SINGAPORE IS AN EYE-OPENER
Corporate Travel Plus, February 1994
Amita Sarwal

"On visits abroad, after working hours I try and avoid getting into an 'Indian Clique'. Instead, I prefer gaining an understanding of people at my working level - which is different from getting to know the locals during a vacation."

Dr. Hiru Bijlani, president, Zenith Global Consultants Pvt. Ltd's involvement as management consultant in varied spheres globally gives him the opportunity to pursue his pet hobby : travel.

Proof of his other interests are visible in his spacious, elegantly appointed, harbour-facing apartment at the southern tip of Bombay island. He is an avid art collector, and the works of renowned Indian and some international artists intermingle with unusual and interesting aretefacts sought out during sojourns to farflung destinations.

Casually attired in shorts and T-shirt, Bijlani relaxes in his favourite spot, the verandah, after a packed day at work. Besides attending to the routine at the office, there are teching assignments (a self-devised MBA programme in international business at a suburban college) and writing. His first book, Globalisation and Business, is being released by Reed International, Singapore, shortly.

He introduces himself by speaking about his work. "Most of my work experience during the past 22 years, first as a professional manager and then as a consultant, has been rewarding. Based both in India and abroad, working on international projects, I've had different beats at different times in my life: the Gulf beat, the West Africa beat and now the SE Asia beat. In Africa, was involved in setting up a glass-container factory and looking at various investment opportunities from Senegal to Cameroon. In the Gulf it was shipping, trading and business improvements.

"Eventually I decided to set up my own consultancy, primarily to give me the flexibility to do other things that I liked: writing, teaching, research, traveling, golf - and to spend more time with the girls, my wife Meher and teenage daughters Laila and Tanya. These were motivations enough to get out of a 9 to 9 routine. But first I completed my Ph.D. in international business."

Bijlani's firm, set up in 1989, has been one of the fastest growing management consultancy firms in the country, and is probably one of the more successful ones; it involves diversification planning, business improvement studies, headhunting and technology transfer work in Asia with big names like Mitsubishi, Hindustan Lever etc.

His work has involved presenting seminars, organizing training programmes and attending international conferences including the prestigious annual meeting of World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he had the honour of meeting Nelson Mandela.

"I always had the desire to travel, but could not do much of it till I started working in my late twenties. The drive to work in an international arena has also been fuelled by my desire to travel. I find international business, as opposed to local business, brings in a third dimension, which is true of everything, whether it is culture, politics, management etc. While on visits abroad, after working hours I try and avoid getting into an 'Indian Clique'. Instead, I prefer gaining an understanding of people at my working level - which is different from getting to know the locals during a vacation. Getting familiar with the psyche and lifestyle of someone which is equal to me professionally and socially is more satisfying."

Bijlani has recently and more frequently combined vacations with work since earlier, Meher could not travel with him as their daughters, now 18 and 16, were much younger. "On our 20th wedding anniversary last year, on a business trip to Bangkok, my wife joined me and our local friends organized a fascinating party on a boat for us. After Bangkok we went to north Australia to the Great Barrier Reef and lived in a resort called 'Silky Oaks' on the edge of a 150 year old rainforest of Mossman. Though it is out of the way for most tourists, we thought it was worth the trip, as in the bargain we got to see both the tropical forest and the coral reef."

The Bijlanis took a ride in a very amphibian-like vessel; a cross between a link and a hovercraft, it skimmed over the marshlands, where they got several glimpses of alligators - and learnt to identify the ages of trees. Then there was snorkeling and, for a closer look at the exquisite coral, a ride in a semi-submersible vessel. A helicopter ride to the mainland gave them a bird's-eye-view of dolphins and whales.

From Australia they went across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. Instead of spending time in Auckland, the couple opted for a small hotel in vineyard about 50 miles from the capital. The public areas were tastefully decorated with exquisite art, antique furniture and sculpture; the resort has won an international award for its interiors. "Living there was an experience. Outside, on one side, we saw sheep in the meadows and the hills forming a lush green backdrop and on the other, the vineyards. We spent time on unusual activities like clay-pigeon shooting.

"We also visited Rotorua hot air sprints, a Maori village where even the food is cooked by villagers in the hot springs in wooden boxes. The village is a center of Maori crafts."

The next stopover was Bali, where they stayed at the world famous Amandari Boutique chain of resorts. Some of the bigger rooms here have swimming pools attached, and overlook the emerald terraced paddy fields.

A holiday to Kenya materialized when someone from the family got married in Africa. "The groom took 30 of us to the Mount Kenya Safari Club, located on the Equator. We lived in quaint cottage-style villas; you step out into a garden and see the towering Mt. Kilimanjaro. And in the morning you wake up and fed the peacocks, crested crains and other birds that step up to you, right outside your rooms.

"From there, we flew to MasaiMari game park, camped in tents and saw the most fantastic game, including a very rare sight - a pack of wild, ferocious hunting dogs chasing a herd of gazelle; but they couldn't catch them. They they chased a pack of zebras and again couldn't catch them - just as well, as we were told that if they did they would reduce them to a heap of bones in next to no time. We did see a lion feeding of a blueball. A balloon safari at dawn landed us right in the middle of the game park for a champagne breakfast!

"The encounter at Masai-Mara was the inverse of a zoo. You are 'caged' in your van looking at them, and the whole territory belongs to the animals. You realize that this is one place on earth where Man is actually an intruder".

On another vacation the Bijlanis traveled to Mauritius and stayed at Le Touessrok Sun, part of the Sun International Chain.

"It is a beautiful hotel - a very high quality product. They organized a day-picnic and took us out on a boat. There were people whose sole job was to entertain us on a boat. There were people whose sole job was to entertain us with guitars, bongos, drums and Creole music. They anchored at a spot where they could drive off and snorkel, and then took us to this stunning waterfall forming a natural pool and its base where one could swim, and champagne was served in the pond. After an idyllic, music-filled cruise, the day ended on an isolated beach, where as barbecue was laid out."

Bijlani considers the Maldives one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The blue lagoons, white sands, scuba diving, snorkeling and fishing make this an ideal island-resort. "I caught a large groupa, which was grilled for us the same evening", he recalls.

Another country he is partial to is Singapore; he declares it "the melting pot of Asia" - not only in the economic sense, but also because of its harmonious society. The Indians, Malays, Chinese live in perfect accord without any animosity. The fact that it is very clean makes it one of the most ideal societies to live and bring up your children in. You can't get a safer, cleaner, more congenial place. And added benefit is that it has an Asian culture that is akin to ours. Some people say that it is too clean, too antiseptic. That's a whole lot of rubbish. Why shouldn't a place be too clean? Its stringent laws are responsible for it being the wonderful country it is today. It is an eye-opener!" he proclaims.

Considering he is such an avid traveler, Bijlani would certainly have his preferences among airlines. "Clear cut!" he asserts. "Going east it's Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines, though I have not traveled to Japan recently. While going west it's Swissair and now British Airways and Lufthansa. The most important criterion is punctuality.

When on a business trip you are on such a tight schedule, hopping from meeting to meeting, city to city. You cannot afford to be late. Air India, unfortunately, has been a disaster. I know a person who used to travel from Rome to London just to catch Air India to travel to New York, despite a choice of Alitalia non-stop from Rome to New York. That was in the '60s, and many like him did this just for the experience. That is what Air India all about. It was what Singapore Airlines is today", he laments.

On to hotels, and Bijlani laughingly declares that he's got a bit spoilt, having stayed at the best hotels chains in the world such as Regent Oriental, Shangri-La, Hyatt etc.

"Sometimes they are priced very high and one has to pick something a little cheaper. In Singapore the Goodwood Park has an old world charm. However, if I am in a place faced with uncertain conditions like in Africa, I'd take a safe bet with an intercontinental. In Ghana, years ago, I was told that a hotel called Continental was the best. I thought it must be like the Intercontinental. It was unbelievable! The room had no windows, mosquitoes buzzed around, glasses were chipped! I had misjudged it totally. I learned my lesson: to be cautious and to select only reputed brand names in such countries."

Speaking of the tourism scenario in India and what our status is today vis a vis SE Asia, Bijlani says, "India is marketed very badly by the government. The first point of contact the tourist has leaves a terrible impact. In Bombay, for example, it's the slums. Agreed, Thailand had more slums, but they have been pushed into the background. A person on a holiday doesn't want to be faced with moral issues. We are immune to the sight because we are exposed to it all the time around us, but to a foreigner, we are forcing morality down his throat - not only from the point of hygiene but also of conscience.

"We have monuments, wonderful pieces of architecture everywhere around us. I tell people to look at Bangkok. They have two million people coming to see an ordinary temple only because they have spruced and polished it up and brought out colourful brochures. As everyone talks about it, you are half-brainwashed into believing it's going to be good, and that's the secret of their success.

"In India, I am certain we could find equally interesting monuments. Presently, they are rotting away, unattended. We have to take care of them, clean them up, build the infrastructure, gardens, motels, lakes around them; photograph and put them into glossy, attractive brochures," he suggests.

India, he feels, is wasting its time trying to beat the Japanese at electronics - something which he is confident we can never do. Instead, he feels, we have a product that no one can take away from us : tourism. "We have it all: the sun-fun, culture, adventure, history, which the western tourist is looking for. We have the best, but don't package it right or have the infrastructure to support it. Take Agra, for example, it should be converted into a garden city. People should not go there just to see Taj Mahal and go away. Instead it should be a spot for a 7 - 10 day stay. Give the tourist cultural programmes, food festivals, music, craft bazaars, son-et-lumiere, this works. They should use the Taj as the focus and build up around it".

With the arrival of private airlines, one aspect of the infrastructure - availability of transportation - is improving. But what he finds highly detrimental to the process of tourism is the one repeatedly-talked about issue which no one seems to be doing anything above: the proliferation of slums.

He reminds one of the high-powered marketing blitz of the 'Visit Indonesia Year' and currently the ongoing one for the 'Visit Malaysia Year'. "These are wonderful opportunities to emulate their successful strategies. All we have to do is pick up everything and repeat it in relation to India. Of course, during our 'Visit India Year' it was a bad time due to strife. They should have just called it off".

He cites a recent incident which he feels is something India should also take up earnestly. "We were attending a business conference in Australia where Malaysia was selected as the venue for the next one. To sell their country, they had created a wonderful video of Malaysia, not just as a business destination but as a tourist spot as well. I feel that even for business conferences and meetings, we should also market India as a tourist destination. All the other countries, one notes, are constantly selling themselves as business and tourist destinations simultaneously, and with equal thrust in both directions. We should do the same; when all these chamber of commerce and other allied delegations go abroad they ought to carry well-made videos of India.

"And finally, the government and the tourist industry should co-operate in marketing India jointly to earn valuable foreign exchange, which will also result in increased foreign investment".

 
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