India: The Road Less Traveled
As agents, many of us have received that critical, complex, and often comical question during the planning stages with our clients: “Where should I visit in (insert country here)?”
As a Destination Specialist, it is my responsibility to be an expert in the places I sell. For reasons of safety, comfort, cost, activities, or otherwise, I am also informed of alternate locations that offer similar elements of the more popular and well-known locations. It is also common for my clients to ask about whether or not the destination/site is worth visiting. My general response: It is popular for a reason. Can the inundation of tourists detract from the experience? Possibly. Does the fact that so many people visit indicate it is worth it? Probably.
My specialty is India, a country 1/3 the size of the United States that offers something for everyone: history, culture, architecture, adventure, Yoga, Ayurveda, cuisine, beaches, Himalayas, backwaters, shopping, festivals, music, dancing, religion, and wildlife– just to name a few. If you sell India but generally stay within the comfort intersection of popular and well-traveled, here are a few suggestions for alternate destinations and sites.
Known for beautiful beaches and an active nightlife, Goa provides a unique cultural integration of Indian and European heritage. Because Portuguese merchants settled in Goa in the 15th century, the city has a distinctive Western influence. However, it also has a reputation for being inundated with late-night revelry and tourists galore. Those seeking a quieter atmosphere may prefer Kerala. Mararikulam and Kovalam are two coastal areas of Kerala that offer comparative coastlines, with less noise and crowds. Another advantage is that Kerala offers backwater canals, wildlife sanctuaries, tea plantations, and Ayurveda spas – all within a relatively easy distance by car or train.
Varanasi, also called Benares, is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Located on the Ganges River, it is also one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in India. Travelers often visit the temples, participate in an evening Aarti ceremony on the ghats, and experience a sunrise boat ride to view the prayers and baths. Sarnath, where Buddha preached first sermon after enlightenment, is also nearby. Because Varanasi is on many group tour itineraries, visiting can mean throngs of tourists, and from March – September, very hot temperatures. If your clients have an interest in experiencing the spiritual side of India, without the masses, suggest Haridwar. Also a pilgrimage destination on the Ganges River, Haridwar is located at the base of the Himalayas and is an easy 5-hour train ride from Delhi. It is usually not overpopulated with tourists (with the exception of planned events) and can easily be explored independently. The river is cleaner, being closer to the source, and guests can still experience an evening Aarti ceremony. Rishikesh, considered the heart of yoga in North India, is also an easy 45-minute drive from the city.
Destination: Tamil Nadu
With over 31,000 temples, Tamil Nadu is considered the Land of Temples. There is also a fierce preservation of Tamil classical music and dance forms, including Bharatnatyam. Madurai is Tamil Nadu’s 2nd largest city and renowned for the Sri Meenakshi Temple, where more than 10,000 tourists and worshippers arrive daily. There is also the “Temple Trio” of Tanjore, Ramashwaram, and Trichy – three cities of great religious significance that include the Ganesh Temple, Chola Temples, and Ram Setu Bridge. If your clients prefer less travel time and fewer tourists, suggest the state of Orissa. The capital of Bhubaneswar, with an intricate history dating back 3000 years, houses the Lingraj Temple, Mukteshwar Temple and Parashurmeshwar Temple. A short drive from Bhubaneswar is Puri, a beautiful coastal town and one of the seven holiest Hindu cities in India. The Konark Sun Temple, located 35km from Puri, is the most well-known and intricate World Heritage Site in the area. Puri also has a unique positioning, where both sunrise and sunset can be viewed on the beaches.
Alternate: Ladakh, India
Tibet is certainly a hidden jewel for travelers and a destination worth visiting – unless the borders unexpectedly close, leaving travelers stranded. Unfortunately, this has become more frequent in the past few years and tourists are left with an entry visa but no access. Instead, I recommend Ladakh, a remote region in Northern India located between the Himalayan and Kunlin mountain ranges. The area is commonly called “Little Tibet” and many travelers have discovered this destination as a promising alternative. Historically a Buddhist kingdom, Ladakh was strategically placed at the crossroads of major trading routes. Highlights include Hemis, the largest monastery in Ladakh; Leh Palace, modeled after the Potala Palace in Lhasa; Thiksey, an 800 year old gompa with panoramic views of the Indus Valley; and Lamayuru Monastery, currently housing 150 resident monks.