The ability to just pack a bag and head out on a path less followed has become a dream, thanks to the widespread pandemic. But we still have our backyard of an unexplored India to marvel at. The best way to do it will be road trips, in your car or on hire—it has been predicted to be the biggest travel trend in what remains of 2020. Taking it up a notch will be recreational vehicles, aka RVs, to traverse the myriad terrains of the country.
Also known as motorhomes, RVs are an established way of travelling and exploring. For many, #VanLife is a lifestyle choice—cross-country or for that matter cross-continent excursions are common occurrences. In India, it has remained an aspiration. But in a post-COVID world, the aspiration is becoming a reality. The recent launch of Bengaluru-based LuxeCamper has suddenly thrown the spotlight on the untapped niche. But did you know that the Ministry of Tourism initially discussed the use of campervans or RVs in India in 2009-10? Known as Caravan Tourism, the policy has detailed developmental and promotional requisites for the propagation of RVs for tourism. More interesting is the fact that while many states have toyed with the idea of RVs as a viable tourism product, success was elusive. Madhya Pradesh was the only state that managed to get the ground running with two ‘caravans’ in 2014—they also won awards for the initiative.
And now Karnataka. We spoke to Tiger Ramesh, founder of Campervan Camps and Holidays India Pvt Ltd, the parent company of LuxeCamper, about starting the luxury campervans and trails in the state. “I have been on a lot of road trips and India has many great highway and roads, but the infrastructure is lacking. There are no toilets and no proper accommodation, making it is difficult to plan a long road holiday.” This presented a unique opportunity to disrupt the travel and hospitality sector in India. “There has been no innovation in the hospitality sector in the last 30-40 years. With LuxeCamper, we’re offering a new experience that is comfortable and family-friendly,” he adds.
LuxeCamper has received approval from the Automotive Research Association of India (Govt. of India undertaking) as per AIS 124 standards. These RVs also have national tourist permit and so as more and more states open up their policies for caravan tourism, Ramesh believes that LuxeCamper’s business is slated to grow. The excitement is palpable, specially social-distancing rules still in play and travel, unlike ever before, a risky affair. “Currently travel is planned on the major pivot which is the night halt. With campervans, a family is no longer worried about this. It also means they aren’t in a rush to reach from point A to point B. They can see the sights along the journey, drive more leisurely and enjoy their holiday a lot more,” Deepak Ananth, Founder and CEO, ScoutMyTrip puts it succinctly.
Adventure and eco-tourism is a natural segue for caravan tourism. The off-the-beaten-track is the first go-to for RVs—where flora and fauna grow with complete abandon or where a hike up a mountain is worth a million steps on your Fitbit. Interest in these adventure-based and experiential vacations is on the rise and is also expected to see growth in the future. Not just LuxeCamper but also smaller players expect this to be a major draw for the business. Another Bengaluru-based company, Trippy Wheels, used their campervans as the focus of a YouTube show—Caravan Chronicles by Sharanya Iyer and Ankita Kumar, who travel through Sikkim soaking in the sights and sounds of the Himalayan state. The show and the young travellers have gained an incredible fan-following over social media. There are other small-scale players such as Motorhome Adventures dabbling with campervans as a business. The business model has tremendous opportunities, but there are also hurdles.
The AIS 124 standards specify that a motorhome/RV/campervan is a Special Purpose Vehicle that, if not purchased as a unit, cannot be more than three years old when repurposing it. These vehicles need to meet 50+ provisions to be road-safe. These are over and above the primary living requirements, which include seat and table, sleeping accommodation, cooking facilities, storage amongst others, depending on the size of the vehicles. There is also the issue of the right drivers’ license. Most campervans are/will be categorized Heavy Motor Vehicles, which needs a separate driving license, as well as a certificate from the Regional Transport Office. Even if it is not a self-drive route, the driver needs to adept in ferrying passengers in a motorhome.
India’s infamous red-tape makes getting these sanction cumbersome and cost-intensive. The current regulations make it only practical to make it a business venture says Ansoo Gupta, founder of OneShoe Travel, a responsible travel brand. Ramesh further explains that he had to build the shell and interiors of his campervans from scratch on a purchased chassis of a school bus. “At 220% the import duties on motorhomes are draconian and we simply couldn’t afford to buy one off the shelf,” he adds.
The cost of the whole RV experience is perhaps the crux of the entire matter in a country as price-sensitive as India. If we target the typical off-road adventure enthusiast, they aren’t in it for the comfort of it, irrespective of how much it costs. Gupta spells it out, “An adventure traveller is a very niche tribe who is not willing to dish out the money for a premium experience or simply doesn’t have it. While a traveller who wants a creature comforts won’t opt for an adventure experience.”
Starting at Rs 39,999 for a two-day trail for two-people, LuxeCamper offers luxury pricing and amenities. A more spartan campervan would charge approximately Rs 15,000 but as Ramesh explains the fuel, parking fees, maintenance, and fixed costs such as road tax, certifications and insurance, the pricing barely offers a margin to gloat over.
The biggest draw of caravans is the ability to be closer to nature—that in itself is a challenge? How do you ensure that you aren’t doing damage to an already fragile eco-system? The image of exhaust fumes immediately pop up in mind along with human waste and trash. “How does one keep the carbon footprint in check, is a key point that needs to be addressed when planning a caravan tour,” Gupta points out. A well thought out and researched plan of action can address this issue.
A caravan tour and its trail will depend upon how much the vehicle can take upon itself and how environmentally conscious a traveller and the enterprise is. Both LuxeCamper and TrippyWheels have partnered with accommodation providers for safe parking and amenities. While LuxeCamper, staying true to its name, has also gone the extra mile to be environmentally mindful and self-sustaining with solar panels, incinerator-based toilets and water storage to last two days straight. Travellers too are given guidelines to be more conscious of their surroundings and not be wasteful.
Rural and uninhabited locations come with their fair share of risks. However eclectic it may be, it’s not going to be safe to park the van along a highway to spend the night, “One would still need to look for a large town or a village where once can request permission to park and spend the night in,” says Ananth. The solution has already been outlined in the extensive guidelines issued by the Ministry of Tourism—caravan parks. These spaces need to have “standardization of electricity, water and sewage connections to ensure total compatibility with Caravan specifications in India.” They also need to be at well-connected locations with proper safety and security provisions, designated parking bays and toilet facilities. “Travelling in RVs and motorhomes will remain a pipe-dream if this crucial infrastructure isn’t developed,” says Meraj Shah, a travel writer and host of WION Traveller. The factor that makes RVs so enticing is also a reason for mistrust and therefore makes caravan tourism’s success suspect.
Needless to say, thrill-seekers and intrepid travellers will be excited by something new as well as experience our country is a more inclusive way. The interest in RVs and caravans has seen a spike thanks to films such as We’re The Millers as well as popular culture in general. For #VanLife get serious traction in India, government, camper van operators and travellers need to have the same vision for its future. While authorities need to ensure ease and affordability of entering the market with a caravan tourism offering, operators need to avoid cutting corners and causing more damage to the ecosystem and the last buck lies with us, the travellers, to maintain the integrity of destinations and be conscientious.