Deccan Odyssey: India's old luxury tourist train gets chugging again

Deccan Odyssey: India's old luxury tourist train gets chugging again

But Indian bureaucrats and the global economic climate may yet derail this classic train
Deccan Odyssey
Though it never achieved greatness, the super-luxury palace on wheels had potential. The MTDC is hoping to finally cash in on the same promise.

Earlier this month, a refurbished Deccan Odyssey resumed services after the luxury tourist train received a year-long, all-round upgrade by the Maharashtra Tourism Department Corporation (MTDC) in an effort to attract tourists.

Trouble is, when you think of royal train journeys in India the image that inevitably pops up is Palace on Wheels.

Now, of course, there are many new luxury tourist trains like the Maharajahs’ Express or Royal Rajasthan on Wheels, but such has been the draw of Palace on Wheels, weaving through the vast expanse of Rajasthan and the state’s rich, royal and historic past, that it continues to attract foreign tourists in droves.

It also tends to make every other Indian luxury train seem like a country bumpkin cousin.

But that would be an unfair comparison.  

More on CNNGo: Maharajas' Express: Super luxury train voyage, celebrity included

Not many readers would know that until 2008, in addition to Palace on Wheels, there was just one other super luxury train chugging along in India, and that was Maharashtra’s Deccan Odyssey.

So when state tourism minister Chhagan Bhujbal waved off the Odyssey on October 12 from Mumbai this year, he used the opportunity to do a bit of explaining to the gathered crowd, saying the train, in its new livery, had "resumed" not "relaunched" its service.

The train had once shown potential, though it never really quite got there, and the MTDC hopes to try and cash in on this promise, once again.

Provided they can make good on that promise first.

Deccan OdysseyThe new Deccan Odyssey can carry 80 passengers at a time. (Image (L) courtesy: Catherine Stukhard).

Bad fortune, then a royal resurrection

Though MTDC officials are loath to admit it, the initial phase immediately after launch in 2004 met with a tepid market response, primarily because of a lack of focus.

Then, in 2006, a second attempt was made to bring the train on track, and the response from foreign tourists to the Odyssey matched its marketing inputs.

By then, the Maharashtra Government had also decided to allot funds from its annual budget to promote the train. But even as the congratulatory messages started pouring in, a couple of developments came as a set-back for the train.

A fund crunch on part of the Maharashtra Government … then, the re-working of the MoU by the Indian Railways to its own financial advantage, followed by the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks in 2008.

The engine started spluttering, especially after the attacks and more than 1,200 bookings were cancelled.

So when private tour operator Luxury Travels came along, post the terror attacks, and promised to underwrite the expense of running the train provided they were allowed to operate it on the route they wanted, it was promptly granted. And then sub-leased to Travel Corporation of India, a Thomas Cook subsidiary.

And finally now, sporting a royal blue livery, (a not-so-subtle attempt to project royalty), and refurbished interiors, Deccan Odyssey runs once again under the MTDC flag.

The train can carry 80 passengers at a time. It has two presidential suite cars, coupe-coaches, dining and even a spa and a bar car. Besides of course, modern day fringe benefits like cable television and foreign exchange facilities.

Minister Bhujbal seems confident that the fresh stint will revive this train’s fortunes and his state’s tourism prospects.

In his speech at the flag-off, he said all the conveniences and services of a five-star hotel were available on the train itself, removing the hassles of booking hotels and making travel-related arrangements at individual tourist destinations.

But this statement seems a little obvious, if not lacking.

Deccan OdysseyFrom Mumbai along the scenic Konkan coast, the route touches some amazing beaches, such as Tarkarli in Sindhudurg district, before entering Goa.

If you're stuck on a train, the route better be good

Plus points include on-board services handled by the Taj hotel group and a new route that covers scenic locations in the Deccan plateau, that is, both the states of Maharashtra and Goa.

There are currently three tour packages on the Odyssey. The first run by the MTDC and the other two by private tour operators.

The "Seven nights Deccan Odyssey tour" operated by the MTDC will see train making its way from Mumbai along the scenic Konkan coast, touching some amazing beaches like Tarkarli in Sindhudurg district, then entering Goa.

The return journey is via Kolhapur in western Maharashtra, on to Aurangabad in the neighbouring Marathwada region and onward to Nasik before returning to Mumbai.
In those seven days, tourists can sunbathe on beaches, worship in churches and temples, visit spice plantations, shop for local handicrafts, visit forts, and also get a chance to go around the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Ajanta Ellora caves.

There is a fixed schedule that the train follows with dates of departure that only get confirmed once enough bookings are made. Needless to say, floating dates don't help travel planning.

The other two tours involving the Odyssey are pan-India and booked by private operators.

Both packages are dubbed Indian Maharaja and the train operates on the Mumbai-New Delhi corridor touching highlights such as Aurangabad, Jaipur, Ranthambore and Agra.

Mainly for its wide route coverage, the Indian Maharaja was voted Asia's Leading Luxury Train experience at the World Travel Awards in Bangkok recently.

More on CNNGo: India dominates World Travel Awards

Deccan OdysseyThe Deccan Odyssey's new royal blue color -- a not-so-subtle attempt to project an image of Indian royalty.

Where have all the tourists gone?

There is another niggling worry, though, that the timing is off.

Traditionally, say tour operators, it has been tourists from the United States and Britain who make up the largest number of clients aboard India’s luxury trains.

It may be prime tourism time in India right now, but another bout of recession seems to be around the corner in the United States, and Europe is reeling under one of its worst economic crises.

Where are the foreign tourists going to come from? Turkey? Greece? Don't think so. 

A cross-section of the tour operators engaged to market the Odyssey agree that they are testing the waters. Initial response, say some, has been warm.  

MTDC has its own network of General Sales Agents (GSA) in India and in countries like Dubai, United Kingdom and the United States, from where reservations can be made.
The Odyssey may be open to Indian tourists but the dollar fares (US$500 upwards) are beyond the reach of the average Indian tourist, who anyway seems more keen these days on visiting exotic global locales or Europe.
“We are getting queries from the Brits but more so from non-resident Indians (NRIs), especially those with children born abroad who want to re-discover India,” says Rajiv Varmaa, managing director of the New Delhi-based Lawrence Tours and Travels.

The latter is one of the many private operators selling Deccan Odyssey, along with other luxury trains, and has been doing so since 2006.
Some other tour operators -- who did not wish to be named -- agree that NRIs are the top option for now, followed by tourists from Japan and Singapore.

Competition in a globalized world

There are a few other factors outside the control of the state tourism department that could go against the train, fear operators.

One of them is brand loyalty.

The Deccan Odyssey has been benchmarked against some of the best luxury trains in the world like the Blue Train in South Africa, The Orient Express in Europe and the Eastern & Oriental of Southeast Asia, but these trains also serve as competition.

Then, there is internal competition within India. In the last two years, the Indian Railways has launched many more such "super deluxe" "luxury" tourist trains.

It’s overall strategy seems to be geared to boosting its own revenues rather than serving some real tourism purpose.

The result is brand confusion in the minds of the tourists, complain tour operators. Similar-sounding train names and route duplication leave tourists confused.

Add to this is also the fact that not many are willing to spend long hours traveling on a train, however luxurious the ride may be.

Bottom line: Luxury trains still do not make up too big a share of the overall Indian tourism pie. And whoever said it's not the destination but the odyssey that matters, was wrong.
Departure dates for upcoming Deccan Odyssey tours are December 7 2011, January 4 2012, January 11 2012 and February 1 2012.

A set of provisional departure dates seems to indicate that the operators are still unsure of the kind of response they will receive.

After 23 years of hardcore, everyday journalism, Amrita has decided to eject out of the strait jacket of everyday reporting to take up writing, purely for the love of it.

Read more about Amrita Ghaswalla