Luxury hotels in India: An isolating experience

By Tom Helsel

From Thursday June 16th to Sunday June 19th, I had the pleasure of staying in the three of the nicest hotels I’ve ever experienced. Each hotel had five stars, located in Bangalore, Delhi, and Agra respectively. Each hotel had a different atmosphere and level of service, with the level of servitude increasing with each successive hotel.

Every hotel had soft beds, air conditioning, showers, restaurants, clean water, and other services to make one as comfortable as possible. One would expect that I would be having the time of my life; I’d been sleeping on a straw mattress in a room with a rickety fan with a roommate on a bunk bed. I was used to making up in morning praying that there would be hot water for a shower. I was surprised to find that the extra comfort offered by the hotels, while rejuvenating my body, actually made me uncomfortable.

Before taking my weekend trip, the Global Social Entrepreneurship program had the pleasure of visiting Equations, a company based in Bangalore, focusing on the impacts of tourism and promoting equitable tourism. Swati, who works at equations, informed us of the some of the repercussions of tourism. The way that five-stars hotels operate is problematic. The sector is 60-80% informal allowing for bending of rules. One such rule bending practice is only hiring workers for 11 months. According to Indian law hiring workers for for a full year, requires the employer to offer social benefits. Also present in the workforce of these hotels is the caste system. There is a structural hierarchy within the employees of the hotel, with the lower castes serving as maids or janitors and the higher castes serving as managers and concierges. This information was the only thing that made me uncomfortable to stay in luxury hotels.

While living in Bangalore I’ve settled into a routine. I wake up at 6 A.M walk to my local gym, Pure Life Gym, eat breakfast at the SCMI house, walk to the bus stop and take the bus to Domlur, work at Sattva until 5 and then walk/bus home. It’s a simple lifestyle, allowing me to appreciate things that I would normally take for granted in the United States, such as hot showers or WiFi.

Due to my partaking in a simple lifestyle, many aspects of luxury hotels were shocking to me. First and foremost was the water usage. My hotel in Agra had a large and beautiful marble courtyard at the entrance, fully outfitted with a pool containing several fountains; it was simply stunning. Although the beauty of the marble and fountains was breath-taking, I also found myself surprised the next morning, noticing that every night the hotel would pump out the water from the day before onto rocks and the ground, and then precede to fill the pool with new water, all while several areas of India, and my homeland of California, are experiencing severe water shortages.  The luxury hotel also spared no expense creating luscious gardens, watering them for hours at night, amidst a city with no greenery, this “Garden of Eden” separated itself from the public with a 10-foot-high wall and security gate. There was a similar story at the hotel in Delhi; the plunge pool on our balcony was regularly emptied and then refilled in order to keep the water fresh, however I am unaware of the process for how they did this. Finally, a silver lining is the Bangalore luxury hotel, using recycled water in their fountains and bodies of water so one can feel at ease when witnessing the beauty of the lobby.

Another aspect of the luxury hotels that bothered me was the exclusivity, even among the guests in the hotel! Both the Delhi and the Agra hotels were separated from their respective cities with gates and walls, monitored by security guards who checked every vehicle that entered with mirrors for explosive materials. While inside the hotel, guests kept to themselves. My mom, who was staying with me and I tend to be social people. We smile and greet people in hotels. No one ever made eye-contact with us, strictly invested in their relaxation and tourism experience (most of these guests hailed from the United States, Canada, and various countries in Europe).

Securing privilege

Securing privilege

One guest I did have the pleasure of talking to was an Irishman in the lobby of the Bangalore hotel. Currently living in Montreal, Canada, he worked for Scion, coming to Bangalore for 5 weeks a year for the last 7 years. While watching the England vs. Wales Eurocup match he told me some of his insights on traveling and hotels in India that he’d collected over the years. The Irishman had found that other luxury hotels were too pampered and that many of the amenities that they over are unnecessary; such as having one’s own pool in their room, a TV just for watching while one’s in the bath tub, or servers at restaurants specifically there to spoon guests more curry and rice. After staying in several hotels and playing the tourist role in the first couple of years he visited India, the Irishman found that to truly experience India, one should incorporate with the people; ride the bus, eat lunch at the market, get drinks on Church Street, roam Indira Nagar, immerse yourself into the city. When I asked him if he’d visited the Taj Mahal or Delhi, he informed me that he liked to travel through India, however he stuck to non-tourist destinations so that he could keep his philosophy of experiencing the people over material objects.

He admitted that he was hypocrite for staying in luxury hotel like the one we were chatting in, however he claimed that it was a compromise between hostel living and luxury: “They do it right (here)”. The argument that he raises is what made me feel most uncomfortable and gloom while traveling with my Mom to these various hotels. We did get to see many historical locations including the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and the Red Fort, however we were driven from the hotel to location, never walking except once we had reached our destination. We were staying in alienated locations, designed to be the most western and comfortable possible, something that one can experience anywhere in the world; a feeling that I also felt while eating a dinner in the EGL, an area built around the American tech companies in Bangalore completely separated from the city that seemed ultra-sanitized. I wish I’d been able to show her some of the experiences I’ve had here, like helping local workers lift hay into a truck, ride on a bus while hanging out the door, or eating an unlimited feast for 65₹ in the old market.

When visiting foreign countries tourists should be aware of not only how their hotel affects the local community, but how the local community can affect their travel experience. Having stayed in 3 of the most luxurious hotels in India, and lived in hostel-style living, staying in a luxury hotel can limit oneself, shielding them from the culture of the area they are visiting. One can still stay in a nice hotel and partake in the local lifestyle, as long as they stay in a hotel not physically separated from the city, make an active effort to wander the streets with an open mind, and take note of controversial practices made by luxury hotels.

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