel influencer Ankita Kumar (, who was part of the first documented #VanLife trip in the country back in 2018, says that apart from getting hold of a vehicle, other wallet-lightening factors include fuel and the enormous amount of paperwork — from procuring a fitness certificate (issued by the Regional Transport Office annually) to show that your caravan is in working condition, to insurance and tax papers (which can cost anywhere between ₹25,000 and ₹30,000).

“It is doable, but it takes a longer time. We’ve sometimes got permissions to visit a certain place just a day before our actual departure!,” says Kumar, who went on a month-long caravan trip across Sikkim with fellow blogger Sharanya Iyer last year. “Government officials, tour operators and van designers need to get in sync otherwise you can't guarantee clear cut policies for caravan travel,” adds Captain Sharma.

Captain Suresh Sharma’s overland mobile camping unit, Taurus

Captain Suresh Sharma’s overland mobile camping unit, Taurus   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Another bump on the road is the lack of camping sites. The lifestyle relies on finding places to park and sleep, to stock up on water and food, shower, locate cafes for Wi-Fi, to name a few. The pandemic has amplified these inconveniences everywhere, and especially in India, where we have a lack of demarcated caravan parks. “Things like contactless accommodation at BnBs, making your own meals, and carrying your groceries must be favoured,” says travel blogger Iyer. Operators like Ramesh are trying to sort out the logistics. Most of them have collaborated with campsites and properties at all the locations listed on their itinerary (a boon for first-timers). Trippy Wheels has partnered with homestays and youth hostels in locations such as Coorg, Chikmagalur, Gokarna and Hampi. And Sharma is updating his fleet of refurbished Tata Xenons and Force Tempo Travellers, which already come with a fridge and a shower, with solar panels to power the appliances.

Meanwhile, rental requests for private vans are spiking too. Next week, Sanjna Hangal of Bengaluru-based rental service, Trippy Wheels, will launch her ‘Build your own caravan’ campaign. Assembling your own camper on a Mahindra Imperio or Force Tempo Traveller could cost you anywhere between ₹12 lakh and ₹22 lakh respectively; Hangal hopes to use their experience to keep the prices affordable.

An interior snapshot of the LuxeCamper

An interior snapshot of the LuxeCamper   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Safety first

Even on the open road, discussions about sanitisation can’t be ignored. Along with handing out safety kits to guests, Ramesh ensures all surfaces in the LuxeCamper are sterilised, and the upholstery and linen are steamed (100°C). “The driver and the tour leader sit in a cabin up front, isolated from the rear. Initially, it was to ensure privacy but now it is working with the new norms,” he says. Travellers can also use an Android tablet to control most of the operations, such as indoor temperature and heating water.

Sharma has covered all the seats with single-use plastic sheets, though he admits that “this is a double-edged sword for a pro-conservation company like ours and will only be a necessary short-term decision”.

Will travellers be putting others at risk by stepping out? “We believe our guests are responsible adults and won’t [unnecessarily] visit stores, cafes and public places. They will limit interactions to, in and around our LuxeCamper, in safe halting spots,” he concludes.

With inputs from Prasad Ramamurthy

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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 6:46:19 AM |

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