How the super rich are traveling through India

  • Of the 15.5 million who visited India in 2017, less than 10 percent were willing to spend upwards of $700 a day, said industry experts, who expect that market will double every three years.
  • For those willing to spend big, however, India offers a host of luxuries.
  • From palace hotels to glamorous camps, luxury trains to rare ingredients, vacation options for the super rich are growing in India.
The Lake Palace Hotel with tourist boats arriving and leaving in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India.
Tim Graham | Getty Images
The Lake Palace Hotel with tourist boats arriving and leaving in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India.

From "glamorous camping" in Ladakh to opulent palace hotels in Rajasthan and from fancy train rides across the peninsula to village art appreciation walks, Indian holidays are being carefully crafted by professionals constantly thinking up ideas about how to wow wealthy travelers.

"The world doesn't really know the possibilities that India has to offer," said PN Narayanaswamy of Travel Scope India, who began marketing India as a luxury destination in 1999. Today he says everyone wants a slice of the high-end pie, which constitutes about 3 percent of total world travelers.

Of the 15.5 million who visited India in 2017, less than 10 percent were willing to spend upwards of $700 a day, said industry experts, who expect that market will double every three years.

Millionaires, who typically fly in chartered planes and can afford to pay $1,000 a night for a hotel room with a view of the Taj Mahal, are not easy to lure year after year. Therefore, India has had to continuously repackage and remodel itself, experts said.

Offbeat luxury

One such reinvention is "offbeat luxury" that promises the traveler all the worldly pleasures along with a never-before-seen type of experience.

Sample this: Your hand-crafted tents are pitched at an altitude of 11,800 feet somewhere in Ladakh and, as you sip your morning tea served by a personal butler, you gaze at some of the highest peaks in the region.

Your day's activity could include a specially arranged polo match, rafting down the Zanskar river, lunch high in the Wari-La pass, and it could end with a visit by the village oracle.

Foreign tourists take part in white water rafting on India's Zanskar river.
Manpreet Romana | AFP | Getty Images
Foreign tourists take part in white water rafting on India's Zanskar river.

Dinner would include the finest wines, of course, and a meal prepared by acclaimed chefs. All that would come at a cost of about $1,400 a night.

"The purpose of the camp was to bring the hidden resources, the far-flung places in India to the luxury traveler," said Rajnish Sabharwal, chief operating officer of the The Ultimate Travelling Camp, the company that runs the Ladakh camp.

It also runs luxury camps in the northeastern state of Nagaland and in the south at the UNESCO world heritage site Hampi, overlooking 14th century ruins.

"Ladakh was viewed as a backpackers' destination till 'glamping' began five years ago. At the time, the most expensive hotel in the region was priced at $250," Shoba Mohan founder partner of RARE India told CNBC. Her company markets 63 properties that include palaces, luxury tents and wildlife lodges.

Designer holidays

Mohan is a great proponent of experiential and outdoor luxury holidays. "To see a snow leopard in the wild is a luxury in itself," she said. The hotels she markets are often set away from the "repetitive and regular routes."

While the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan continues to be a no-brainer when it comes to selling a destination to the high-end traveler — what with its palaces and forts and the concentration of some of India's highest-priced hotels — people like Mohan are looking to market little-known destinations within the state.

Chhatra Sagar reservoir and luxury tented camp oasis in Rajasthan, Northern India.
Tim Graham | Getty Images
Chhatra Sagar reservoir and luxury tented camp oasis in Rajasthan, Northern India.

One such property is Chhatra Sagar, a tented accommodation built on the banks of a dam, between the two big cities and tourist hubs of Jodhpur and Jaipur. The former royals who own that place personally look after the guests.

The food served is from the repertoire of their family recipes, which includes a dish made with locally grown fenugreek, which is available only 15 days in a year.

"Today luxury is more curated and immersive. [You] hand-hold [tourists] through every stage of the experience," Karan Anand, head of relationships for travel company Cox & Kings, told CNBC.

Experiences could range from a night walk by a trained herpetologist when on a wildlife safari, a classical dance performance specially choreographed for the guest or tea tasting with a sommelier, said those in the travel business.

Sampling India's vastness

India's cultural and geographical diversity is what makes it compete with other countries also vying for the top-dollar-paying traveler, experts said.

"India as a destination figures 8th or 9th on a well-heeled traveler's list, after he or she has done Africa," said Narayanaswamy.

Aboard luxury train the Palace on Wheels in New Delhi.
Ajay Kumar | The India Today Group | Getty Images
Aboard luxury train the Palace on Wheels in New Delhi.

One way of sampling the range and vastness of the country is to take a 7-day journey on one of the luxury trains that run in different directions, like the Deccan Odyssey or the Palace on Wheels. Equipped with plush cabins, a gym and even a spa, those rides bring alive the old-world charm of train travel.

"You stay onboard for seven nights and do not have to pack or unpack all the time. The train travels during the night and arrives at the destination in the morning. We then curate a sightseeing itinerary for the customer and, once done, the customer returns back to the luxurious train," said Anand.

Selling reality

"Tourists are usually just scratching the surface," said Narayanaswamy who said he wants to make his clients' India holiday "more local."

One of his top-selling Indian experiences is the "Mumbai by Dawn" itinerary in collaboration with a group called No Footprints Mumbai. It involves roaming around the city between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. as neighborhoods wake up.

"This means visiting the newspaper vendors, the fisherwomen and the fruit and vegetable markets as they set up the day for people before they get up," said Narayanaswamy. "This is followed by a breakfast in a Mumbai home."

He claimed nine out of 10 people agree to take the morning trip.

Just the 1 percent

While the offbeat is catching on and concepts like glamping have grown more successful, the backbone of any destination is its hotel infrastructure. In India, experts said, the luxury market kicked off when domestic hotel company The Oberoi Group launched its first super fancy chain of properties under the Vilas brand in 1997.

But high end hotels that charge above $400 a night make up just 1 percent of the entire supply, according to Manav Thadani founder of hospitality consulting firm Hotelivate.

"The image of India as a luxury destination is still limited," said Anand.

But, experts said, the potential is huge because of the experimentation that is going on and the diversity of the product.

"There is a lot to keep us inspired," said Narayanaswamy.