Shekhar Sharma: New Indian luxury travellers reshaping Asian trends

September 24, 2019

We talk to travel designer Shekhar Sharma about how Indian travellers are helping to redefine Asian luxury travel trends.  

Shekhar has been in the travel industry for 27 years, starting out with Malaysia Airlines before teaming with brother Deepak to launch Delhi-based bespoke travel company EzeeFly  in 2010. Shekhar focuses on private luxury travel for outbound Indian clients, along with MICE travel for corporate clients.  

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

In the last three or four years we’ve seen an increase of 10% to 15% in travel to Asian destinations. Outbound mass tourism is a relatively recent phenomenon in India but it’s growing rapidly in the luxury sector.

Tourism on the whole has seen uninterrupted growth over the past few decades. Asia-Pacific in particular recorded 324 million tourist arrivals in 2017, close to a quarter of the world’s total! It is evidently gaining rapid popularity from all corners of the world. For India, the growth in international traffic to Asian destinations is also on the rise with low-cost airlines and more direct international flights impacting demand.

What destinations and experiences in Asia are growing in popularity?

The top trending Asian destinations for our clients are Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Japan and Thailand.

Travel has always been a constantly evolving space. As digitisation is becoming more integrated, travellers’ appetites for experiences are becoming more wide-ranging. The generation of millennials that drove the digital revolution is now part of the workforce. They come with shorter attention span and a desire to break old patterns, keeping us constantly on our toes.  

While our offerings were never ‘cookie-cutter’ to begin with, we put more emphasis today on curating new, exciting experiences. These depend on the demographic and usually combine the “must-see, must-do” aspects of a destination along with off-beat experiences.

Japan, for instance, appeals to the Indian traveller for its history and culture, with Kyoto – the ancient capital – leading the charge. Vietnam is breathtaking with its natural coves, history and food and Thailand comes with its own distinct flavour, offering a plethora of options to choose from.

Sri Lanka offers breathtaking views and a range of activities travellers can pick from; hikes, safaris, surfing. Asia is also home to some of the most stunning beaches, which come with immersive experiences including just about everything a modern traveller would want, like bars and restaurants, shops, hotels, live music and watersports.    

Our luxury segment typically opts for island beach resorts, yet they're also seeking the more traditional cultural and spiritual experiences, along with culinary adventures.

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

For first-time visitors I would recommend the South East Asia experience – particularly Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

It is relevant for all age brackets, owing to the range of experiences available. It’s a great region to explore if you want to experience different cultures in a limited time. There is a cluster of small countries bordering each other, so in about ten days travellers can comfortably explore three or four very different destinations.

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

Asia is full of hidden gems, depending on how adventurous you are and what kind of experience you’re looking for.

For the more adventurous, there is Papua New Guinea – we’ve recently had some families who wanted to go and discover the unique indigenous tribes and understand their way of life. There are luxury cruises on river or sea in Indonesia which take you through tropical islands and lush rainforests. They hold the promise of remaining etched in the memory for a long time. They’re very exclusive experiences.

Those seeking solitude and to commune with nature should head for the remoteness of Tibet. Finding a luxury property might not be easy, but the sense of quiet exclusivity more than makes up for it. A more luxurious Himalayas experience is to stay in one of the many luxury properties in India’s mountain states, in the foothills of Mount Everest. The spectacular views will take your breath away every time. These are secret retreats for the more discerning travellers and, while in remote locations, they come complete with every comfort a luxury traveller seeks.  

In terms of luxury, you can find exclusive private islands in Indonesia, the Maldives and the Philippines. One of the most exclusive is Ariara, a fully staffed private tropical island in the Philippines that can accommodate 2 to 18 people in stunning luxury villas.

What themes are emerging in Asian luxury travel?

Wellness and wellbeing are where Asia comes into its own. People coming to Asia from the West are often looking for time and space. They want a digital detox and they want to discover themselves in a destination that’s the opposite of a place to be seen on social media. In terms of luxury, Asia is second to none with world-class hotels and the best of cuisine, but it’s also rich in ancient cultures, religions and Eastern philosophies.

Romance travel to Asia is also a growing area for us. The majority of honeymooning couples who come to us are looking for authentic and exclusive experiences. While there remains a demand for Europe, and for cruises in the Bahamas or Alaska, we are witnessing a growing demand for romantic beach breaks in Indonesia, Thailand and the Maldives.  

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

The very high standard in luxury in South East Asia can be a surprise to first-time visitors. The distinct culture and traditions combined with exotic natural landscapes make this an irresistible travel destination. Travellers will also be surprised by the bang they get for their buck in these countries.  

What is the best VIP experience in Asia?

Different countries offer different experiences. For example, in China you can arrange a private lunch on the Great Wall of China, you can hire a complete temple in Cambodia for a private wedding or function, or in the Philippines you can hire a secluded island for yourself which has only enough accommodation for eight people. At the other end of the scale, you can book a suite in one of the palace hotels in India and experience life like royalty in the princely state of Rajasthan.

What is the height of luxury in Asia?

Koh Rong, Cambodia

There are some amazing private islands you can hire in Asia-Pacific, such as Bawah Reserve in Indonesia or Koh Rong island in Cambodia. I think this kind of exclusivity is the height of luxury.

What does luxury mean to you these days?

Luxury means different thing to different consumers. Increasingly, as people’s travel aspirations are undergoing a shift, luxury travel is going beyond simply high standards of accommodation to include immersive and participative experiences.

The more authentically curated the offering to match the traveller’s aspirations, the closer it comes to their perception of a ‘luxurious’ experience. To me it’s simply about personalisation - that’s what luxury is.

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