India enjoys tourism boom, more Americans

Image: India tourist boom
Tourists sit on the lawns of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. Travel to India from the United States increased 10 percent between 2006 and 2007, on top of an 8 percent rise the year before.Manish Swarup / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Keith Lotman went to New Delhi on a two-week business trip. But a quick day of sightseeing in India's capital city left him enthralled and ready to see more of the country.

"I have about a hundred different places that I'd like to visit," said Lotman, 31, a business executive from Philadelphia, as he checked out the world's largest Bahai temple in New Delhi. "A hundred different kinds of experiences."

He added: "It's very different from any place I've traveled to before. Culturally very different. I'd definitely like to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal next."

Ever since the Beatles arrived on the banks of the Ganges river in the 1960s to study Transcendental Meditation, India has been on the life list of a certain type of traveler.

And while there are still are plenty of Westerners seeking low-budget Eastern spirituality, India has recently started attracting a different class of visitor — men and women like Lotman, who certainly wasn't spending his nights bunking in a dingy room with a bunch of backpackers.

New tourists like Lotman have helped feed a boom in travel to India, and the country is now nearly as popular a destination for Americans as Spain. Travel to India from the United States increased 10 percent between 2006 and 2007, on top of an 8 percent rise the year before. More Americans visited India last year than to Ireland or Thailand, according to the most recent data from U.S. Department of Commerce.

The upsurge in Americans visiting India is part of broader boom in India's tourism industry. In 2007, some 5 million travelers headed to India, nearly double from 2000, according to the Tourism Ministry. Visitors from the U.S. accounted for 15.7 percent of the total.

These include a large number of business travelers, wealthy retirees out to explore India from the comfortable confines of an air-conditioned luxury bus or train, and people of Indian origin eager to see their parents' — or grandparents' — homeland.

What has made India as attractive as Europe or South America for American travelers is a combination of a booming economy, an aggressive marketing campaign and what the Tourism Ministry describes as "the diversity of our product."

Most international airlines fly into New Delhi, making it a natural first destination for visitors.

The city is more than a sleepy administrative center, and tourists can spend days gawking at the sprawling British colonial-era bungalows and exploring the crowded bylanes of Old Delhi, the capital of India's medieval Mogul rulers.

About 125 miles south — close enough for a day trip — is Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, the white-marble monument to love built by the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan between 1632 and 1654 for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The monument, a must-see for most tourists, hosts some 3 million visitors a year.

A bit farther afield is Rajasthan, a region in western India famous for its fabulous splash of colors, medieval forts, ancient temples and camel safaris. There, visitors can spend a night in one of the myriad palaces that have been converted to hotels, getting waited on hand and foot, much like the maharajas of bygone days.

** FILE ** In this Feb. 4, 2007 file photo, a tourist dances with a folk dancer from the Indian state of Rajasthan at the rural Olympics in Ludhiana in the Indian state of Punjab. Travel to India from the United States increased 10 percent between 2006 and 2007, on top of an 8 percent rise the year before. (AP Photo/Channi Anand, File)Channi Anand / AP

But The New-Delhi-Agra-Rajasthan circuit known as the "Golden Triangle" is just one corner of the country.

What might make India daunting — a vast, complicated country of 1.1 billion people where dozens of languages are spoken across an area of more than a million square miles — is also its biggest draw.

"There's the history and the spirituality that everyone knows about and then there's more," says Leena Nandan, a joint secretary in the Tourism Ministry. "We now have business travelers, medical travelers, luxury travelers, adventure tourism."

There are the hippie haunts of Varanasi and Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganges, sacred to millions of devout Hindus; the all-night raves on the beaches of Goa, a slice of India once ruled by Portugal; the luxury resorts on the sparkling backwaters of the southern Kerala; the spartan yoga retreats and the bare-bones experience of Ayurvedic holistic healing in the Himalayas.

And then there are the myriad domestic airlines that have proliferated since India liberalized its economy. Even on the budget flights, meals are standard — and on the full-fare carriers, they are often accompanied by luxuriously embroidered cloth napkins, metal cutlery and friendly service.

Travelers may have to contend with the same kinds of flight delays seen in the United States, but, says Gary Goodlin, who travels frequently on business between Chicago and Mumbai, "you couldn't get that kind of service on a low cost airline in the U.S."