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Rediscovering Rajasthan

When the pandemic began, I wondered how Rajasthan would cope.

It is a state where tourism is crucial to the economy and as people stopped travelling, tour guides, hoteliers and restaurateurs began to feel the pinch.

 

But then, a funny thing happened. People started travelling again. And while they went to destinations all over India, there was one big favourite.

 

   And it was — you guessed it! — Rajasthan.

 

   I started going to Rajasthan during the pandemic, when flights were still to resume, because it was easy for anyone from Delhi to get to. I drove four hours to Rajvilas, in Jaipur, the original Vilas, and the first of a new generation of world-class resorts in India when it opened in the late 1990s. There were strict Covid protocols in place but the hotel was just as wonderful as I remembered it. I loved it so much that I went back again a few months later.

 

   Struck by the proximity of Rajasthan to Delhi, I began to look for other options. I went to Amanbagh, near Alwar, a hotel like no other in India, and was blown away by the magnificent Ed Tuttle-designed villas.

 

   I enjoyed the experience so much that when it was time to drive back to Delhi, my wife and I decided we would rather spend a few more days in Rajasthan. On impulse, we drove to Jaipur and to the wonderful Rambagh Palace hotel, which is so superbly run these days that memories of royal Jaipur and modern luxury merge wonderfully well.

 

   Then we began looking for other places we could drive to. I had heard that the Leela chain had recently acquired the former Marriott on the road to Jaipur and had upgraded it. Deciding to take a chance, we drove to the Jaipur Leela and were startled to find that it was a secret luxury destination. Forty of the villas had private pools and courtyards even though the hotel charged much less than the Rambagh or Rajvilas.

 

   Last month, we decided that it was silly to treat Rajasthan as a driving-only destination and took a flight to Udaipur. We had originally intended to stay at the lovely Udaipur Leela but the hotel was full when we wanted to go, so we went back to an all-time favourite: Udaivilas.

 

   You have probably heard about Udaivilas. It has a huge historical importance because it was the first Indian hotel to top the lists of the world’s best hotels. Since then, it has continued to appear on nearly every list of the world’s great hotels. Built by Biki Oberoi as a tribute to the arts and traditions of Udaipur, it is a spectacular property with stunning architecture, unmatched service, home to hundreds of species of birds, with innumerable kinds of trees and plants and with stunning views of lake Pichola.

 

   But even Udaivilas was full when I wanted to go and when I finally got there (it is even better than I remember it as being), I was intrigued to see that it was packed out with guests in the middle of the week.

 

   I went and had lunch at the Lake Palace next door with my old friend K Mohanchandran, one of the Taj’s most experienced and best General Managers, and discovered that even the Lake Palace was so busy that it was turning away guests.

 

"Indians are now willing to pay just as much as foreign visitors to stay at Vilas properties and what once seemed like a gamble now seems like a visionary decision."

   If you are in the tourism business, you will know why this is unusual. Rajasthan used to be what the trade called a seasonal destination. It was created in the 1970s by the Taj group which made such palace hotels as the Rambagh and the Lake Palace famous all over the world. Then, in the early years of this century, Biki Oberoi built the Vilas hotels (Udaivilas, Rajvilas, and Vanyavilas) that came to be regarded as the top resorts internationally and gave Rajasthan a new lease of life.

 

  But guests from all over the world only came to Rajasthan when it was cool (November to March, basically). For the rest of the year, the hotels had middling occupancies and, in the summer, many were nearly empty because Rajasthan was regarded as too hot.

 

   This year, however, even though the foreign visitors who used to throng the palaces and the Vilases are absent, Rajasthan is full anyway. A new breed of Indian guests has taken up the slack and these guests don’t just come in the season — they come all the year-round. That’s why Rajasthan’s hotels were so full over the summer. And that’s why it can still be so hard to find a room.

 

   Where have these new guests come from? One view is that because Indians can no longer travel abroad so easily, we are rediscovering domestic holiday destinations. And because we are saving so much money on international air fares, we can afford to spend more on hotels in India.

 

   But why Rajasthan? Well, because it has most of the country’s best resort hotels. And it has the advantage of location. Just as I keep driving from Delhi to Jaipur, so do many others, not just from Delhi but also from Punjab. Though people do fly to Udaipur from Delhi (as I did) or from Mumbai, many guests drive from Ahmedabad (around four hours away). Guests from such cities as Indore also find it convenient to get to.

 

   At the top end of the market, the consequences have been astonishing. The Leela in Udaipur made more money this August than it did in the pre-pandemic era when August was a dull month. The Jaipur Leela never made this kind of money when it was a Marriott in the pre-pandemic period.

 

   The most significant impact may be on the Oberoi chain. When the Vilases were built, it was believed that their high room rates would make them accessible only to foreigners. In fact, Indians are now willing to pay just as much as foreign visitors to stay at Vilas properties and what once seemed like a gamble now seems like a visionary decision. The Vilases have kept the Oberoi group going during the lockdown phase when city hotels suffered.

 

   Outside of the top segment, Rajasthan’s tourism industry has picked up just as substantially. There are many small boutique properties that are booked up weeks in advance and inexpensive establishments are doing so well that they are baffled by their success.

 

   Can it last? There is a cynical view which says that once Indians can travel to foreign destinations again, they will abandon the Rajasthan hotels. Personally, I don’t think so. Judging by the guests I have spoken to at Rajasthan hotels, they are much happier at a Vilas or another high-quality property than they would be, in say, Switzerland. They may still take annual vacations abroad but India has suddenly opened up for them and they are thrilled by what they have found.

 

   If I am right, then Indian tourism is finally headed in the right direction. The tourism industry has always tried to move away from the Southeast Asia model (which depends on foreign visitors) and move towards an American model where tourists come from within the US and are thus less worried about health scares or reports of civil disturbances.

 

   Oddly enough, that may be the lasting effect of the pandemic on Indian tourism. Indians have rediscovered Rajasthan: all year round.

 

  

Posted On: 11 Sep 2021 11:35 AM
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