INDIA IS RAISING ITS tourism profile as it develops new hotels and increases ease of access with new nonstop flights from the U.S.
"We've noticed a definite trend toward luxury boutique hotels," says Max Ali, director of operations, SITA World Tours (www.sitatours.com), a tour operator with 75 years of providing programs to India.
Ali notes that it was Oberoi Hotels & Resorts that started this trend toward luxury and developed it even further with its "vilas" hotels, including Oberoi Rajvilas Palace Jaipur (www.oberoirajvilas.com) and the Hotel Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra (www.oberoiamarvilas.com). "They are small hotels, but they are absolutely fabulous," says Ali. Shangri-la Hotels & Resorts also moved into the India market, opening the Shangri-La Hotel, New Delhi (www.shangri-la.com/en/property/newdelhi/shangrila) in 2005. The company has three more hotels underway in Bangalore, India, set to open in late 2009 and 2010.
"India's game parks are also being developed," says Ali. Taj Hotels & Resorts and CC Africa have come together to open luxury lodges in India's game parks, the first of these being the 12-suite Mahua Kothi (www.tajhotels.com) in Bandhavgarh National Park in Central India. "It used to be that you had to be prepared for rustic conditions in India's parks," says Ali. "Now they are following the African model and providing luxury in the wild."
Ali has some advice for agents: "India is increasing in popularity, and since we have not developed our infrastructure the way China has, there's a limited supply of luxury hotel rooms. So book early—six months ahead if possible."
"Our customer profile at SITA is constantly shifting," says Ali. "Up to 10 years ago, we were mostly seeing seniors. That has changed to include multi-generational travel, young couples and even honeymooners." SITA has had eight honeymoon bookings to India this year. "These are exclusively FIT clients," explains Ali. "Group size in general is getting smaller, and our FIT business is increasing." SITA's clients still desire pre-arranged transfers and hotel reservations, and they may book a city tour, but they also require plenty of free time in their itineraries.
"India is a huge country and impossible to see in one visit," says Ali. "We recommend that for the first time, they visit the north and see the country's iconic attractions, and on their second visit, [they] tour the south and Kerala, which is more spiritual and traditional." Ali considers India to be the kind of destination where travelers usually return for a second visit. SITA's repeat figures bear this out, at a healthy 50 percent.
Ali observes that travelers used to consider India to be a 30-day trip. "Now they're more likely to book two weeks," he says. "With the new nonstop flights, travelers aren't losing days flying back and forth."
Last month, Air India (www.airindia.in), the country's national carrier, began flying nonstop to Delhi from New York's JFK International Airport. The new flight comes on the heels of Air India's August launch of its first daily, nonstop service from JFK to Mumbai. Last year Air India merged with India Airlines, the country's major domestic carrier. Air India never capped commissions, and the carrier pays 4 percent commission to travel agents.
Air India also announced that it has been invited to join the Star Alliance, the only Indian carrier to be part of the group. The move will give Air India access to more than 16,000 daily flights operated by the 21 Star Alliance airlines serving 900 airports. Air India expects to complete the process by March 2009.
Bhargava considers the U.S. to be the carrier's major area for growth. "By 2009/2010 we hope to be flying out of 10 destinations in the U.S. with direct flights to 10 cities in India," he says. These transatlantic and intra-European flights will be through an undetermined European hub, although Bhargava says Air India will most likely give Munich the nod.
Listen to a podcast on India by Podcast Producer and Travel Agent Central contributor, Nancy Harkrider.