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Boom in Indian Tourists Heading Overseas

The number of Indian tourists traveling overseas is rising sharply. The vibrant economy is creating a burgeoning middle class, eager to holiday abroad.

Until a few years ago, a holiday for most middle class Indian families meant getting into a car or on a train to visit relatives in another part of the country. Incomes were small, and air travel was expensive.

But times have changed, and an increasingly affluent middle class is now eyeing tourist destinations in Europe, the United States and East Asia, once the preserve of the wealthy.

Kapil Kaul is head of the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation in New Delhi. He says the number of Indians traveling overseas is likely to double from the current 15 million to 30 million within five years. "On a macro level, if you see, Indian economy is doing well, continuously registering growth of about seven-to-eight-percent. India has about 300 million middle class, with rising income propensities and a desire to travel," he said.

Airfares are also tumbling, making foreign travel more affordable, as the Indian government has opened overseas routes to private Indian carriers, ending the monopoly of state-owned airlines.

In the coming weeks, leading private airlines will be flying to popular destinations, such as London, Singapore and Malaysia.

At the same time, India is extending landing rights to international carriers on busy sectors, increasing capacity and sharpening competition.

The cost of travel to destinations in Europe and East Asian countries is expected to drop by nearly 15 percent in a few months. Some airlines have already slashed fares by as much as 20 percent to London, thanks to a doubling of the number of flights.

Mr. Kaul says international airlines are increasing flights to India, because they anticipate huge growth in traffic. "India is on the agenda for all global aviation business, and rightly so, because, I think, it is going to be the best bet after China. We will continue to register phenomenal growth," he says.

At the same time, India is keen to attract more foreign visitors. About three-and-a-half-million tourists came in 2004, 20 percent more than the previous year. But the figure is tiny compared with the number headed to smaller Asian countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia.

The government says it intends to upgrade rundown airports, roads and other infrastructure, factors most commonly blamed for India's failure to attract more tourists.