Goverdhan Singh Rathore broke the news gently to his young guests: there might not be a tiger. They had traveled all day through the Indian countryside by car and train with their families to Ranthambhore National Park to see the tigers, and Rathore, a medical doctor turned hotelier who grew up in the park, wanted them to understand why there were only 32 remaining in the 155 sq. mi. (400 sq. km) reserve. It was cocktail hour, and the families staying at Khem Villas, the 15-room guesthouse opened by Rathore and his wife Usha 2 1⁄2 miles (4 km) from the park entrance in October 2006, slurped guava juice and pulled their camp chairs closer to the fire to escape the evening chill. Rathore's tiger whodunit featured local farmers who had plowed deep into the tiger's habitat and faraway medicine makers in China and Southeast Asia who paid extravagant bounties for tiger bones and genitals. He introduced his father Fateh Singh Rathore, a former director of the park who collaborated in Indira Gandhi's tiger-conservation project in the 1970s. "Between 2003 and 2004 half of the tigers at Ranthambhore were killed," the son said gravely as the father lamented the current lack of government support. Local officials had tried to cover up the missing tigers, and detectives were hired to out the poachers. But there was also good news: 14 cubs had been born. The children were riveted. In 10 days traveling in India they had ridden an elephant and met a gemstone merchant, and now they knew two tiger specialists. And the next afternoon when they observed a female tiger watering at a stream on a safari ride, they savored their good luck.
"My whole ethos is that luxury travel is about having experiences," says James Jayasundera, founder of Ampersand Travel in London, which specializes in customized tours of the Indian subcontinent. Paradoxically, in a country with 1.1 billion people, it can be tricky for visitors to truly connect with even one or two natives. "Traveling by train for short distances has always been a good way for foreigners to engage locals," he says. "Now there are a lot of small hotels run by absolutely fascinating people where guests mingle, sometimes eat together. These are also the best places for meeting upwardly mobile Indians who are starting to travel around India instead of going to Switzerland."
He raves about Devi Garh, an 18th century fort in Rajasthan, a short hop from Udaipur, with 39 suites featuring mod interiors, and gets so excited talking about Ahilya Fort in Maheshwar, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh a region that Jayasundera feels has been unfairly neglected by tour operators that he chokes with laughter. "The Indore royal family that owns the small fort were very avant-garde. They had an amazing art collection by the '30s, and they were the first family to build an air-conditioned palace," he says, going on to describe the Labradors that jump in the skiff ferrying guests to nearby islands and temples, and host Prince Richard Holkar, son of the late Maharajah of Indore, who has written a cookbook and serves "marvelous gingerbread cakes."
Dispatches from the road are equally enthusiastic. "We stayed in a wonderful if chaotic new hotel called Vivenda, run by a brother-and-sister team, Charlotte and Simon Hayward, whom we loved meeting," wrote Amanda Deitsch Hochman in her online journal on her four-month journey through India, Southeast Asia and Japan with her husband and two young children. We felt "like guests in a friend's house. More guests arrived, and it was like one big house party." They were booked into Vivenda, in Goa, by Victoria Mills and Bertie Dyer, founders of the India Beat travel company in Jaipur, who pride themselves on uncovering new addresses. The Hochman family also liked other small hotels, including Samode Haveli in Jaipur ("like a pensione the way they used to be") and Deodars, a manor house in Almora, in the Himalayas.
For decades, the fashionable way for Westerners to tour India was hopscotching from one former maharajah's palace to another, many made over and managed by India's big hotel chains and all of them trading on India's colonial past. They boast scores of costumed staff, playful nods to aristocratic pastimes like life-size chessboards and an irritating parade of people with name tags searching for their corporate event. Now, the more modern way to see India is a mix: a few outstanding palaces and an eclectic selection of small luxury hotels and guesthouses.
"Prior to 20 years ago, these small hotels didn't even exist," says Mary-Anne Denison-Pender, whose Mahout agency promotes small Indian hotels in the U.K. In the '80s, in a bid to finance maintenance on their private properties, some families tried their hand at the hotel business. "Every person with a fort thought they had a hotel, but many of them didn't invest enough, and they got backpackers and low-budget tourists," she says.
Several waves of development followed, typically punctuated by plagues, strikes, terrorist attacks and floods, sending all but the most determined tourists scrambling to alternative destinations. Some of the independent owners upgraded their properties, taking cues from the larger chains or from their own travels abroad. "The best ones reinvested, and now they've grown up," says Denison-Pender, who set up her agency in 2002 after 17 years as a travel planner. She likens the boom to the riyadh craze in Marrakesh. The small hotels she represents range in price from $50 to $700 per night, compared with the average price of $350 for the luxury category in Delhi or $250 to $300 for five-star hotels there.
The government does not break down its hotel count by ownership, but M.N. Javed, deputy director general in charge of hotels at the Ministry of Tourism in Delhi, estimates that some 25% of the country's 121 luxury hotels and about half the 141 five-star properties are independently run.
The arrival of low-cost airlines in India has made out-of-the-way locations much more accessible to foreign travelers, and the Internet has provided greater visibility without the hefty marketing budgets of the large hotel groups. They're not for everyone: "The sophisticated spoiled rich traveler may be better off in a big hotel. You have to be able to be a little more accepting" to have a good time at the smaller places, says Denison-Pender. But parents traveling with children, those looking for inside addresses from locals and those who are exhausted by the many tips expected at larger hotels (most of the guesthouses opt for a collective tip box) will soon be hooked.
Even travelers who ordinarily make their own arrangements may welcome help in India. Keeping tabs on the new small hotels and knowing which ones have experienced declines in service require frequent visits. We loved one of the chic co-owners of Barwara Kothi, a new guesthouse in Jaipur. The food was delicious, and the Art Deco home where her in-laws' family entertained a maharajah has a good ambiance. However, it was noisy, though the owners have since planted barriers and reinforced windows. Also, be warned that some large travel operators snub the small hotels because the commissions paid are smaller than those of the big chains and booking rooms requires more legwork.
The small luxury hotels represent just a corner of the overall market in India, where business is booming. For the luxury and five-star categories, the occupancy rate is 88% during the peak October-to-March tourist season, and it's close to 100% in the largest cities, says Javed. With a total of 89,000 hotel rooms, India is far behind other markets: New York City alone has more than 72,000, and in Asia, Bangkok, for example, counts nearly 100,000.
To close the gap, the big hotel groups are currently focused on no-frills hotels in booming economic centers like Bangalore, as well as leased residence hotels. The Indian government, concerned about the shortage driving up prices and eager to create more options by 2010, when India will host the Commonwealth Games, is pushing for families to turn their homes into bed-and-breakfast operations. Faiz Dadarkar, a Jaipur entrepreneur who set up the Jaipur Pride network to match travelers with homestays, was astounded when 4,500 people responded to his billboards in 2005. He organized five training seminars. "We covered all the basics: how to clean a toilet and how not to hover," he says, laughing. The 75 homes currently on his roster are priced from $13 to $203 per day. Most are simple, but he has a seventh-generation miniature painter renting out rooms and a house with a private theater and pool.