Thursday, January 27, 2011

India: Can tourism trickle down?

"Heritage" tourism moves from the palace to the hinterland.

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - January 27, 2011)

MORBI, Gujarat — Far below the terrace of the Darbargarh Palace in Morbi, Gujarat — once the fiefdom of a minor Indian prince — tenant farmers plow the floodplain beside the meandering Macchu river.

Car horns blare faintly in the distance. Across the water, smokestacks from the town's many tile factories gently puff soot into the sky. A parakeet swoops onto the terrace. Room service arrives with breakfast.

As the first guest to sleep under Maharani Uma Dubash Morbi's roof since she turned this 19th century, neoclassical palace into a hotel, I was surely at the frontier of so-called "heritage tourism."

"Heritage tourism" is the rubric that India uses for the forts, palaces and havelis that savvy or desperate owners have converted into hotels to prevent them from falling to ruins.

Once upon a time, virtually the only heritage hotels belonged to the grand Maharajas of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur in Rajasthan — the Indian state created from the erstwhile kingdoms of Rajputana, "the land of kings." These days India's rapid economic growth and a new Indian confidence about the country's postcolonial identity is bringing heritage tourism to the hinterland.

"Now we see a lot of people doing heritage tourism," said Prateek Chawla, co-owner of New Delhi-based Outbound Travels. "Everybody is restoring old properties. It's a big trend, and now it's moving to smaller places, with smaller, boutique hotels."

On the grand scale, the conversion of India's palaces into hotels began in Rajasthan in the early 1980s, after then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi abolished the privy purses with which the erstwhile royals had sustained their colossal properties.

Suddenly robbed of a lifestyle that would put Fifty Cent to shame — with bathtubs filled with champagne, Rolls Royces made of gold and palaces that glistened with precious gems — first the Maharana of Udaipur, then the Maharajas of Jaipur and Jodhpur each converted their various properties into hotels or museums to avoid bankruptcy, turning the state of Rajasthan into India's leading tourist destination.

Soon, the former kings had outsourced the management to professionals, and Taj Hotels and Oberoi Hotels, India's top luxury chains, were dominating the business (Oberoi with spanking new, imitation palaces that rivaled the real ones).

But the acknowledged pioneers of the trickle-down movement, Aman Nath and Francis Wacziarg of the Neemrana Group, are of humbler origins. They first showed that even the tiny castles of obscure royals could turn a profit when they bought and restored an otherwise unremarkable 15th-century fortress in tourist-poor Haryana and converted it into a hotel in 1986.

Today, the Neemrana Fort is the flagship of a company that operates 23 intimate heritage hotels on the fringes of the traditional tourist's itinerary. Moreover, as the recent addition of Morbi's Darbargarh Palace shows, they are now pushing even harder to draw tourists into the unexplored heart of India — and that's providing new hope that India's rich architectural and cultural heritage will survive.

"For all people with ancestral properties, we at Neemrana have come to represent a company who turns liabilities into assets," said Nath. "By that logic, every week we get one or two offers from people who want us to buy or manage their forts or palaces. We're buried by it. We're forever looking at properties."

That could be a big boost for India's forgotten places. According to the Ministry of Tourism, the travel industry — which generates substantially more jobs per dollar of investment than either agriculture or industry — can be a major source of employment and economic growth in areas of India that have yet to benefit from the current boom.

To capitalize, the country will need to draw more tourists — last year 5.6 million foreign tourists visited India, generating nearly $15 billion in revenue, but tiny coup-plagued Thailand, next door, saw 15 million tourists spend nearly $20 billion. But it will also need to draw travelers to rural areas and smaller towns, which is one of the national tourism policy's expressed goals.

Some of Neemrana's core properties are in strong locations for tourism — like the Glasshouse on the Ganges, near the Hindu pilgrimage town of Rishikesh, or the Hotel de L'Orient, in the one-time French colony of Pondicherry. But the latest additions are pushing the idea — common throughout Europe — that a charming hotel can itself draw tourists to places like Patiala, where the group operates the Punjab's first heritage hotel in the 19th-century Baradari Palace.

"What we claim to do is give an authentic image of a particular area, by sticking to the way the palaces were furnished in the olden days and serving the food of the area and also employing the local people so the body language belongs to that area," said Wacziarg. "The entire approach to hospitality is different."

Take Morbi, for example. The closest sizable city to this small, industrial town is Ahmedabad — the better part of a day's drive away — and even that city struggles to attract many tourists, not least because alcohol is forbidden in Gujarat. Apart from Darbargarh, the only real attractions in Morbi itself are a couple clock towers, a swinging footbridge that spans the Macchu, and a Hindu temple that's only 70 years old. Yet Neemrana's founders are confident that they can make the old palace go as a hotel, and in the process introduce seasoned tourists to rarely visited sights such as Lothal — an ancient harbor city of the Indus Valley civilization that dates back to 2400 B.C.

"We think when you put somebody out in the wilderness, you will find some 1500 or 1000 year old site," said Nath. "For the real traveler, it's very hot to make private discoveries, not just to go to the Taj Mahal."

India's profit-minded entrepreneurs aren't far behind. Along with older firms like HRH Hotels (where HRH stands for His Royal Highness, the Maharana of Udaipur), large hotel companies like ITCWelcom Group's WelcomHeritage and smaller upstarts like the Pachar Group are restoring properties and forming marketing tie-ups with otherwise isolated hoteliers. WelcomHeritage, for instance, which handled just five heritage properties in 1997, now markets 67 small, niche hotels in 18 states.

"There are a lot of smaller agents doing similar work," said Pankaj Gupta, Chawla's partner at Outbound Travels. "They get a bigger commission from the heritage properties, which they add on and send to people like us. They're only doing B2B work, and they've made people like us aware of the products."

Copyright 2010 GlobalPost – International News
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