We have a problem. The Magical Image of India allures; the Reported Reality is daunting and our stature has been tarnished by a wrong perception.
A young Canadian woman brought this home to us, recently. Asking us to autograph our four ‘Intriguing India’ books, she said, “I’ve seen some of these 96 places, and I plan to visit them all. India is fascinating. Now my parents want to tour India.” She paused as if reluctant to continue, smiled hesitantly and added, “They have the means, but they’ve been put off by the stories. Also, some Indian immigrants they know have said, ‘If India was so great, would we have left it? Stick to the First World. It’s safer, hassle free!’” She then asked, “Is there a reliable and easy way of seeing India without having to hop in and out of planes and spend hours at godforsaken airports? Send me a mail if you think of something. Mum and dad won’t start before November next year.”
We did think about it and then, just before we interviewed Dr Mahesh Sharma, our Union Tourism Minister, we updated an idea we had had many years ago. We asked him if he had discussed with the Railways, the possibility of running a ‘Discover Incredible India luxury tourist train’, a north-to-south tour linked to an optional south-to-north one. His response was immediate and enthusiastic. “This is an excellent idea and I shall take it up with the Ministry of Railways. In a way, this is also linked up with our interest in Cruise Tourism,” he stated.
So here, Dr Sharma and Suresh Prabhu (Union Railway Minister), is why we think luxury Rail Tourism is an idea whose time has come. The Indian Railways can enfold the tourist in a completely protected environment, cosseted in comfort. It can offer a tour of the trouble-free destinations of our land, starting from a city with an international airport and ending with a city with an international airport.
Another attraction of such a luxury rail tour, like the ones we’ve done on The Palace on Wheels and The Deccan Odyssey, is that once you have paid your fare, you don’t have to shift from your two-berth compartment, with its attached shower and toilet, until you disembark at the end of the trip. Your cabin is made-up and refreshed when you are out on your daily, organised excursions. There are no add-on charges for guides, local transport, meals or entry to the places you visit. You do, of course, pay for optionals such as laundry and beverages; but that’s acceptable. We recommend that a trained paramedic, with essential emergency equipment, also travel on board.
At the start, there should be a briefing on the tour, its dos and don’ts, an introduction to the principal members of the crew, and a get-together cocktail party. Most important is the daily, written briefing on the next day’s excursions with facts and anecdotes that would be of lasting interest to the passengers. The tourists generally build these tour notes into a portfolio, which they refer to when regaling their friends about the trip. This becomes a source of free and continuing word-of-mouth publicity.
The tour package should include a pick-up from Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) to the Discover Incredible India Experience, and on to a seven-to-ten-day north-to-south itinerary, covering Agra-Varanasi-Bodh Gaya- Kolkata- Bhubaneswar-Vishakhapatnam-Chennai. Passengers would then have the option of detraining here or spending three days in Mahabalipuram and then doing the second seven-to-ten-day south-to-north journey. This would take them to Coimbatore for Ooty (either by taxi or the mountain railway)—Bengaluru-Hyderabad-Aurangabad- Mumbai-Sawai-Madhopur for the wildlife sanctuary at Ranthambore-Agra-Delhi, before being dropped at IGIA.
Ideally, the Railways should handle all on-board and off-train services if they can do so, with five-star professional standards. If they cannot, they might find it easiest to work with the India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC). The ITDC has its own luxury coaches, ground-handling expertise, and considerable experience in producing brochures, information backgrounders, and guide books.
The Railway Minister should also seriously think of building upwards and outwards on his prime properties - the railway stations. In particular, those serving popular tourist and industrial destinations should be developed into Yatri Nagars - vibrant hubs of travel services. We visualise modern complexes of shopping arcades and fast-food outlets on the ground floor, retiring rooms, dormitories, and a restaurant on the first floor, and office space and a three-star hotel on the floor above. These will give a constant, and growing, source of income for the Railways.
This cooperation between the Tourism and Railway Ministries will enhance hassle-free services to both domestic and international travellers. It may also hasten the arrival of the long-awaited Achhe Din.