Globetrotter special

Multi-currency cards could change the dynamics of the travel card market

The first rule of travel has always been to carry enough currency. While trekkers rolled them into socks, backpackers carried traveller’s cheques that were worthless if there was no merchant handy. Corporate travellers used debit or credit cards but were saddled with a 1.5-3% conversion charge while exchanging money as per the rate of the day. And then banks came up with the idea of pre-paid foreign currency cards. But these were single-currency cards, inconvenient for globe-trotters.

Now, ING Vysya Bank has launched the first multi-currency traveller’s card in India, which allows up to five currencies to be loaded at the same time. Says Uttam Nayak, Visa's Group Country Manager, India and South Asia, “Users can block their exchange rate and avoid multiple cards and pins for multiple currencies.” This was an opportunity waiting to be tapped and, indeed, prepaid forex card market leader Axis Bank (with 48% market share) already has plans for a similar card.

A multi-currency card is a clever idea given the current economic climate: not only are more Indians travelling overseas frequently, they’re also battling a depreciating rupee. ING permits users to load US and Australian dollar, sterling, euro and yen; with the currency value locked in on the date of buying the card. This ensures protection against currency volatility (excluding intercurrency transactions outside the country.) “It is much like carrying a wallet with five currency compartments,” says ING Vysya Bank country head, Uday Sareen. “You can spend from any pocket you want. If you run out of dollars, you can simply dip into the other compartments and convert them to refill your dollar pocket.”

The pre-paid forex card segment is currently worth $2 billion with about 40,000 to 50,000 cards being issued every month. ING is targeting a growth of 5% this year with their primary focus being corporate travellers who visit multiple countries. With more banks planning to get on the gravy train, this segment is going to see more action.