Image: Kanha Meadows
India Tourism
"My favorite place in India is probably the Kanha Meadows," says Toby Sinclair, a veteran conservationist who estimates that he has seen more than 300 tigers, many at this reserve. "I parked under a tree in one of the clearings to have a sleep, and I woke to find a tiger lying about ten yards away. We just looked at each other and then she got up and walked in front of my vehicle and off into the forest," says Sinclair.
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updated 8/30/2007 3:36:27 PM ET 2007-08-30T19:36:27

Consider this: all of India receives just the same number of visitors in a year as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.

According to A.R. Ghanashyam, India’s Deputy Consul General based in New York, India receives just five million international tourists per year, most of them making predictable journeys to tourist icons like the Taj Mahal.

It’s fair to say that many of the country’s spectacular monuments, cities and natural wonders remain largely unseen.

India’s tourism potential is enormous and the statistics bear this out. Just look at the most recent 2005 archaeological survey listing visitor numbers to significant sites. The ever-popular Taj Mahal received 593,637 international visitors and 364,997 locals over the year. Yet, in the same period, Mariam’s tomb — a mini Taj Mahal that’s the last resting place of the Mughul emperor Akbar’s wife — also located at Agra, received just 43 visitors.

India’s economy is hotter than a vindaloo and domestic tourists — namely the 250 million-strong middle class — are demanding improved infrastructure, which in turn benefits international visitors. India has the second largest road network on Earth (next to the U.S.) but many roads and airstrips are in poor condition.

Now, according to Ghanashyam, the rising demand for accommodation across the regions is spurring massive improvements in many crucial areas.

No one is pretending that travel throughout India has suddenly become seamless. “On the contrary, many of India’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites have been well preserved precisely because the access is difficult,” says Junko Okahashi, UNESCO’s Paris-based assistant program specialist. Traveling between states is frequently more akin to traveling between countries. “We have 22 official languages and 4000 dialects. When you travel from one state to another the language, dress, people, food, culture… all this changes,” says Ghanashyam.

It’s not surprising then that entire states in the Himalayas or in far-flung regions near Bangladesh have been completely overlooked for centuries.

In short, India is a vast country of unexplored treasures with wide ranging appeal. For this list we consulted experts both inside and outside the country. We talked to foreign correspondents and filmmakers like Kris Cheppaikode who has worked closely with Indian New Wave director Jayaraaj. We spoke with specialist luxury tour operator Carol Cambata, President of Greaves Travel, as well as tiger conservationist and wildlife documentarian Toby Sinclair, who has hundreds of tiger sightings and more than 30 years' experience under his belt. We chatted with yoga lovers and concierges and talked extensively with UNESCO representatives and diplomats like Ghanashyam (who freely admits to loving India even if it wasn’t his job to do so). “There are hundreds of places I could list. We could be here until tomorrow,” he says. Unfortunately our list is restricted to just 25 underrated tourist attractions.

Image: Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi
Nitya Jacob  /  iStock
It's hardly surprising that UNESCO's Okahashi felt that the Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi were terribly underrated. In spite of being the oldest Buddhist sanctuary on Earth, dating back to the first century B.C., she says it is still rarely visited. "It's a remarkable site in a very good state of conservation but not very famous by general standards."
Given the country’s rich history, India’s monuments feature heavily, but the examples cited here are also remarkably untouched. You certainly won’t find yourself adrift in a sea of fellow tourists.

Our list includes a spectacular river with more water than the mighty Ganges, and wildlife parks teeming with tigers and tens of thousands of wild elephants. There are some unusual inclusions and exclusions: iconic luxury train journeys like the Palace on Wheels have been passed over in favor of traditional steam locomotives with oodles of charm, while a quirky yoga retreat makes the list partly for its strange geographic features.

Image: Monuments at Hampi
Mikhail Nekrasov  /  Shutterstock
"Access to Hampi is difficult but it's a very beautiful site," says UNESCO's Junko Okahashi.
Some of our experts nominated entire states, ignored by development and now on the cusp of becoming eco-tourism hotspots. Another knowing source nominated a transparent hotel favored by expats for its nod to Western decadence. Our list of 25 underrated tourist attractions is eclectic, colorful, and a bit chaotic ... just like India.

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