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Traveller tales


Tennis lessons for your kids at a holiday resort? Where to catch the best jazz? Paid e-experts are shaping the way people plan their holidays.

Before UK-based Jane Booth and her husband embarked on what they called their "Epic India Trip", they spent every free hour online. They were busy consulting Indians on things likes the best place to have seafood, where to catch the most glorious sunset and whether they could do Jaipur on foot instead of hiring a car.

On this side of the planet, Kavita Thanky, a homemaker, spends two to three hours every day on MyGola. com, a travel assistance portal that has real people like her answering the queries of prospective tourists.

A fat guidebook under the arm, glossy tourism brochures or advice from a consultant behind a staid desk in a glass-fronted travel agency is no longer the way to get street-cred when it comes to travel. Online communities, forums, travel websites, booking sites, all of which provide personalised travel advice, are thriving and fuelling conversations between continents.
These little helpful elves behind laptops and computer terminals chart itineraries, research the web and even take the trouble to find out what you like before recommending a museum visit or a pub crawl.

The advice doesn't come free. MyGola charges tourists for each query and its army of online travel guides is also paid for answering questions. Yellowleg. com, an online travel store, has a similar service featuring expert travel planners called "Travel Ninjas".

"The hard part is not researching on things to do in Barcelona -any guidebook can tell you that - but it is finding answers to very specific questions. Should I take a stroller along for my baby in say Amsterdam ? Is it safe to cycle in Istanbul? We in turn try and understand the traveller's profile - are they outdoorsy/like art/enjoy jazz and so on, " says Anshuman Bapna, CEO and co-founder, MyGola.

There is a distinct advantage of looking to these e-experts : a guidebook can tell you the top three places where you can listen to jazz in New York but will not tell you which gig is playing where, say, on February 20.

Or if someone recommends a certain cafê online, then the online guides can look for other travellers who have "checked in" (through social network sites) to that cafê recently and ask them to provide a more upto-date review of the venue. Bapna says that sometimes they even tweet the cafê owner to ask for the special of the day and pass on the information to a potential visitor.

"Technology has brought a shift in the medium of communication. Earlier, people sought word-of-mouth counsel but now they have moved to the virtual world. We want to harness real traveler experiences and subscribe to the wisdom of crowds. That's a treasure trove of information, " says Nikhil Ganju, India manager, TripAdvisor India.

TripAdvisor has its own lot of "destination experts" who are selected by the website on the basis of their regularity, content quality, reader appreciation and speed of replies. Ganju says that becoming a "destination expert" is now like an honour badge for the social community.

Take 47-year-old aircraft service engineer Aadil Desai. When not maintaining jets, he is busy showing off his city, Mumbai, to potential travellers. A history and archaeology buff, Desai has been incessantly replying to the endless stream of questions on TripAdvisor since 2004. For some, like Kavita Thanky, helping out travelers is an additional stream of revenue. MyGola pays guides a certain amount per question, which can range from Rs 50-100, as does Yellowleg. com.

"We noticed that a lot of people didn't need fat guidebooks - they carry too much information which could be overwhelming. They just needed someone to point them in the right direction. After all you don't need to wade through a guidebook just to plan a weekend trip. Also many are not very savvy with Internet research and resources, " says Aashish Gupta, founder and CEO, Yellowleg.

On older travel sites, tips can come from different quarters - some allow everyone to comment, others use moderators to vet the responses. The paid-for sites on the other hand, have a vetting system for the people who can take on the role of travel counsellors.

To be a MyGola guide, you will need to take an online test, which will review your grammar, reading and comprehension skills. Those who pass are put through an online training. "About 40 per cent pass the first exam and finally, only about 10 per cent make it to the final level. Since this is not a full time profession - the typical profile of a guide is of a travel enthusiast. It is as much about money as it is about voyeuristic travel, " says Bapna.

The virtual guides also adapt to a worldlier, smarter way of new-age travel. Thanky, a self-confessed travel and food freak, says, "A person wanted tennis classes at the destination for his kids so that the children's routine doesn't get messed up during travel. I didn't even consider this an option but it is good to maintain a child's routine. This time when we went to Sri Lanka, we actually wanted to see how ordinary people lived and ate there but my friends didn't understand that, " she says. Similarly, many are choosing homestays over impersonal hotels.

In fact home stays have benefited hugely due to online travel planning. "Few knew about home stays earlier but now it is a boom because it is a viable option for comfort and money-primarily because of word of mouth and social media, since these place don't have an ad budget, " says Mayur Goswami, marketing head at olidayIQ. com.

IndiaMike, one of the first of such communities to start at a time when few could have even imagined the boom in online travel advice, is now the go-to place for any sort of travel/road advice in India for free. It gets between 40, 000 and 45, 000 visitors a day that has translated to a growth rate of over 35 per cent year-on-year since 2006. It was launched in 2001 by a US-based gentleman named Mike who had visited India a few times and found that there was no comprehensive back-packer forum for travelers. The site was bought by US-based Arjun Nadkarni in 2006.

There is a known peril in banking on online travel sites. Often travel agencies and hotel owners join hands to push their businesses. "We have a strict policy of not allowing any solicitation. I have a group of moderators on the site who help me enforce these rules. Many regular members also report instances where it is clear that a fake member has outed himself as someone with a commercial interest. When this happens, the account in violation is closed permanently, " says Nadkarni. He will be travelling to India in a couple of weeks and he has planned his whole trip based on advice and tips from a hundred different people on IndiaMike.

As for the Booths, when they were eating the best seafood on an off-the-guidebook beach in southern India, they will have a stranger to thank for their experience. Jane Booth now swears that she will do the same for others.

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