According to Rajesh Khanna, Executive Director of Sales & Marketing for Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.com) in India, India has become the most searched destination on A&K’s website and average keyword searches per day for India are up 19%. “Being in high-end luxury travel, business for A&K is yet to pick up to the levels witnessed during 2005-2007,” says Khanna. “But we are getting good requests for the first quarter of 2011 and we are hopeful that business will be returning to normal levels.”
What’s more, notes Khanna, as one of the BRIC countries, India has a GDP of 8.5% year on year. BRIC is an economic grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, and China; four countries deemed to be developing so rapidly that their combined economies could eclipse those of the richest in the world by 2050. In addition, the presence of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October 2010 has meant an increase in India’s infrastructure and luxury hotels, similar to the development of South Africa’s infrastructure for this past summer’s World Cup Games.
On a recent visit to India, I visited the extensively renovated Oberoi Mumbai where $45 million has gone towards completely restoring the hotel, adding a new restaurant and tightening security. In Mumbai, an exclusive chartered cruise wound through Mumbai Harbor to explore the caves of Elephanta Island and visit the Prince of Wales Museum and the famous outdoor “laundry,” a cultural immersion into daily Indian life. I then continued on to Jaipur where I stayed at Oberoi Rajvilas, a 32-acre hideaway that evokes princely Rajasthan with opulent villas and royal tents in a fort-like setting on the outskirts of the city. Sightseeing in Jaipur includes the pink sandstone Hawa Mahal, the City Palace, The Amber Fort, and the Jantar Mantar Observatory. There was also an elephant-back safari at the lovely private estate Dera Amer near Amber Fort in the Aravali Hills. The owner, a conservationist and animal lover, started these relaxed rides through the forest on elephant back at his family’s centuries-old estate to offer tourists something other than the uphill elephant-back rides to the Amber Fort in the blazing sun. Afterwards, we enjoyed a tasty high tea with champagne and fresh fruits. (What an incredible experience this was – the highlight of the trip!) From here, I traveled to Agra, where I enjoyed views of the Taj Mahal from my room at Oberoi Amarvilas and visited this age-old monument where I loved to see the spectacular change in colors at sunset and sunrise. The tour ended in New Delhi, where the buzzy cosmopolitan feel of the newly-renovated Oberoi New Delhi made an impression as did a special tour arranged with Sunil Raman, a BBC correspondent born and raised in Delhi with an intimate knowledge of the city’s culture, architecture, history and politics.
A&K’s attention to detail on this tour was impressive. I’d remarked in my pre-tour questionnaire, provided by the tour operator, that I suffered from iron-deficient anemia. A&K responded to this by ensuring that fresh almonds and apricots (both iron-rich foods) were placed in all of my hotel rooms throughout the tour. Sanjay Sethi, our guide, provided detailed suggestions on shopping, restaurants, and activities and was adaptable and congenial. At Oberoi Rajvilas, the head chef gave the tour participants a cooking demonstration of traditional Indian cuisine with step-by-step tastings and a tour of the property’s organic garden.
When I spoke with our guides about the effects of the 2008 Mumbai attacks on travel to India, they had slightly different takes. Sethi estimated that tourism dropped as much as 50% last year, attributing this not only to the terrorist attacks but to the international economic downturn as well.
Raman, who regularly reports on security issues in India for the BBC, told me that the Oberoi and Taj hotels have a symbolic importance for Mumbai, which is why the reopening of the hotels has received such attention. “Most Indian media companies and channels are dominated by people who have either stayed in or eaten at these hotels and that’s why it directly hit them. And the operations in Taj and Oberoi continued over three days,” he said.
Raman added that the Mumbai attacks ended the complacency of the Indian government on security concerns and as a result, large amounts of money are now being allocated to security issues in India. “In the last decade India has been on the terror map of both internal and external terror groups. More so, in the last few years since India has developed closer ties with the US government. After the 2008 attacks, a huge public outcry fueled by 24x7 television channels saw the federal government wake up to the crying need to secure the coastline.
The Coast Guard’s proposals for new fast interceptor boats to replace some old ones were cleared by the finance ministry. The government wanted to be seen as pro-active on security issues. State governments, too, got into action, sanctioning and looking at the need to secure land along the coastline.”
Due to their iconic status, Raman said, the reopening of these two hotels tells the world, “Now things are back to normal.”
Visit the homepage of India’s Ministry of Tourism at www.incredibleindia.org