Friday, December 29, 2006

Hop a little... skip a little...

Hop a little... skip a little...

The Hindu Business Line

A unique hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus is doing the rounds in Bangalore. Wanna jump board?

The bus takes travellers through 15 stops covering Hudson circle, the Museum, MG Road, Cubbon Road, Raj Bhavan, the planetarium, Race Course and so on.

With its chirpy red exteriors and cosy interiors, it certainly looks impressive. Not to mention its towering presence on the garden city's roads. Even as it manages to attract quite a bit of attention, the `City Swaps' tourist bus largely runs empty... Even as onlookers in Bangalore wonder what this mammoth bus, which promises a `different' tourist experience, is all about, questions and doubts abound. Is it all talk with nothing much to offer? Isn't it too expensive at Rs 300? And just how different can a tourist bus be?

It was with some scepticism that I boarded the City Swaps. And although sightseeing was not on my agenda, it did prove to be a jolly jaunt.

Sitting on the open upper deck, about 14 ft from the ground, one literally felt on top on the world. Although I chose a small route, across important landmarks in the heart of the city — Cubbon Park, Vidhana Soudha, High Court, Bangalore Palace, Golf Course and Museum, to name a few, I could get a sense of what's in store for tourists.

City Swaps does not offer a conventional tourist itinerary that breathlessly packs all kinds of places. Claimed to be India's first hop-on-hop-off bus, it promises travellers flexibility in sightseeing.

Says Avinash Kumar, CEO, Conceptree Creations, which conceived the idea for the bus, "Typically in a conducted sightseeing, you take a bus in the morning... it takes you to 10 different places, makes small halts at different places. It gives you no flexibility to plan your tour. You may want to spend more time at a particular place while the bus halt is only for 45 minutes. Or you may want to spend less time or skip a particular place. But the bus has a fixed itinerary and you have to go through all the places. And it's a daylong tour and with family and kids it can become really strenuous."

JOLLY JAUNT: Avinash Kumar of City Swaps poses with a school group on the open upper deck of the bus - Bhagya Prakash K.

Complete flexibility

This rigidity bothered him a lot and he wanted to do something that would let the tourist plan his day's trip. And as Kumar, an investment banker by profession, had lived abroad in places such as London and New York, where the hop-on-hop-off bus is a popular attraction, he decided to introduce a similar concept in India. So, after two years of thought and research, with a group of friends he started Conceptree Creations on July 28 this year.

The first idea to branch out of it was City Swaps. This is how it works. You buy a day pass (valid for 24 hours) and a fleet of five double-decker buses with open decks are at your service along a 16-km route. You board a bus at any stop and alight at any of the stops on the route. You spend as much time as you want in that place and take the next available bus. There is a bus available every half hour.

"There is complete flexibility. You can choose the order in which to visit places. You don't have to get down anywhere if you don't want to. In addition to sightseeing, you also feel part of the city. You can hop on, hop off a bus any number of times. You don't have to run first thing in the morning and come back late in the night. You can leisurely plan your tour and also explore places on your own at leisure," explains Kumar.

The bus takes travellers through 15 stops covering Hudson circle, the Museum, MG Road, Cubbon Road, Raj Bhavan, the planetarium, Race Course and so on. The hop-on-hop-off service is currently limited to the city centre but will slowly expand to include other places. There is a feeder service planned to Lalbagh Gardens and the Iskcon temple. Another attraction on the bus is the live commentary.

Lukewarm response

But despite its novelty, the bus has not really caught people's imagination. They are still asking a lot of questions... awareness is still low, says Kumar. City Swaps gets about 10 to 12 tourists per day on an average. He admits the number is very low, but adds that this is a low break-even project that can survive on fewer numbers. "If it becomes 50-60 per day, that will be a healthy number. A lot of people who haven't been on it are building certain myths around it. Whether it is traffic or cost or whether Bangalore has enough tourist places too see... This is a conducted and not guided tour. Someone who is guiding will also charge you through the nose. So, one can't really say the tariff is steep. Why, some even expect lunch to be served on board! That is taking away from the core concept. Sightseeing should never be combined with food. If you are feeling hungry, get down anywhere and eat. The core model is the flexibility of sightseeing. I want to focus on this."

But he realises it will be difficult to change the mindset of people brought up on a certain model of sightseeing. "We cannot expect them to change overnight. A lot of awareness has to be built and we have to get people to experience the service."

Kumar also has to grapple with the slow-paced nature of tourism in general and the lack of enthusiasm among Indians to discover the city the way it is meant to be. "City Swaps provides the option to explore. One can take a stroll along Ulsoor Lake or walk down Cubbon Park. People need to explore and experience the spirit of Bangalore. Sixty per cent of my crowd is foreigners because they relate to the concept immediately. They say: `Wow, we never expected this in India.' Foreign tourists want to get down, explore the place and absorb everything. But the Indian tourist prefers to be spoon-fed, he needs the entire logistics in place; when he gets down he wants a restroom, ice-cream parlour and a restaurant because he normally travels with family," he says. But despite all the scepticism among the local populace those who have actually tried the bus always say, `Wow! I never realised there is so much to Bangalore."

Soak in the city

So, what kind of tourism potential does the city have? "Of course, we have the museums, parks, gardens, monuments and shopping arcades. About 22,000-25,000 tourists arrive in Bangalore each day. So, obviously the potential is there. But it's not just about sightseeing as it's about discovering your city.

"People always mistakenly think that for culture and tourism you need a fort or monument. A city is what it is. Bangalore may not have that many monuments, but you still need a platform to highlight how the city has grown, the industries it has attracted. That doesn't mean I take them to IT companies. Bangalore needs a platform such as this to share its success story. We tell you about the city and we also take you around to experience whatever can be touched and felt. There are cities that have monuments but that's it, they may be dilapidated. What does the tourist do beyond a point," asks Kumar.

Conceptree, which does not have the budget to pull in a "Shah Rukh Khan to sell it", has so far spent a couple of crores on City Swaps and is working to spread awareness about the bus service through indirect models of advertising. For instance, by associating itself with events such as the Mysore Dasara, where it operated two buses for 10 days for local sightseeing, and Bangalore for which it provided shuttle services for delegates and visitors and organised half-hour promotional sightseeing for a taste of its services. It also organises corporate events and birthday parties on board the bus.

If the model does click in Bangalore, does Kumar plan to take it to other cities as well? "I expect this service to take six to seven months to take off. My vision is to take it to other cities as well but we need to do a lot of homework. Since the fun lies on the open upper deck, the climate has to be ideal. We also need to study the demand for it. How are the roads there? What does the city have to offer tourists?"


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