Are caravans the new way to discover India’s great outdoors?

While caravan travel has been a common way to vacation in the West for years, the trend is only just catching up in India. There’s plenty that works in its favour—freedom to make your own itinerary, time spent getting up close with nature, plus all the comforts of home wherever you go. So, what’s next for the country’s nascent caravan industry?

The concept of taking off in a motorhome or RV and seeing where the road takes you isn’t new to the West. This kind of vacation has a broad appeal, whether its college graduates on a shoestring budget, world-weary suits who have ditched the confines of corporate life or even families on a cross-country vacation. What started as a hashtag, has now grown into an entire lifestyle. Search for #vanlife on Instagram and you’ll find millions of photographs and vlogs from people who have turned camping in caravans into a veritable influencer campaign.

Caravan travel india green dot expeditions
Green Dot Expeditions offers caravan trips across Ladakh, Rajasthan and Kutch in its Taurus overland truck. (Photo: Courtesy Green Dot Expeditions)

The rise of caravan travel in India

In India, however, the concept of caravan travel has been largely non-existent, that is until the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020. With international borders sealed, travellers found themselves looking for new experiences in their own backyard. Social distancing became a buzzword overnight, and privacy and open spaces became top priority for vacationers once local lockdowns eased. “What we could not do in 20 years, Covid did in 20 days. Suddenly, Indians have started learning about caravan travel. It was hardly a business in India earlier. I was doing it as a passion, and searching for clientele was like searching for a needle in a haystack!” says Captain Suresh Sharma, founder of Green Dot Expeditions, who has been conducting trips across India in an overland truck for 21 years.

“Before Covid, it was mostly groups of youngsters seeking out caravans for adventure, or those travelling with senior citizens or pets. Demand was mostly from metros, so there were also a lot of people who have been exposed to caravan culture abroad, or those who had seen it online,” Rahul Soman, co-founder of Wacation on Wheels tells us. “Our enquiries have gone up four-fold after the pandemic. However, from groups wanting to travel together, now it is only single families traveling,” he adds.

A trip to remember

The main draw of hiring a camper van or caravan lies in the freedom it affords you to go where you please. You can chart your own itinerary, spend time in the midst of nature, and access places with inadequate tourist infrastructure. You can choose to ride solo or take your sweetheart, kids or fur babies along for the ride!

Caravaning does require a love of the outdoors, of course, but you don’t have to rough it out like you would if you were camping in a tent. Many campervans available to rent are built like mini-homes. Karnataka-based LuxeCamper, for example, offers swank motorhomes kitted out with a queen-sized bed, living and dining area, smart televisions with Bluetooth systems, and a kitchenette with an induction stove, electric kettle and toaster.

Since operating such vehicles requires a special license in India, most also come with a driver, and sometimes even a guide. Such freedom comes at a price though, cautions Captain Sharma. “People expect  it to be a cheaper substitute for a hotel stay. Whereas sadly it is not true. You can get a very decent room in a hotel for Rs 5,000. But in the case of a caravan, there is a cost of at least Rs 5,000-Rs 10,000 per person depending on the quality of the service being provided. It will take time for this perception to change,” he says.

Is hiring a campervan a more sustainable way to travel? It can be, Captain Sharma tells us, provided both operators and customers are mindful of the area they’re travelling in. Green Dot Expeditions, for example, doesn’t allow any single-use plastics, disposable materials or water bottles on its trips. They also work to sensitise customers about their environment. “Caravans can be a replacement for construction activities in ecologically sensitive locations, like Leh, or the Valley of Flowers or on coastal beaches and in protected forests. But to ensure this, proper infrastructure and rules need to be in place so camper vans can dispose of waste properly and be really green, instead of in name only,” adds Soman.

Rajasthan, Kutch, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh are currently among the most popular caravaning destinations in India. Nagpur-based Trippy Wheels also conducts trips to Sikkim, and LuxeCamper provides wildlife- and heritage-focused trips to Bandipur, Kabini, Bheemeshwari and Hampi.

Roadblocks along the way

“I’m very happy that it has started growing. This is one concept that can really grow vertically in the Indian tourism sector,” says Captain Sharma. However, India has a long way before caravaning becomes as ubiquitous as it is in the West. Among the major roadblocks, is a lack of concrete policies regulating caravan travel. The ones that do exist have largely been lifted from the West without adapting them to the Indian context, and have been framed without consulting with experts, explains Sharma.

Manufacturing and acquiring vehicles also remains an expensive affair. While they may have experience building vanity vans, often seen around film sets, Indian manufacturers lack the expertise to build caravans, which need to be standalone structures that can handle living needs for up to a week, he says. Additionally, India lacks open grounds with infrastructure, such as power and sewage lines, where campervans can park.

Operators such as Trippy Wheels usually tie up with homestays or hotels to station their vehicles overnight, but these allow only limited privacy. This is where private players can step up and offer their land, Captain Sharma tells us. “Government policy is just coming in now, and so any help on the ground seems a far way off at least currently. We would love to see directions issued to all tourism departments and local police to allow and promote caravan parking at scenic locations,” says Soman.

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