x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Indian tourism's historic outposts lure visitors.

Hotels built from remnants of India's rich heritage are providing a fast-growing boost to its hospitality trade.

Hotel Fort Jadhavgarh. Built in 1710 by Pillaji, Jadhavrao is the first in a series of Heritage forts scheduled in Maharashtra and the Rest of India. Courtesy Kamat Group
Hotel Fort Jadhavgarh. Built in 1710 by Pillaji, Jadhavrao is the first in a series of Heritage forts scheduled in Maharashtra and the Rest of India. Courtesy Kamat Group

To revisit the bygone Maratha empire, you do not have to mount a time machine. An 18th century fort in western India, perched on a rugged hilltop of clay and shale, takes you back those 300 years.

Fort Jadhavgadh's burly stone walls and Andalusian-style armoured doors, dungeons and secret passages, cannons and gun holes all illustrate its history of resisting repeated incursions by powerful Mughal invaders.

The fort was the first outpost the enemy would have to capture before penetrating the heart of an empire renowned for its valiant warriors. Pilaji Jadhavrao, a heroic Maratha general, lived here with his army after it was built in 1710.

Now you can, too.

In 2007, the Indian hospitality giant Kamat Group leased the fort for an undisclosed fee from the seventh-generation descendants of the Jadhavrao family. The property was in a decrepit state but the company turned it into an attractive hotel with old-world charm.

Visitors are welcomed into its quadrangular courtyard by women in bright saris and ethnic jewellery, and men dressed as Maratha soldiers armed not with swords but with tutaris, trumpet-like traditional instruments curved like crescent moons.

Its rooms are fitted with finely carved lattice windows and tastefully furnished with modern amenities. Turbaned bearers are in attendance.

"The fort takes you back in time," says Vithal Kamat, the chairman and managing director of the Kamat Group. "We want our guests to feel like royalty, at least for the duration of their vacation."

In recent years, a growing number of palaces, forts and hunting lodges that withstood the test of time have been converted into heritage hotels by former royal families.

When India gained independence from the British in 1947, its 565 princely states merged into the Indian republic. A constitutional amendment in 1971 abolished the royal titles.

The old pomp and pageantry survived but maintaining the historic buildings was much too expensive, compelling many former royal families to convert their properties into hotels or sell them to hospitality chains.

"First and second-generation descendants were interested in retaining the family silver; the following generations realised it is more lucrative to sell," says Mr Kamat, who did not divulge details about his company's financial settlement with the Jadhavrao family.

The fort property has been leased for 60 years.

India's hotel industry is one of the fastest growing in the world. Heritage hotels, experts say, have attracted a vast number of tourists enamoured with Indian history and royalty.

Mr Kamat says Fort Jadhavgadh reported 92 per cent occupancy last year, with a growing number of clients returning for more. Last year, the Kamat Group launched three heritage hotels; two in Orissa in eastern India and one near Goa.

In 2008, after the Mumbai attacks and the global economic downturn, India's hotel industry reported a sharp decline in occupancy and revenue.

But the demand for hotel rooms has experienced a huge increase in recent months, buoyed by a rapidly accelerating economy that is boosting the number of domestic and foreign tourists.

The World Travel and Tourism Council says the sector in India is worth US$91.7 billion (Dh336.81bn). Demand in travel and tourism is expected to rise to $266.1bn by 2019.

The country was ranked the 11th most attractive tourist destination in the Asia-Pacific region in 2009 by the World Economic Forum.

It ranked 14th in the category of best tourist destinations for natural resources and 24th for cultural resources such as world heritage sites.

India's tourism ministry reported 487,000 foreign tourist arrivals last October, compared with 446,000 for the same month of 2009.

Tourist arrivals between January and October last year rose to 4.32 million, a growth of 9.9 per cent compared with the previous year.

The growing numbers are fuelling a major expansion in the hotel industry, experts say, although demand far outstrips supply.

India faces an acute shortage of hotel rooms. In the capital, New Delhi, there were only 11,000 hotel rooms available in 2009. The government estimates it faces a shortfall of 30,000 rooms. About 15,600 rooms are expected to be added this year, the tourism ministry has forecast.

Several international hotel chains are expanding their presence in India, encouraged by the government policy to allow 100 per cent foreign direct investment in the sector.

The US hotel chain Marriott International plans to build 100 hotels across India in the next five years, says its chief operating officer Arnie Sorenson. The group operates 11 properties in the country.

Other international chains such as Ibis, Hyatt, Westin, Ista, Shangri-La and Novotel have plans to enter India or expand their existing operations.

Indian hospitality chains are also expanding. ITC, a tobacco giant based in Kolkata, aims to open 25 hotels under the Fortune brand this year.

Roots Corporation, a subsidiary of Indian Hotels, plans to launch about 70 budget premises under the brand name Ginger Hotel across 23 locations.

The employment potential of the hotels sector, especially heritage hotels in remote locations, is enormous. The Heritage Hotels Association, an industry lobby group, credits it for preserving art forms and folk music.

But the sector's growth is impeded by poor infrastructure, which makes most heritage hotels difficult to access. The road leading up to the Fort Jadhavgadh hotel is riddled with bone-jarring potholes.

The ministry of tourism says it is working to upgrade infrastructure and improve accessibility. It says new airports in smaller towns and reduced air fares are expected to push the sector's growth.

But the biggest challenge is the upkeep of heritage properties, many of which are in urgent need of repair. Preserving them as homes fit for aristocracy is expensive and time consuming, says Mr Kamat.

He spent two and a half years, employing 190 skilled workers from neighbouring states, to refurbish Fort Jadhavgadh.

"We repaired its damaged ramparts with the kind of material it was originally built with," Mr Kamat says. "For instance, instead of cement we used lime, honey and egg yolk."

Mr Kamat also built a museum, which houses his personal collection of 26,000 artefacts including jewellery boxes, combs, spittoons and ivory lamps.

But history and royalty alone do not attract tourists, he says.

According to a 2008 survey by the federation of hotel and restaurants association of India, 50 per cent of the revenue of heritage hotels is generated by room rents. Nearly 38 per cent of revenue is generated from food and beverages, compared with 20 per cent in five-star hotels.

"Royalty is the cherry on the fruit salad," he says. "If the fruit salad - our service, our hospitality - is good, our guests will visit us again and again."