Ankur Khanna: Asia has too many hidden gems to count

September 23, 2019

We catch up with Delhi-based private travel designer Ankur ‘AK’ Khanna to talk about emerging trends, hot destinations and hidden gems in luxury travel to Asia.

AK is owner of Tristar Holidays, a bespoke tour operator for both outbound and inbound Indian luxury travel. With 25 years in the travel business, he launched Tristar for corporate clients before moving into private travel around 2000 and entering the high-end luxury travel arena a decade ago.

He has also sat on the international advisory board of Atout France, the French tourism development agency, where he helped them understand the particular needs of Indian tourists.

Have you seen increased demand from clients to visit Asia in the past few years?

Travel to Asia has gone up tremendously. We’ve seen year-on-year increases of 5% to 10% in business to Asia over the last few years. About 20% to 30% of our outbound business is romance travel, and we’ve seen increased interest in Asian destinations from couples going on romantic breaks and small groups travelling to weddings.

What destinations and experiences in Asia are growing in popularity?

The annual vacation to Thailand has now become at least twice a year for Indian travellers, because we have direct flights from Indian airports and there are amazing luxury spa experiences where people can recuperate from busy metropolitan life. These resorts really understand luxury and offer private experiences where everything is exclusive. You can hire an island, for example. At one point these were indulgences for the super-rich but now these experiences are in wider demand, because they’re a place to get away from people and the world.

Koh Samet, Thailand

The Maldives is one of the most sought-after luxury outbound destinations from India, because it has pristine water, unspoiled natural surroundings and it’s only three or four hours away by air, so people can make a quick getaway to rejuvenate and relax. It’s very popular with honeymooners but not for weddings, because the Hindu wedding isn’t formally recognised there.

A lot of Indians now want destination weddings. Asia, Thailand and Indonesia are increasingly popular wedding destinations for Indians, because they’re well-connected and easy to reach by air.

Mass tourist travel in India has only started in the last few decades, so not every hotel in the luxury arena is aware of the needs of Indian travellers. High-net-worth Indian luxury travellers may have specific needs – they may take their own cooks with them to prepare their own meals, and Indian families like to travel with their nannies or au pairs to help look after their children. They don’t want the hotel to provide that for them - they would rather take their own people, who will also need accommodation in the hotel.

What places or experiences do you recommend for first-time Asia visitors?

Taj Mahal, India

It’s a very personalised thing for a high-end traveller. If visiting India, I would totally recommend the Taj Mahal on a full-moon night for romance. For couples I suggest they stay in Rajasthan where they can stay in amazing palace hotels or even arrange a private stay in a Maharajah’s residence.

For somebody who’s high up in the business world and looking for rejuvenation, I would recommend ayurvedic therapies in South India. This is something different to an ashram experience - it’s a combination of luxury and minimalism, where the best doctors and therapists help you to rejuvenate and find your best self. Today, luxury has different meanings for different people. For some it's about time, for some it's space and for others it's about giving back to your body, because we abuse our bodies so much in daily life.

The backwaters of Kerala are where you’ll find the really top-end experiences. The British royal family have visited Kerala, so it must be doing something right!

Backwaters of Kerala, India

Are there any ‘hidden gems’ that you recommend to clients looking for something new or different?

A remote luxury property in the Himalayas

There are some remote, spectacular cottages and bungalows in the Himalayas - especially in India’s Northern states and Nepal – just big enough to accommodate a couple or a small group, where you can hire the whole place complete with a butler and a team of staff to look after your every need. You wake up in the morning to the chanting of monks or with a view of the Himalayan peaks. These places offer a very high standard of personalised luxury, in truly awe-inspiring settings.

Have you seen any themes emerge in Asian luxury travel recently?  

Safety is a growing general concern for our clients when travelling anywhere, including Asia. Most of our clients are well-travelled and well-informed. They want to stay clear of any potential trouble, including natural disasters, and they don’t want to waste any of their precious time getting involved in local issues or encountering travel problems.

‘Giving back’ as a travel theme is more relevant to people visiting Asian countries from the west, whether that be Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, India or Sri Lanka.

In a third world country like India, ‘giving back’ is part of everyday life and very much part of our culture. A lot of our clients are high-net-worth individuals who may be company owners or high-level corporate operators and they usually have their own ways of giving back within society – they are often involved in philanthropy, or they may have set up retreats for children who have special needs or live in poverty, for example.

Within the luxury bracket we have different categories of clients. Some may have recently acquired wealth, and for them luxury is about comfort and prestige. They often want to be associated with a well-known luxury brand like a Belmont or an Aman property. Brand recognition is very important for the newly wealthy, and bragging rights come into it too.

What is something that might surprise us about luxury travel in Asia?

The standard of luxury and personal, one-to-one hospitality in Asia can be truly breathtaking. Hospitality in this part of the world is of primary importance. It’s an intrinsic part of the travel experience for us. Luxury resorts in Asia may have more staff than customers. Sometimes there is a four-to-one ratio, especially in places like Thailand, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

People do sometimes come to India with certain preconceptions. They may assume that India has poor infrastructure or is backward in some way. But we have an English-speaking population with excellent communication skills, a high standard of hospitality and very good infrastructure in terms of hotels, shopping, brands, roads, trains and air travel.

Wild tigers are a big draw for foreigners coming to India, but they may assume we have the same kind of luxury lodges that you would find on an African safari. We actually have a relatively limited number of players when it comes to luxury wildlife lodges. It’s a wonderful experience in itself, but it’s different to Africa.

Visitors to India and other parts of Asia may assume that we don’t have mobile phones or internet connections. But India in particular has a very high level of IT with all the same technology as countries in the West and even in remote areas we have excellent mobile phone networks and connectivity.

The large crowds of people in busy Indian cities can be a shock to foreign travellers, who may come with a preconceived notion that India is unsafe. In fact, India is as safe or unsafe as any big city in the west. Tourists certainly experience far less crime here than they would in somewhere like Barcelona or Rome.

What is the best VIP experience in Asia?

It depends what VIP means to you. Exclusivity is really the height of luxury everywhere, but even more so in Asia. In India, for example, there are some unbelievably exclusive experiences. You can dine with a Maharajah in a royal palace, you can get a top Indian band to play at your party or we can even arrange for a leading Indian polo team to play a special match just for you.

Buddhist monastery in Bhutan

Bhutan is an especially exclusive place for various reasons. It’s an exclusive destination anyway, because it limits the numbers of tourists who can enter the country and goes to great lengths to protect its unique Buddhist culture and pristine environment. But unbelievable private experiences can be arranged, such as dining with the royal family or playing a round of golf with the King of Bhutan.

What does luxury mean to you these days?

Luxury is about spending time with your family and reconnecting with self. It also means being at one with nature while experiencing the highest level of luxury hospitality available. That could mean marrying nature with top-end properties in remote locations, but it could also mean pitching a luxurious tent for you in the middle of nowhere, with a dedicated team of people looking after you from the moment you wake to the moment you sleep. Bhutan is a great place for that kind of remote luxury experience. It is famous for its spectacular sunrises.

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