Monday, February 28, 2005

future factories

The surprise is that India's manufacturing revolution is starting at the high end.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in Newsweek International in March 2005).

March 7 issue - At a factory in greater Noida, an industrial suburb of Delhi, workers step through a series of ''air showers" that blast the grime of one of the world's most polluted cities off their clothes. Then they pull on white coveralls, white hoods and plastic sandals before passing through an air lock into the ''clean room" of Moser Baer, the world's third largest manufacturer of optical media, including CDs, VCDs and DVDs. Inside, rows of machines silently inject, coat, harden, finish, flip and label the shining disks, as a few white-suited workers adjust dials. Clean, quiet, heavily automated and nearly depopulated, this is the look of a nascent manufacturing revolution in India.

To anyone familiar with the Subcontinent, this picture comes as a surprise. Not so long ago even Indian consumers believed that Indian-made products were shoddy. Before the country began to liberalize its economy in 1991, the so-called license Raj stifled competition with red tape and nurtured inefficient makers of second-rate products. Even by the late '90s, as India began to emerge as a global power in information-technology services, the country remained a laggard in manufacturing. But lately India's manufactured exports have risen, from about $37 billion in 2002 to about $54 billion in 2004, and they could reach $300 billion by 2015, analysts say, as multinationals invest more heavily in India as a manufacturing base. Something similar happened in China, of course. But in India the early players are interested in the talent pool of chemists, designers and engineers, not low-skilled labor.

Look at headlines from the past 12 months: Nokia and LG Electronics unveiled plans to begin handset production in India. Hyundai, which has already exported about 50,000 cars from India, said it plans to make India its export hub for auto components. Toyota opened a factory that will make manual transmissions for vans, SUVs and small trucks produced in Thailand, the Philippines, South Africa and Latin America. Last month, Siemens announced plans to invest more than $500 million by 2009 in new and expanded factories in India.

Even picky German engineers are coming to associate India with quality. Jurgen Schubert, who heads Siemens's operations in the country, says that for years the company's quality testers in Germany stamped his Indian-made products "inferior," no matter how good they were. So in the late '90s, Schubert stuck made in germany on a shipment of Indian parts, and they passed inspection. ''After I pointed that out to them," he says, ''we no longer had any problems."

Multinationals have helped raise standards by encouraging Indian suppliers to modernize. When the big players entered the local auto market after liberalization in 1991, they assembled vehicles in India but imported many of the components. Now most of them are building cars using 70 to 90 percent local parts and materials. ''If you come and look at our factories today, most of the work is done by brainpower, with computer-aided drafting, lots of automation," says B. N. Kalyani, chairman of Bharat Forge, India's largest auto-parts maker. "The IT boom essentially brought out the story that Indian engineering skills are good and Indian engineers can adapt to whatever the needs of the market are. That gives India an advantage over China in technical, skilled manufacturing."

That may be overstating the case. Few Western industrialists rank India ahead of —China in any manufacturing category. Yet few doubt that India is carving out a big role, as skilled manufacturing shifts to developing nations. If New Delhi makes the right moves, says McKinsey & Co. consulting, India could raise its manufactured exports to $300 billion by 2015, increasing its share of global manufactured exports from 0.8 percent to 3.5 percent, and leapfrogging other low-cost countries to become one of the top two exporters (along with China) of products like apparel, pharmaceuticals, specialty chemicals and auto components. India could also become a big supplier of consumer electronics, computer hardware, and domestic appliances. "It's India and China, as opposed to either India or China," says Shirish Sankhe, a McKinsey partner in Mumbai. "Countries that may lose out are those where they have smaller domestic markets or less talent, like Thailand, Mexico, some countries in Eastern Europe and so on."

The likely losers also includes the United States. In auto parts, for example, customers increasingly expect longer life and higher technology at less cost. ''The result is that American parts manufacturing has become extremely unprofitable," says K. N. Subramaniam, managing director of Gabriel India Ltd., the flagship of the Anand Group, which expects auto-parts exports to rise from $36.8 million in 2004 to $56.3 million this year. India's domestic sales look likely to cross the million-car threshold in 2005, achieving a scale that will justify heavy investment in technology and capacity, further increasing India's global competitiveness.

To match China's recent growth, India will have to eliminate some ill-considered policies, experts say. In order to encourage consumption in its domestic market, New Delhi needs to cut taxes on manufactured goods down to the Chinese level, which means a cut from as high as 30 percent to 15 percent. It also needs to slash import duties; improve roads, railways, ports, and the power grid; and develop the type of Special Economic Zones that have created clusters of booming industries in China.

Indian businesses are already finding creative ways to dodge these hurdles. To avoid crippling power outages, Moser Baer has built its own power plant. ''We generate about 80 megawatts of power every year," says Ratul Puri, Moser Baer's executive director. ''We don't even have a grid connection." Bharat Forge is located in the state of Maharashtra and ships out of nearby Mumbai, but also from Chennai (formerly Madras), Kochi (formerly Cochin) and Gujarat, in case of strikes and bottlenecks in Mumbai.

The Indian government is also becoming more responsive to industry. It has removed barriers to the internal transport of goods destined for export and simplified import-export procedures. At the urging of Moser Baer, the government constructed a container depot in Greater Noida that operates 24 hours a day and now ships 80 percent of the company's output. ''The government is listening," says Puri. ''Five years ago you couldn't even have that discussion with the government." And as China shows, in nations where government works for industry, factories grow quickly.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

Monday, February 21, 2005

a black day for indian filmmaking

<>(This article appeared in Newsweek International in February 2005).

Feb. 28 issue - Indian director Anurag Kashyap expected "Black Friday" to strike a nerve. He hoped it would spark debate. After all, the film is the first feature to deal with the serial bomb blasts that devastated Mumbai in 1993, killing 300 people and injuring thousands. What's more, Kashyap's film seeks to explore the motives behind the attacks and attempts to show that India's opportunistic politicians—who thrive on a cycle of organized violence between Hindus and Muslims—bear a great deal of responsibility for the tragedy. But no matter how much controversy Kashyap anticipated, he was totally unprepared for the legal challenges by the alleged bombers that stopped the film's release last month.

Mushtaq Tarani, one of the men accused in the bombing case, moved the Mumbai High Court to suspend the release of the film, arguing that the dramatization of the crime would prejudice the trial against him. The court issued an interim stay, which the Supreme Court upheld, and now the filmmakers must wait for a ruling from the high court on whether the interim stay will be lifted. Tarani may have a point: "Black Friday" uses the defendants' real names. Tarani himself is shown planting one of the bombs, though Kashyap argues that the voice-over of a character undergoing police interrogation establishes the scene as just the point of view of another gang member. "It's based on a book that has been out there for two years," Kashyap says. "But [the court's] logic is that people don't read books but they do see films."

That's exactly why Kashyap and producer Arindam Mitra wanted to make the movie in the first place: to find out how Indians would respond to the idea that they, along with the politicians they support, are responsible for the Hindu-Muslim violence that culminated in the worst terrorist attack in their country's history. The question now is: when, if ever, will they get to find out?

—Jason Overdorf

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

airlines: brand india is taking off

The $375 million Jet IPO last week is just the latest sign that gloom has given way to euphoria in the Mumbai stock market.
By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in Newsweek International in February 2005)

Feb. 28 issue - The same day that "The Aviator" opened in theaters across India, homegrown flying entrepreneur Naresh Goyal debuted Jet Airways, India's first private air carrier, to rave reviews on the Bombay Exchange. In one of the first high-profile signs that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's moves to deregulate India's aviation industry are beginning to excite investors, the initial public offering of 1.7 million shares sold out within minutes last Friday, raising at least $375 million.

The successful IPO comes as Brand India is taking off. In the first 17 days of February alone, foreign fund managers invested $1.5 billion, and market watchers expect the 2005 total to reach $12 billion, up from $8.4 billion last year and $6.7 billion in 2003. Now, with three billion-dollar IPOs last year and nearly 10 companies with market values in excess of $10 billion, the gloom that once shrouded the Indian market has turned into euphoria, inspired by Singh's reforms. Late last year, for example, his administration succeeded in raising the cap on foreign investment in the aviation sector to 49 percent from 40 percent, and allowed domestic carriers to begin flying abroad. No airline is better positioned than Jet to exploit these opportunities.

When India began opening the skies to competition 12 years ago, Jet became the nation's first private carrier. It is now the leading domestic airline, with a market share of 43 percent. Consumers regularly vote it first in India for service—one reason analysts say it should profit handsomely from an expected boom in air travel inside India, and be able to compete on international routes as well. Many investors see Jet as a way to invest in the growing spending power of India's middle class.

The risk: Jet is losing its first-mover advantage. It faces new private competition from Air Sahara and India's first low-cost carrier, Air Deccan. As many as five more discount carriers plan to open for business in 2005. They face hurdles to applying the discount model in India, where there are no airport slots left in or near big cities like Delhi and Mumbai, and costs for landing fees and jet fuel are extremely high. Still, a fare-price war may be coming. Jet says it's not worried, because it gets 80 percent of its revenue from business travelers who don't pinch pennies. And whether it helps Jet or not, the sight of thriving competition is sure to attract more foreigners to Brand India.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

the last word: narain karthikeyan

(This article appeared in Newsweek International in February 2005).

Feb. 28 issue - On March 5, 28-year-old Narain Karthikeyan will become the first Indian to compete in Formula One racing when he takes the wheel for Jordan Grand Prix, the F1 team started by Ireland's Eddie Jordan, in Melbourne. It's a huge achievement for Karthikeyan, known as the "fastest Indian on wheels." Born in Chennai, he has been fighting for a place in the biggest competition in motor sports

for nearly a decade. Now, as he starts his engine, his sponsors Tata Group, JK Tyre and Bharat Petroleum Corp.—Indian companies finally entering into the aggressive marketing world of F1 to compete with giants like Shell and Marlboro—are steering themselves into pole position too. NEWSWEEK's Jason Overdorf spoke to Karthikeyan about his achievements and ambitions, as well as those of his giant country. Excerpts:

OVERDORF: You've been struggling to make it into Formula One for a long time. How does it feel to finally make it?
KARTHIKEYAN: We were all waiting for the right opportunity. I'm really happy to be the first Indian Formula One driver. It means a lot to the motor-sports fraternity.

Aside from cricket, Indian sportsmen don't get much support, yet you've been successful in getting some of India's corporate giants to sponsor you. How did you attract their interest?
Tata is a global company, and Formula One has the right image for them to get brand exposure. Bharat Petroleum has everything to do with cars. It suited their package, so they came onboard. They're also my long-term sponsors. Tata has been supporting me since 1999. Now I need to make it work. First we just need to finish some races—Jordan is not capable of winning yet. Then we'll be looking for more Indian sponsors so we'll have the money to make the car more competitive.

How difficult is it for Indian athletes—aside from cricketers—to break into the big time?
You need to be a standout. If you're pretty good and you're getting results internationally, you'll get some sponsors, like me. But in the beginning it's very, very hard. Cricket has been getting all the support, but slowly that's starting to change. Hockey, tennis and motor sports—these are getting more and more support. You need more international sports persons in these fields. You need some icons like me in Formula One. As this happens, more and more sponsors are going to look at different sports, and more and more kids will take them up.

How popular are motor sports in India?
It's getting there. F1 was the second most-watched sport on TV last year. [Viewership] is pretty high on the satellite channels. Now that's going to go up a lot more because I'm there. There are going to be a lot more Indians watching Formula One. This is a start for motor sports to grow bigger in India.

How do you rate your chances at success?
We have to be realistic. The Jordan car is not the best, for sure. We can't expect to compete with the [Michael] Schumachers of the world. If we finish in the top eight in some race and get the points, that would be great. Even if we finish among the top 14 qualifiers [out of 20 competitors], that would be good. But first we have to bring the car home in every race. In this sport, finishing itself is a big thing. I've been successful in Formula Three and Formula Two and beaten some pretty good drivers when they were competing at that level, so I think I can be very competitive given the right equipment.

Which makes you more nervous, driving on the track or driving on Indian roads?
Driving on Indian roads, by a long way. It's really crazy in some places, though it's getting better. [Foreigners] always ask me, "Which side of the road do you drive on in India—do you have right-hand drive or left-hand drive?" I say, "Whichever side we want." It's pretty dangerous out there.

Formula One has been trying to increase its presence in Asia over the past few years, opening races in Bahrain, Turkey and China. What role can you play in building interest in India?
Formula One at some point needs to grow in more Asian countries, and India is the perfect place. It's going to take government support, and the Indian government should realize that it would be a great thing [to have more Formula One races in India]. It would be great for the image of the country and have a lot of spinoff effects. And China is already ahead of us. Now [that I'm driving] we'll have a lot of viewers in India, a major market with a lot of people.

For Formula One, India has not been exploited yet, so they need to see if they can get something out of it. A lot of Indian companies will be interested in getting global exposure, so there will be a lot of marketing opportunities.

Have you seen a leap in commercial offers?
I am getting some offers, but I need to choose the right ones. So far I've only done ads for my sponsors.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

snap judgment: books

(This article appeared in Newsweek International in February 2005).

Feb. 21 issue - Q&A By Vikas Swarup
Delhi's latest literary sensation, Swarup is a diplomat who earned a whopping six-figure advance for his first novel. Titled "Q&A," the book recounts the picaresque adventures of Ram Mohammad Thomas, an ignorant orphan who makes off with the jackpot on a quiz show called "Who Wants to Win a Billion?" To explain how he knew the answers, Thomas must tell the story of his life, starting with the Roman Catholic priest who took him in and named him for each of India's major religions. Too cute, perhaps, but "Q&A"—sold in more than 15 countries, with a movie in the works—certainly has its charms.
—Jason Overdorf

Angry Wind By Jeffrey Tayler
In an epic overland journey, Tayler, a travel writer, offers himself up as a sounding board for disenfranchised Muslims of central and west Africa. While he listens to their grievances against U.S. foreign policy, their own governments and the merciless landscape, a latent rage and potent despair come sharply into focus. Though Tayler locates the occasional oasis—his time with the nomadic Tuaregs stands out as joyous—he spends more time in Africa's windswept and conflict-ridden badlands. Comparing parts of the continent to Afghanistan, Tayler warns that the West ignores Africa's strife "at [its] own peril."
—Aaron Clark

Beyond the Great Indoors By Inguar Ambjornsen
Elling and Kjell Bjarne, two dysfunctional middle-aged men, meet at a psychiatric hospital and bond over their unhealthy relationships with their parents. After being released, they move into a flat in Oslo and struggle with everyday tasks like shopping and making small talk. But gradually the roommates gain confidence; they buy two kittens, Kjell Bjarne gets a girlfriend and Elling discovers poetry. One of Norway's most popular writers, Ambjornsen—translated here into English for the first time—has a talent for making the men's neuroses accessible and even appealing.
—Ginanne Brownell

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

a factory of one's own

Rather than buying gadgets, toys and clothes ready-made, consumers may one day prefer to download the designs and make them at home.
By Rana Foroohar
(This article appeared in Newsweek International in February 2005)

Feb. 21 issue - Neil Gershenfeld has boundary issues. As a teen, he irked his parents by asking to attend the local trade school rather than the mainstream academy for bright kids like himself. "I was good in science, but I also wanted to learn to make stuff," he says. "I didn't understand why those things had to be separate." At Bell Labs, he ran into trouble with the unions when he tried to use machine tools to fabricate vacuum chambers he needed for his research. So it's no wonder that Gershenfeld, who now runs the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT's Media Lab, is once again trying to bridge the divide between the digital and the physical. As the inventor of the Fab Lab, a $20,000 mini-factory that can fit into a small room, Gershenfeld aims to bring high-tech manufacturing to the masses.

A Fab Lab (short for fabrication laboratory) is essentially a collection of high-tech factory parts, including readily available open-source software programs, computers and manufacturing equipment such as laser cutters and milling devices, which can be directed through a simple-to-use computer. With such a factory, you can design and make almost anything—from plastic toys to circuit boards and solar panels—out of just about any material. As part of a $14 million project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, Gershenfeld has deployed Fab Labs in India, Ghana, Norway, Costa Rica and the United States over the last two years. Already, Norwegian herders have built wireless antennas to track their reindeer; kids from inner-city Boston, Massachusetts, have crafted salable jewelry; Indian farmers have made and sold machines to locate groundwater, and West African students have developed solar cooking devices. "Forget about digital communication," says Gershenfeld. "The next big thing is digital, personal fabrication."

The Fab Lab may portend a new kind of manufacturing. "What if we could some day put the manufacturing power of a Ford factory in our own garage?" writes Gershenfeld in his upcoming book, "Fab" (Basic Books). In the future, rather than buying products, we might download their designs and produce them ourselves. The idea that people might be able to make pretty much anything has provoked a range of emotions from excitement, to dismay over potentially busted business models, fear of terrorists' exploiting the equipment and, conversely, hope that Fab Labs could help spread prosperity. "What's clear is that this technology is going to be disruptive," says Michael Jensen, a director at the National Academy of Sciences.

The roots of the Fab Labs are in both high and low technologies. In the digital age, Gershenfeld reasoned, there's no reason computing and manufacturing couldn't be integrated into one process, or even be done by one person. In his work on another project, Gershenfeld came into contact with Vigyan Ashram, a rural Indian development group, which needed a way of obtaining sensors to detect spoiled milk, devices for tuning diesel engines, machines that could help farmers locate groundwater and other gadgets. The problem was that nobody was mass-producing these products, and it cost too much to have them custom built. What the Indians really wanted was personalized fabrication technology.

Gershenfeld and his MIT colleagues kitted out the Ashram with a 3-D milling ma—chine, an industrial tool for making machine parts and a scanner hooked up to a PC. Local engineering students then helped them design circuit boards to be used in groundwater-locating machines, made on-site. The products not only helped the farmers, but have led to a new business. "We've sold more than 60 of these machines, and we're fully booked to carry out groundwater tests in the area for the next six months," says Yogesh Gulkarni, executive director of Vigyan Ashram. In Ghana, students designed a machine to pound cassava and plantain into fufu, a local dish.

Fab Labs aren't without their challenges. For starters, they require experts of some sort to help out, and in many communities such experts simply aren't available. At Vigyan Ashram, for example, work on the milk sensors and diesel-engine timers ground to a halt after the supervising engineer left during the restructuring of another MIT program in India. For these reasons, the most successful projects may be those that don't require complex computer-design work. Size is another problem. Currently, the tools in the Fab Labs can't make anything larger than themselves—more than a square meter or so. Gershenfeld is trying to develop robotic laser cutters that could drive themselves over large surfaces, creating things like big solar panels. Even if Fab Labs aren't likely to have the range of mainstream manufacturers, however, they may give some poor communities a way to start businesses and raise living standards.

The big question now is who will fund the growth. So far, Gershenfeld has been paying for Fab Lab deployment with his NSF grant. Now he's trying to interest governments and organizations like the World Bank, for whom Fab Labs could be an alternative to aid—a sort of manufacturing version of micro-finance organizations like the Grameen Bank, which encourage locals to bootstrap their own businesses.

Meanwhile, Gershenfeld has been preaching personal-fabrication technology to the likes of HP, Sony, Samsung and Microsoft. A few weeks back in Davos, he made predictions of home-based fabricators that would allow consumers to make their own gadgets, toys and clothes. That vision has a few stumbling blocks (how do you get rid of fumes from milling machines and how do you reduce the lab's cost from $20,000 to $2,000?), but it's easy to imagine companies using Fab tools to craft items for just-in-time shipping rather than storing a large inventory. Gershenfeld recently briefed Jeff Bezos, CEO of on this very idea. Fab Labs might one day bring more choice to both the poor and the prosperous.

With Jason Overdorf in New Delhi and George Nayakene in Ghana

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

Monday, February 07, 2005

why save the forests?

fear of big waves is no reason to plant mangroves

By Jason Overdorf and Eric Unmacht
(This article appeared in Newsweek International in February 2005).

Feb. 14 issue - In the aftermath of a natural disaster like December's tsunami, some stories have happy endings. V. Selvam's began when the giant waves came crashing into the mangrove forest of Pichavaram on India's Tamil Nadu coast. Selvam, a biologist who had been working to restore the forests, made his way to a nearby village as fast as he could, expecting the worst. Instead, he found relieved villagers regaling him with anecdotes. Eyewitnesses told Selvam that the mangroves had channeled water into lagoons and through canals, sparing the settlements meters from the shore. "I couldn't believe it," he says.

Similar anecdotes from all over the tsunami-affected region have had a special appeal to environmentalists and conservationists, who argue that if it weren't for the destruction of mangroves and coral reefs, which form natural barriers to waves, the death toll might have been far lower. Some of the hardest-hit countries have taken this admonition to heart and made mangrove restoration a pillar of their restoration efforts. Indonesia has promised to spend $22 million to replant 600,000 hectares of mangroves along its damaged coastline. The state of Kerala in southern India announced a plan to spend $8 million to create a protective barrier of mangrove plants. And forest officials in Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka are evaluating similar schemes. The problem is that the idea of developing physical barriers, natural or otherwise, to protect against future tsunamis is "pie in the sky," says Doug Masson, an oceanographer at Southampton University in England.

There's no denying that mangroves did save some villages, like those on the Indonesian islands of Sabang, Nias and Simeulue, which were spared the worst damage even though they were close to the earthquake's epicenter. The faulty logic comes in generalizing these experiences to the entire region. For one thing, mangroves don't grow everywhere—only 10 to 12 percent of India's coastline and 25 percent of Indonesia's, for instance, naturally support mangroves. If 20 percent of these forests had been lost to development between 1980 and 2000, as the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization says, or even 50 percent, as some conservation groups insist, that would have left only a small fraction of coastlines vulnerable.

The forests, too, cannot be planted just anywhere. The Indonesian government is considering laying a belt of the trees around the entire province of Aceh, which was devastated by the tsunami. But mangroves flourish only in high-salinity soils common to areas that combine an inflow of tidal water and an outflow of fresh river water; they die in sandy soils, which make up the lion's share of beaches. Several efforts by NGOs to plant mangroves in Indonesia have failed. "These are very well-meaning projects, but people [tend to] throw one species in the mud, and basically, after two or three weeks, they're dead," says Jan Steffen, a UNESCO expert in coastal development. Says the FAO: "Planting of mangroves where they did not previously exist is rarely going to work. There is a reason why they were not there in the first place."

Even if it were possible to ring the entire Indian Subcontinent with mangroves, the strategy still wouldn't work in all cases. Because the size of a wave hitting the shoreline depends to a great extent on coastal geology, the tsunami took on different shapes in different places. Locals in Indonesia reported seeing rolling, riverlike waters flooding some areas and 30-meter-high, bulldozer-like walls of sea flattening others. A 50- to 100-meter band of mangroves might have made a difference where the ocean floor slopes gradually to the shoreline and the wave traveled only a few meters inland. But in places like Lhok Nga in Aceh, where valley walls funneled the waters up to 35 meters high and the tops of palm trees were snapped off "like matchsticks," says Steffen, a few mangroves wouldn't have helped.

In the absence of any definitive studies on the effect of mangroves on waves, it would be wiser, says Southampton's Masson, for Indian Ocean nations to invest instead in civil-defense plans that include educating the public about what to do if such a disaster recurs, and a regionwide early-warning system like the one that exists in the Pacific. Still, protecting and restoring mangrove forests would provide habitats for juvenile fish, crabs, shrimps and mollusks; nesting sites for hundreds of bird species, and shelter for the Royal Bengal tigers of India and Bangladesh, among other endangered animals. Those are worthy enough reasons for planting trees.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

travel: a boat away from home

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in Newsweek International in February 2005)

February 14 issue--Tired of wearing yourself out resting up? There's one vacation that will force you to throttle back and relax: a houseboat holiday. Try meandering along beautiful waterways or exploring a scenic lake—then dropping anchor and bunking down. tip sheet explores some great winter getaways:

Amazonia, Brazil: Swallows and Amazons Tours offers all-inclusive boat trips down Brazil's Amazon and Rio Negro. The company's riverboats sleep eight—in hammocks—while the posher houseboats have six air-conditioned cabins that each sleep two. Enjoy bird watch-ing, fishing for piranha and swimming—but keep your eyes peeled for alligators. A cook provides home-style meals including local fish, tropical fruits and regional vegetables. (Seven nights, $1,050 per person; 11 nights, $1,450 per person;

Kerala, India: There's no better way to see the idyllic backwaters of India's southern tip—a huge network of canals, lagoons, lakes and rivers—than by houseboat. The huge, creeping barges, called kettuvalloms, that now serve as luxury houseboats once carried rice and spices. The boats have all the creature comforts of—and some advantages over—a good hotel. For one, you can angle for fish from your balcony. Casino Group, a well-known Indian hotel and tour company, offers various Spice Coast Cruises. ($275 per couple per night in peak season;

Lake Wanaka, New Zealand: Just an hour north of Queenstown, Wanaka is a beautiful lake at the base of New Zealand's snow-capped Southern Alps. You can enjoy the breathtaking scenery from the rooftop deck of the fully kitted Lady Pembroke while you grill some freshly caught trout. The houseboat sleeps 10 and comes with kitchen, bathroom with hot shower, TV, video and stereo system. Be sure to take a break from the water and explore Mount Aspiring National Park, a wilderness reserve where ancient Maori trails crisscross high mountains and river valleys. ($710 per day;

Rain Forest, Costa Rica: A cruise down the Rio Colorado, Rio San Juan or Rio Indio Rica on the luxurious Rain Goddess offers anglers the chance to catch some of the world's most exciting sport fish—including tarpon, snook and machaca—without hiking through the jungle or sleeping rough. The boat, which can accommodate 12, has two staterooms on the main deck and four on the upper deck, 24-hour air conditioning and hot showers; onboard cell phones are available for those who need to keep in touch with the office. But why would you want to? (Five days and four nights, $1,795 per person for anglers, $850 for non-anglers;