Romantic train: But no takers
IT’S BILLED as one of the world’s most luxurious and romantic train journeys. An old-world tour of India’s palaces and lakes, all the way to the Taj Mahal.
Despite great expectations when it was launched in January, the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels train, with $2,000 (£1395) suites and gourmet dining cars, has at times been left languishing in the rail yards as the global economic crisis and the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks put the brakes on India’s tourist boom.
“If you don’t have guests, what’s the point of running the train?” asked Supinder Singh, the president of Palace Tours.
India has seen its tourist arrivals drop in recent months for the first time since 2002 when it launched its hugely successful “Incredible India” campaign that enticed millions of well-heeled tourists from around the world to explore the wonders of India.
Winter is peak season, but this year business has been slow and hotels are struggling to fill empty rooms due to mass cancellations by foreign tourists. All sectors have been hit, from pricey tours of Rajasthan, to budget beach holidays in Goa.
When Palace Tours launched the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels in January it had high hopes the $8m (£5.6m) train would be inundated with bookings by wealthy tourists seeking to explore India in the comfort of a five-star train compartment, with wireless Internet, a spa and silver-service dining on demand.
Instead, the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels has either been relegated to the rail yards due to lack of passengers or plied the journey through Rajasthan to the Taj Mahal in Agra, with only a handful of the possible 82 visitors it can carry.
“I think there are more staff than us,” said Amrit Dhaliwal, a tourist who travelled on the near empty train this month with her husband.
The American couple were among 10 passengers who embarked on the trip from New Delhi, welcomed by traditional musicians sitting on cushions and playing flutes and drums.
“We didn’t realise it would have so few people on it. It would have been nice to have had more people,” said Amrit’s husband Kulwant.
Several of the visitors on the train were upgraded from the less lavish Palace on Wheels, a sister train that is operating at about 60 per cent capacity instead of its usual 100 per cent.
Aside from the global economic woes which have prompted many potential tourists to tighten their belts and stay home, India is still reeling from the Mumbai attacks in which Islamist gunmen killed 179 people in a three-day shooting spree in November that was broadcast live on television news channels around the world.
Foreigners appear to have been targeted as the gunmen attacked two luxury hotels, a popular night spot and a Jewish centre in India’s financial capital.
Since then, countries have issued advisories against travelling to India and popular tourist areas such as Goa have been on alert for more attacks.
“There was a slowdown anyway,” said Dhruv Shringi, the CEO and co-founder of Yatra.com travel.
“Post the Mumbai attacks, we had almost a 22 per cent cancellation in December and it’s about 15 per cent in January. So my worry is this trend seems to be continuing into February.”
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