JAIPUR, India, 25 September 2018: Greater connectivity between Southeast Asia and India’s exotic far west is seeing more visitors travel in both directions in search of culture, history, food, shopping and recreation.
The exotic and arid Rajasthan, the largest state in India, larger in fact than Vietnam or Malaysia, is attracting more visitors to it fairytale palaces and desert forts, with 46 million domestic and foreign tourists touring the state last year.
While foreign visitors to India were up 14% last year, overseas travellers account for only 1% of tourists – a rising middle-class in India means more Indians are on the move exploring their own country.
Among the estimated 9 million who visited the state capital Jaipur last year, most were French, Americans and British, with visitors from Southeast Asia not making it to the top 10 list, according to Rajasthan government, which aims to attract 50 million domestic and foreign tourists by 2020 to what is promoted as the ‘Land of Maharajas’.
So what makes Jaipur special? Jaipur is a city rich in cultural heritage and traditional, known for its art and artifacts. It is a place where there is a strong influence from the Mughals, where a regal past remains almost intact for visitors to marvel at the magnificence of a regal city bordering the desert. Known as the ‘Pink City’, with fortresses and palaces on hilltops, an old walled city, and a palace on a lake, Jaipur is a major hub for arts and crafts, with traditional cottage industries of papermaking, pottery, jewelry, textile production, gemstones, leatherware and antiques.
There are a few other characteristics unique to Jaipur. It was India’s first planned city. It has a semi-arid climate with temperatures rising to as high as 45 centigrade in the hot season, and down to 5 centigrade in the winter, which lasts November to February. The best time to visit is October to March.
Jaipur International Airport (JAI), in its 13th year of operation, has increased its connectivity with the rest of the world, with more flights to Southeast Asia, including Thai AirAsia to Don Mueang Airport, Bangkok, Thai Smile to Suvarnabhumi, Bangkok, and AirAsia X to Kuala Lumpur.
More than a dozen airlines fly in and out of the Rajasthan hub, with six to international destinations. While Scoot pulled out of the Singapore-Jaipur route late last year, AirAsia X started flying from Kuala Lumpur four times a week in February this year, and ThaiAir Asia commenced flights last September, as part of the airline’s plan to extend connectivity and services to key second and third tier Indian cities.
Thai AirAsia chief executive officer, Tassapon Bijleveld, said AirAsia planned to expand services to India to tap into the growing tourism and business travel demand. With over 130 flights a week to 10 Indian cities, the focus has been on linking them with Southeast Asian tourism hotspots. Other airlines fly to Dubai, Sharjah, Muscat, and Abu Dhabi.
The building of a new terminal, recent upgrading of facilities, and the extension of its main runway means the airport is now able to handle larger aircraft (up to 16 flights an hour), and the new instrument landing system means flights are less likely to be diverted due to fog, common during the ‘winter’ months December and January.
The airport is currently the 11th busiest in India, and in recent years has won World’s Best Airport in the 2-5 million passenger category. The airport has its own solar plant, which delivers two-thirds of its energy requirements. Last year, passenger traffic was up by 26% to nearly 5 million, and flights increased by 30%. Soon international flights will depart from a renovated Terminal 1, with the currently operational Terminal 2 assigned to domestic flights.
Many foreigners visiting India on their first trip take in the classic Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra with its Taj Mahal, and Jaipur, but state tourism officials are keen to see more venture further west to the romantic lakes of lakes of Udaipur, the desert forts of Jodhpur, Bikaner and Jaisalmer, the sand dunes of the Thar Desert, and the Jain temples at Mount Abu.
The princely state, known for its scenic beauty, is encouraging visitors to experience the unique region by attending the three dozen or so festivals held throughout the year, which celebrate music, dance, ethnic cultures, the change of seasons and religious days. There are desert festivals as well as the Pushkar Camel fair in late November, and the Bikaner Camel festival in January.
One of the biggest drawcards is the Jaipur Literary Festival (https://jaipurliteraturefestival.org), the largest free readers and writers event in the world, and dubbed the ‘greatest literary show on Earth’. Having welcomed over a million book lover from across India and the globe, the event held each January is co-directed by Scottish historian and writer William Dalrymple, and choreographed by the dance critic and arts organiser Sanjoy K Roy.
This year’s event saw travel writer Pico Iyer deliver a keynote address about the value of travel in the crossing of cultures. Worried about the speed of travel and misuse of technology – he dubbed phones “weapons of mass distraction” saying people needed to find ways to restore sanity and balance in their lives.
“The journey is just a means to the end of a deep exploration of human emotions,” he told the audience.
He concluded that in today’s divided world, literature was needed more than ever before ‘precisely because the imagination is no respecter of boundaries or fences.
“Literature tells us that what unites us is much more important than what separates us. Rely more on the power of your imagination.”
Among the writers for next year’s event, 24 to 28 January 2019, are ‘Sandman’ author Neil Gaiman, Zadie Smith, Ian McKellen and Yuval Harari.
While more visitors from abroad are visiting Rajasthan’s ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur and are appreciating its fine palaces (Havelis) such as Amer palace and the iconic facade of Hawa Mahal, the movement of people isn’t one way.
The increased flight connections to Southeast Asia sees more Indians heading to Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia. For example, the island of Bali, popular for Indian weddings and honeymoons, has experienced a 50% growth in Indian tourists in the last year, with projections India will contribute the second highest tourist arrivals after China by the end of 2019. Perhaps this cross-culture journeying is what travel writer Pico Iyer means by the ‘import and export of dreams’?