Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell reflects on how hotels came of age in India. 

It is now well over 20 years ago that I covered much of Rajasthan by road, soon after we added India to the c+l destination portfolio. In November 2023, I returned to the state for a trip down memory lane and noted that not only are the roads much better today, but the vehicles are too. That said, some of the older drivers and I felt a bit nostalgic when we came across the old Hindustan Motors ‘Ambassador’ model that we once spent so many happy hours in. 

The purpose of my most recent trip was to see four or five small hotels, lodges and camps that have either changed ownership or have had a major overhaul since I was last in India, pre Covid. It got me thinking about the dramatic changes (mainly for the good) that have happened in Indian hotels, particularly at the very top end of the business. 

Let’s rewind the story to the 1970s when, under the policies of Indira Gandhi, the Rajputs were made to put their palaces, hunting lodges and other ‘stately homes’ to work. In the 1980s and 1990s, around Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur, where the Golden Triangle of cultural tourism was becoming quite established, it was clearly a good investment to get Rajasthani palaces up to speed as hotels. But many of this new breed of nobly born hotelier was reluctant or unable to invest the sums required and the offering was fairly hit and miss. From a personal point of view, I loved the eccentricity and the character of these early transformations, but the experience was far from predictable and not always very professional. 

In the 1990s, as the first generation of aristocrats turned hoteliers handed over to the next generation, some real stars emerged. These true entrepreneurs harnessed the heritage of the amazing assets that they had inherited, maintaining the grand atmosphere while bringing them bang up to date. Many started to compete with the best in the world.  

Big Indian hospitality names, such as Taj and Oberoi, also brought their capital and expertise, whilst independent brands thrived alongside. This provided travellers with a real choice. One of the most surprising entrants to the scene was Oberoi. While Taj went down the route of converting grand palaces into lavish hotels, in Rajasthan, Oberoi came up with a brand-new concept of building smaller ‘super boutique’ hotels, which was branded as its ‘Vilas’ portfolio. Modern, and with great service and infrastructure, Oberoi harnessed traditional design elements and crafts but in a thoroughly contemporary way, complemented by the likes of air conditioning integrated into the architecture.   

View of Amer Fort Jaipur Location Sagar lake watch Tower

There was now a fabulous choice of both independently run and big brand luxury hotels, both large and small, to mix and match as you travelled through Rajasthan. My own personal choice has always erred towards the independent and more traditional, however the pure luxury and consistent professionalism of bigger brands capitalised on the thriving US market, as well as the rapidly growing domestic Indian market. 

November 2023 saw the passing of Prithviraj Singh ‘Biki’ Oberoi, and whilst the obituaries will talk about his expansion of the group and his dedication to its success, my feeling is that the training that Oberoi offered via its Center of Learning and Development in Delhi is the most enduring legacy of his time at the helm. When you stayed at the smaller Oberoi hotels, such as the Vilas in Rajasthan, you would always come across a bright young star. This talent then moved to independent hotels in India, and indeed to the best hotels throughout the world. Some of the finest managers, chefs and marketing professionals in the industry cut their teeth with Oberoi in the early 2000s. 

india, jodhpur, mehrangarh fort
agra rd, india, sisodia rani ka bagh, and rajasthan in Jaipur, India

The biggest change since Covid, however, is the importance of the domestic market in India. As in many parts of the world where we work (Brazil and New Zealand are good examples), the citizens of the bigger cities, such as Delhi, Ahmedabad and Mumbai, have now discovered their own country and all that it has to offer. Some of the most demanding hotel guests in the world and insistent on a very modern aestheticthese are a world away from the European and American ‘cultural tourist’ which used to be the mainstay of Rajasthan’s clientele. As such, Indian hotels and the staff, and particularly the kitchens, have had to adapt to a new norm. The European cultural preference for rushing off after an early breakfast and returning to a light supper and an early night sits in contrast with the Indian domestic guest who spends more time in the hotel, rising later and ordering room service well into the night. 

Mehrangarh Fort in the Blue City of Jodhpur, India.
City Palace, Jaipur, Gangori Bazaar, J.D.A. Market, Kanwar Nagar, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India
Amber, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Destination weddings have also become a big thing for the larger palace hotels. Auspicious dates are blocked out well ahead and some of the landmark hotels are just no longer available to the ‘traditional’ cultural tourist from overseas. 

As with all things in travel, part of our raison d’être is the knowledge and know how that allows us to work around this new dynamic. With the obvious cultural hotspots so busy and some of the best-known destination hotels not available on key dates, some of our old favourites in the likes of rural Rajasthan have an opportunity step up their game. And they are doing just that. So, not only are we designing even more varied itineraries now (as has always been our tendency) but the level of service and comfort on the ground is transforming in tandem. As always, the best independent hoteliers have managed to modernise while still holding onto their heart, soul and sense of place.  

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