India is a land of extremes. Visitors to the world's largest democracy, a booming, emerging market that's home to more than 1.1 billion people, will find some of the world's loveliest sights alongside some of its lowliest sites. India, too, attracts visitors of all stripes and salaries, from backpackers frequenting back-alley flophouses to billionaires holding court in some of the world's grandest resorts and hotels.
It's in catering more to the latter that Newport, Calif.-based operator Travcoa has carved itself a niche on the subcontinent. The company offers five escorted tours that take in India, including the brand-new, 17-night Highlights of India and Nepal. It also does what Travcoa President Randy Durband called "a robust trade" in customized FIT vacations there, as well.
Durband described Travcoa's clientele, nearly all of whom book via travel agencies, as "those [travelers] looking for premium luxury experience in India."
"We've been operating to India since the 1970s, and it's an integral part of our product," he said. "We're very proud of the programs we've put together."
Travcoa's all-inclusive Escorted Journeys are distinguished by premium, five-star accommodations, groups of no more than 18, premium excursions and the services of a "professional travel director."
This year's roster of trips also includes the 13-night Bhutan & Sikkim Unveiled, the 12-night Flavors of South India, the 19-night Mystical India and the best-selling, 14-night Classical India. In fact, Travcoa is freezing its land-only rates on Classical India, which start at $11,195 per person with a $4,545 single supplement, at this year's level for 2009.
"From 2004 to 2008, we saw substantial price increases [in India], but it's finally moderating, so for next year we're able to hold the line," said Durband.
Luxury costs a bit more
India's economic boom, coupled with a downturn in the U.S., has led to higher prices for North American vacationers -- and softer bookings in 2008 for Travcoa. Durband said he believed that of the two factors, the former is more to blame.
"In 2008, India sales ... retreated a bit, [and] we attributed that more to the relative increase in hotel rates ... than we do to general economic news," he said. "India used to be known as a great bargain; however, now the caliber of hotels is such that they really take a commanding place on the world scene."
Travcoa usually puts guests up in high-end properties run by world-class Indian accommodations titans such as Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces and Oberoi Hotels and Resorts. Accommodations on the Classical India itinerary this year include the Taj Mahal Hotel (see Room Key) and Taj Palace Hotel in New Delhi and Taj Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur as well as the Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel in Agra and Oberoi Vanyavilas in Ranthambhore National Park.
(For intercontinental air, Travcoa books most passengers on Emirates Airline flights connecting to Delhi and Mumbai via Dubai. Air India, however, offers daily, three-class nonstops from New York Kennedy to both Delhi and Mumbai: See story below.)
As the reputation of Indian hotels rises and the country's monied classes grow in numbers, so, too, do overnight rates. "That's shocked the system a little bit," Durband said. "But we're very optimistic and hopeful for 2009."
Despite higher prices, Travcoa clients report "tremendous satisfaction," said Durband. "People are very surprised as the quality of the product in India," he said. "There's a bit of sales resistance among people going for the first time and worried about the amount of poverty they'll see."
Despite an annual economic growth rate of about 8%, India's national Planning Commission organization estimated that more than a quarter of the country's people still live below poverty level. In addition, India, although a multiethnic, multiparty and religiously diverse democracy, does occasionally suffer from political violence.
In May, seven bombs exploded in the center of Jaipur, a popular tourist destination known as the "Pink City," killing at least 50 locals. No tourists were injured.
"I don't think isolated incidents [such as the Jaipur bombing] affect travelers," said Durband.
However, evidence of widespread poverty, and sometime cultural, class or political tensions, is evident on India's streets, which can be a culture shock for some Westerners and a challenge for operators selling high-end vacation experiences.
"Yes, there's widespread poverty, but there's also widespread inner peace and contentment among the populace," said Durband. "It usually takes a couple of days to acclimate to that, but we find that within just a few days of travel, our clients are loving the experience and connecting with the people and the culture of India."
Local inbound operator Rainbow Travels, based in New Delhi, helps Travcoa forge those connections. The firm, owned and operated by father-son team Atin Khanna and Pawan Khanna, is Travcoa's primary ground operator partner in the country.
A recent three-day weekend in the Delhi region organized by Travcoa and executed by Rainbow Travels, with accommodations provided by Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces, lent some weight to Durband's claims.
The first day began with a morning briefing in the lobby of the Taj Mahal Hotel. I was also furnished with all necessary documents, including a personalized itinerary and a first-class train ticket to Agra for a day trip to the Taj Mahal the following day.
The half-day escorted tour of Old Delhi focused on top sights such as the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque. Also included was a cycle-rickshaw ride along the Chandni Chowk, the city's bustling shopping thoroughfare.
As Delhi lies a short distance from Agra, ancient capital of the Moghul Empire, Travcoa and Rainbow Travels arranged a day trip to the Taj Mahal: train going, private car coming back. Indian Railways' southbound Shatabdi Express departed hectic, crowded New Delhi Station at 6:15 a.m. for a two-hour ride to Agra.
Passengers in the first-class coach enjoy spacious seating and service by male cabin attendants dressed in turbans and historical Indian costume. Onboard amenities included a single rose upon arrival, choice of newspaper, 1.5-liter bottles of cold spring water, coffee or tea with sweets and a two-course breakfast with juice.
The insider's Agra
In Agra, a top-of-the-line guide, Rishi Garg, took the reins. Garg, general secretary of the Tourist Guides Federation of India, knew the Taj Mahal like the back of his hand, pointing out optimal spots for photos and furnishing fascinating facts and figures regarding the stunning 17th century structure. The almost-as-striking Red Fort of Agra nearly made its counterpart in Old Delhi seem like the ugly stepsister.
Then the insider knowledge really kicked in: Lunch was at Riao Restaurant, specializing in the Mughlai cuisine of Northern India served up by a friend of Garg's. After lunch, the five-hour drive back to Agra was by private chauffeur.
On tap for the third and final day: tours of temples and Victorian New Delhi. Stops were made at golden-domed Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, the most prominent Sikh temple in Delhi; the famed Bahai Lotus Temple; and the Birla Mandir, the city's most impressive Hindu temple complex. There, visitors "did puja," or worshipped in the Hindu manner, and Travcoa's guide offered lessons on Hinduism and its history.
A drive down the leafy boulevards of New Delhi, laid out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries during the British Raj, took in red sandstone structures erected under English colonial rule: Parliament House, India Gate and the Secretariat. A farewell dinner followed at the Taj Mahal Hotel's renowned House of Ming restaurant.
For more on Travcoa's upscale trips to India, call (866) 591-0070 or visit www.travcoa.com.
Room Key: The Taj Mahal Hotel New Delhi
Address: No. 1 Mansingh Road, New Delhi-110 011, India
Phone: (011) 91-112 302-6162
Fax: (011) 91-112 302-6070
Reservations: (866) 969-1825
U.S. Sales: (212) 515-5889
Email: [email protected]
Gen. Manager: Yannick Poupon
Rack Rates: From about $500 (deluxe) to $4,665 (presidential suite) per night
Amenities: Purified tap water; flat-screen TVs; propertywide WiFi Internet access; safe; minibar; hair dryer; umbrella; shopping tote; robe and slippers; luxury bath amenities; 24-hour room service.
Facilities: Five restaurants; bar; salon; shopping arcade; business center (meetings rooms, legal library); 24-hour fitness center; Tejas Spa; pool.