Page last updated at 17:09 GMT, Thursday, 7 August 2008 18:09 UK

India's prolific travellers

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

A stall of Hyderabad at a travel fair in Calcutta
Bengalis travel widely at home and abroad
Indians love travelling, but people belonging to its Bengali community love travelling more than the others.

So much so that Bengalis make up at least 60% of India's 400 million-strong domestic tourist traffic.

It is no wonder then that tour operators from India and abroad are flocking to the eastern Indian city of Calcutta, home to the Bengali community, to hook up clients with attractive packages ahead of the upcoming festival season, Durga Puja.

The Bengalis' compulsive love for travel, with at least one annual family vacation, mostly during the festival season, makes them India's most prolific tourists.

"We are talking of millions of people, old and young, rich and middle-class, low budget and high budget, this is a huge market and everyone wants a finger in the pie," says Kaushik Chatterji of Cholo Jai (Let's Go), a popular Bengali TV programme on travel, who organises one of the three tourism and travel fairs held in Calcutta each year.

Many in the industry say tourists from other states like Gujarat, Punjab, Maharashtra and Karnataka are swelling in numbers over the years on the back of rising upper and middle-class incomes.


But no one in the Indian tourism industry or travel writing doubts that Bengalis continue to remain the "largest chunk of domestic tourists" in India.

What makes Bengalis such peripatetic people?

For one, the Bengali wanderlust goes back quite a bit into history.

Bengal's great 19th-century social reformer Swami Vivekananda exhorted Bengalis to travel, to go to foreign lands.

In 1892, he told his friend Shankarlal that "if we really want to reconstitute ourselves as a nation, we have to freely mingle with other nations, so travel whenever you can".

Even medieval Bengali literature is replete with travelogues. And modern Bengali literature and film are very rich in travel writing - often, as in well-known filmmaker Satyajit Ray's stories, mixed with adventure and fun.

Jyoti Kaul of Travex, a travel magazine, says Bengalis "travel on their terms" and snare bargains from tour operators because of their numbers.

A Malaysia tourist promotion plan at a Calcutta fair
East Asian destinations have become popular with Bengalis

And now that Bengalis are also travelling abroad in large numbers, tour operators from China and south-east Asia, Middle East and Mauritius are lining up at the travel fairs in Calcutta to showcase their packages.

"Mostly domestic tourists so far, Bengalis are turning to foreign travel in a big way," says Sanjeev Aggarwal, organiser of a recent fair.

He says large numbers of Bengalis have booked packages for Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and even China this year.

"These places are nearer to Calcutta and so work out cheaper for Bengalis than for others in India. In some case, a package to Thailand is less expensive from Calcutta than a package to Kerala or Kashmir."

However, some, like Deepika Chakrabarty, are going to Egypt as part of a group during this Durga Puja in October.

"We live in a high-rise apartment and Egypt was a consensus destination when we discussed our travel plans in the apartment club," said Mrs Chakrabarty.

"We want a civilisation experience this year."

Nearly 10 million Indian tourists travel abroad every year - against six million foreigners who come to this country.

But even not-so-affluent Bengalis travel widely - they go nearer home.

This year, low-budget Bengali tourists, who would normally flock to the tea-producing picturesque hills of Darjeeling in their own state, are turning to the north-eastern states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya in very large numbers.

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