“People still think this country is one that has dead people on the side of the road and snake charmers,” says Shailendra Singh Rathore, our guide during our stay. “It’s not that anymore.”
Upon arriving in South Asia, we were unsure whether we’d find the Mowgli of Kipling or the Kali Thuggee cultists of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
We found neither.
Instead, we discovered so much more: a country with an astounding miscellany of sights and sounds, as much rock-and-roll cacophony as rural calm.
Increasingly, luring international travelers to India has become a big business that the country’s immensely layered government has learned to respect. The country’s tourism industry, which raked in a healthy $3 billion in 2002, earned $11.5 billion in 2008.
“Being in the tourism business, I always say that we live in hope, all the time,” explains our host, Vishwas Makhija, president of Luxury India Holidays, one of the country’s largest travel agencies. “Tourism is a very sensitive business. Anything can happen in the world — oil prices, the economy — and it’s the first thing that’s affected. But we’re always positive that things will turn around.”
It’s a tenaciousness that has defined India for some time.
It was shortly after the 2001 global downturn for travel that the Indian tourism ministry initiated a plan to recast the image of the country as more than simply the Taj Mahal and Gandhi. Thus was born the ubiquitous “Incredible India” campaign, which has been pitched hard to a global audience in the years since.
“We’re a young democracy, 62 years of independence,” Makhija says. “We started a bit late in realizing the potential of tourism and how far it can lead. Jungles, culture, heritage, mountains, beaches — honestly, it’s a one-stop shop. Your search ends in this country.”
As we learned, though, getting there can take an investment of time and energy. Fifteen hours one-way from Chicago (American Airlines’ longest trip), in fact (not counting the flight from our home city of San Antonio, Texas). But the ROI is well worth it.
In a frenetic schedule drawn up by Makhija and his staff, we visited 17 historic sites; dozens of cities, towns, and hamlets; and two wildlife sanctuaries. The stops ranged from the grandeur of the magnificent, obligatory Taj Mahal in Agra to the obscurity of a tiny, ninth-century family temple near a shepherds’ village at Nimaj.
The itinerary covered more than 1,000 miles by land and air from Delhi to Agra to Udaipur and back again. Our accommodations ranged from the luxurious, such as the gorgeous Le Méridien in New Delhi and Fateh Garh in Udaipur, to the wonderfully spartan, such as the Nimaj Palace in Nimaj and Samode Haveli in Jaipur.
Prior to our trip, my son and I received some coaching from Cathy Benton, a friend who has lived in, visited, and studied India for more than three decades as part of her own journey from UNICEF field officer to academic. “Once you get out of the cities, it’s possible to go back in time and experience life as it was 100 or 200 years ago,” Benton, an associate professor of humanities at Lake Forest College in Illinois, told us as we were planning our trip. “But it’s quickly disappearing.”
Fortunately, we were able to experience both the former and future India.