Century-old forts, lavish palaces and the exotic east: India can be the ideal place for a vacation or – if you are English model, actress and bathing suit entrepreneur Liz Hurley – the site of your glitzy wedding.
It’s yet another change that marks India’s arrival on the international stage and, this, too, is changing the country and how it sees itself. Not too long ago, if you were a reasonably well-off, dollar-bearing tourist in India, you could afford, with a little stretching of the pocket, to stay in most five star hotels. Today, you can still get a room but a “little stretching” might not cut it. Don’t get me wrong, India still is a budget destination for a lot of tourists and the laws of multiplication are still very much in favor of the dollar (one dollar gets you approximately forty-five rupees and a 10 rupee tip is pretty much the same as a dollar in the U.S.), but if you want to stay in the comfort of a good hotel, it’s going to cost a sizeable chunk of change.
The Indian government, catching the wave, has been running a jaunty international media campaign to further boost tourism. It’s working. Visits are up, and taking maximum advantage of it are the hotels who have raised their rates, literally, through the roof.
A trip to the backwaters of Kerala, a south Indian state that is home to coconut groves and rubber plantations, is a favored destination, especially if you are the sort that likes to talk about your vacations once they are over. Some strategically located hotels in the area charge anything from $300 to $600 a night. You could go for a cheaper option but that may not be as comfortable or well located; or you could be somewhere in between the two, but even then you’ll have to shell out at least $120 a night for a decent hotel. And this is not, obviously, counting airfare and overheads.
Tourism isn’t the only jam. In Bangalore, best and most commonly described as India’s Silicon Valley, there are times when one cannot get a booking in a hotel for the love of money – most prices start at $300 a night. It’s the same story in Delhi and Mumbai. Between tourists and business executives with fat expense accounts signing on dotted lines like it’s going out of fashion, the hotels are booked year round. There’s a shortage of rooms and hence the rise in room rates. The only time one may get them cheaper is in the summer, because the north Indian heat – going up to 118 degrees Fahrenheit – isn’t for the faint hearted.
A must-see on your India trip is Rajasthan, a stunning north-western state that borders Pakistan. It’s a land of forts, palaces, sand-dunes and erstwhile kings. If you have about $4,000 lying around waiting to be spent then you could take a seven-day trip across the state on ‘The Palace on Wheels’- a luxury train which, as the name suggests, is designed like a palace where you can re-live the days of the Maharajas and travel in style of the kings and potentates who ran India during the hayday of the British Empire.
The site of more than one Bollyood epic – you can’t say we don’t know our own scenery is breath-taking – Rajasthan was also the venue for Liz Hurley’s lavish Indian wedding that carried on for a week recently. She married her long time beau, Arun Nayar, in an utterly extravagant ceremony, down to the camel-carts, white horses and countless elephants, in the city of Jodhpur. A fourth century fort was booked as was another former-palace-turned-hotel for the ceremonies (much to the chagrin of tourists), where high-profile guests were flown in on chartered flights from Mumbai and accommodated in plush Swiss cottage tents. The wedding’s been hard to ignore since the couple – a boon to India’s tourism, of course – are splattered all over the Indian media at present and we are being presented with the minutest details about the wedding.
Then there are the boutique hotels and spas that, by their very definition, are over-the-top, mixing what’s seen as the luxury of the Days of the Raj with a “new age” sense of entitlement and snobbery.
Ananda in the Himalayas is a case in point. An exclusive spa-resort located in a beautiful, hilly, northern state (Uttranchal) that borders Nepal, it boasts as being one of the best spas in the world. English and American travel pubs have heaped on the honors so that Ananda, can claim to have been voted the ‘Best Pampering Spa’ making it, of course, a nominee for Liz Hurley’s next destination. Room rates? $600 upwards. My husband and I visited once, wanting nothing more than an innocuous cup of coffee, but we were turned away from the imposing, wrought iron gates because we had our infant daughter with us. It seems she had the potential of disturbing the peace and tranquility of the spa which has a policy of not admitting children under fourteen years of age. Of course, they don’t mention that either on any sign leading to the spa or anywhere prominent on the site and something tells me that if Britney Spears was to troop in with her kids in toe, they might bend that rule quite willingly.
So now, after business and medical tourism, India is being promoted – as the tourism minister joyously declared – as a “wedding destination”. The elephants may never have their rest. Regular visitors, requiring fewer trained animal escorts, might want to remember three things: load up the cash, book well in advance and don’t show up in the summer!