From the somber love story behind the Taj Mahal to the fairy-tale scenes of Rajasthani forts, India beckons many of us. But when Boston-based independent travel consultant Julie Brown Klein started planning her first trip to India, a flood of trepidations took over.
India // © 2009 T.Narvikk
“I worried about health and food,” Klein explained. “Would I get sick from the exotic and spicy foods? I didn’t want to be stuck in a hotel room close to a bathroom.”
Klein also wondered if the water was safe to drink and what sanitary standards she could expect.
Then, there was the issue of poverty.
“Would my white, middle-class upbringing shame me?” Klein asked. “Was I going to be able to go shopping or sightseeing or would the beg-gars I had heard so much about be disconcerting?”
These concerns are not unusual, even for an experienced globetrotter such as Klein. But here’s where perceptions of India run into a reality check: Americans are traveling to India in droves. The number of U.S. visitors to the country has more than doubled in the last five years. In 2003, U.S. visitors totaled 410,803. In 2007, the number of American arrivals was 799,062, surpassing the number of visitors from the U.K. for the first time.
However, when speaking with prospective travelers to India, I find that many Americans are curious about India yet hesitant to commit to the journey. According to tour operators and guides, several common concerns emerge prior to a first-time visit. I call them the “myths of India.”
Myth: I’m going to become ill.
The stories of Westerners going to India and developing “Delhi belly” are almost legendary. But Indian sanitation standards have improved markedly during the last decade. Most people who travel to India and follow a few simple precautions come home without ailments.
Nathaniel Waring, president of Cox & Kings USA, said the hotels where his guests stay all take measures to have clean water and high standards of kitchen hygiene.
For instance, Oberoi Hotels and Resorts and Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces process their tap water through a plant where it is chlorinated and zapped with ultraviolet rays. And, surprise audits are conducted by independent food-safety auditors for Taj properties.
“Absolutely all of the hotels we put our clients in, even the three-star hotels, have been inspected to make sure that food is being served in a hygienic manner,” said Max Aly, director of operations at Sita World Tours.
In truth, some visitors do experience health issues. Bacteria may be present in street food and even in meals served in some secondary Indian restaurants, as is the case in other developing countries. Tour operators recommend checking in with the guide whenever there are questions about where to eat or what to drink. Visitors touring India independently, without the services of a guide, must be cautious with fruit that cannot be peeled and with raw vegetables (Indians don’t typically eat uncooked tomatoes or lettuce). In remote areas, Waring suggested sticking to vegetarian dishes; the majority of Indians don’t eat meat, so vegetarian preparations are more traditional.
Then there is another, less-heralded issue confronting Western stomachs: the style of cooking. Indian food is spicy, but not in the sense that Mexican food is spicy (as in hot). Instead, spices such as turmeric, coriander seeds and cardamom are used in great quantity. When combined with ghee (clarified butter), the result is a meal that is
unusually rich in flavor for Westerners.
Mumbai-based Rashida Anees, a guide with Cox & Kings USA, said she cautions her clients to not overeat.
“Most of the time, if my guests have stomach problems it is not from what they eat, but how much. I recommend they start off their trip eating less,” she said.
At least four weeks prior to departure, clients should visit a travel clinic to get any shots they might need. Routine vaccinations for such ailments as diphtheria, tetanus, chicken pox and polio should be up to date; hepatitis A and B vaccines are also recommended.
Depending on the dates of the trip and the itinerary, a travel clinic may prescribe an antimalaria drug, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
“There are very, very few cases of malaria in India today,” said Aly. “There are certain times of year, during monsoon and immediately after, from May through mid-September, when mosquitoes breed.”
Myth: All of India’s people are poor and will beg for handouts.
Without question, travelers to India will encounter beggars, most frequently at the entrance to important monuments. Some of them will be unbearably crippled. Along the sides of busy roads, clients will likely witness a more extreme example of poverty than they have previously known.
“People have to be prepared,” said Antonia Neubauer, president of tour operator Myths and Mountains. “India is a country that feeds your soul and tears your heart. But one of the things India teaches you is the difference between pity and compassion.”
With a population nearing 1.2 billion and an average income well below Western standards, the number of Indians getting by on a few hundred dollars a year is astounding. But India’s annual gross domestic product growth currently hovers near 7.5 percent, making it the fastest-growing economy in the world. Its per-capita income levels are expected to double over the next decade. The number of people in India living below the poverty line decreased from 60 percent of the population in 1981 to 42 percent in 2005. While that is still a huge number of people, tour operators say much of the perception is defined by perspective. In many Western societies, the poor live relatively out of sight.
“Poverty is a universal issue,” said Aly. “You just don’t see it as openly in America as you do in India.”
Aly and other tour operators discourage guests from offering handouts to beggars.
“Ninety percent of the time these are scams,” he said. “Twenty years ago, you saw a lot more beggars but, today, the government is very
efficient about unearthing these scams. If tourists want to contribute something they can bring school supplies, which we’ll arrange to give to a teacher or principal.”
“What do people really consider poverty?” Neubauer asked. “Just because someone doesn’t have a car or television doesn’t mean they’re poor. You can examine it and begin to understand the systems that go into creating the poverty.”
Australian adventure tour operator Intrepid Travel goes further than most to embrace India’s economic truths.
“We do not attempt to try to hide the reality of the destination, we want our customers to
experience it,” said Steven Larkin, Intrepid president. “Part of that is the poverty, and it will be memorable. In turn, we support the communities we visit through The Intrepid Foundation.”
Clients are able to make additional donations to the fund, matched dollar-for-dollar by Intrepid. Contributions are used for grassroots efforts by non-governmental organizations in countries where the tour operator works.
Similarly, Myths and Mountains started Read Global, a foundation that builds libraries in rural villages. The company has built five in India and even has a 12-day tour designed around visiting the library communities, priced from $4,630 including internal airfare and a $300 Read Global donation, giving clients a way to be a small part of the solution to ending India’s poverty.
Myth: India is not conducive to upscale travel.
Today, most travelers demand creature comforts that extend beyond flushing toilets and air conditioning. Your clients expect dependable and erudite guides, efficient air connections between cities and resorts with lavish spas and multiple dining options. And India delivers.
Domestic carriers Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines are making the country easier to get around. In 2008, three of Oberoi’s resorts — Rajvilas in Jaipur, Udaivilas in Udaipur and Amarvilas in Agra — were ranked among the top six hotels in the world by readers of Travel + Leisure. The only problem: The phenomenal growth in moderate and high-end visitors during the last decade has been faster than India’s tourism industry could accommodate.
Aly said India seems expensive, compared to Thailand or China, because supply has not kept up with demand.
“The infrastructure is not very robust,” Aly said. “The number of tourists we can accommodate at any given time is very limited, allowing the hotels to be able to charge a much higher price.”
Aly estimated that accommodations represent 60 percent of the cost of a typical India package.
In 2001, guests staying at the Lake Palace in Udaipur, an iconic resort managed by Taj, paid rack rates starting at $230, based on double occupancy. Today, Lake Palace rates start from $722. At Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, entry-level rooms were $205 eight years ago; today, rack rates start at $625. These comparisons aren’t entirely apples-to-apples: Both hotels benefited from major renovations in the last few years.
The point is that the price for staying at the top properties in India’s most desirable cities has risen dramatically. And with the Indian economy booming, even today, prices for meals, transportation and guides have also spiked.
Packages incorporating these hotels range from $600 per night and up, per person. However, mid-priced tours can also be attractive. Sita’s entry-level package is Incredible India, an 11-day tour which ranges from $2,755 to $4,275 per person, including airfare from New York and internal flights. The fast-paced trip visits Delhi, Varanasi, Khajuraho, Agra, Jaipur and Mumbai, staying at Taj hotels throughout.
Intrepid’s flagship package is Classic Rajasthan, a 15-day tour traveling out of Delhi through Agra, Rajasthan, Jaipur, Ranthambore National Park, Bundi, Bijapur, Udaipur and Pushkar. Accommodations are in small, locally owned hotels and include one night in a homestay. The price is $1,005 per person, commissionable at 10 percent, plus a local payment of about $250 on arrival.
Myth: It’s a long, arduous trip.
Many Americans are oblivious as to just how large India is: The country covers about one-third of the territory of the 50 United States. Furthermore, India’s travel infrastructure is still developing, meaning transportation links — even between major cities — aren’t as comprehensive as found in Europe. So, the potential for a demanding travel experience certainly exists.
But India doesn’t have to be grueling, and flight connections from the West Coast are better than ever, with swift connections to Delhi on American Airlines and Continental Airlines as well as routings via Asia and Europe.
“The difficulties can be alleviated by proper planning,” said Waring. “India has a perfectly good and growing air industry, and getting from Mumbai to a major tourist site like Agra seems like it should be easy,” Waring said. “But it’s not: You have to go through Delhi and trying to do it all in one day is difficult.”
Clients must also allow time to secure a visa and, if traveling during peak season (October-March) they should be prepared to reserve well ahead of time.
“During high season, the top hotels and guides book up long in advance,” said Neubauer.
Prospective visitors should select a chunk of the country to visit, rather than trying to cover it all in one gulp. Most tour operators recommend Rajasthan to first-time visitors.
“It has many of the iconic images we associate with India and it’s more developed in terms of the travel infrastructure,” said Waring. “Southern India is great for a second visit.”
That is exactly what Boston-based travel consultant Klein is planning. She said her first trip took her outside her comfort zone and inspired her to examine her place in the world.
“I’m hoping to go back in February,” said Klein. “I want to cover the parts of the country I didn’t get to see the first time.”