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India's Tourism Banks on "Eat, Pray, Love"

Travelers looking to follow in Julia Roberts' footsteps seek spiritual transformation in India.

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BANGALORE, India — As moviegoers flock to theaters to see the highly-anticipated Julia Roberts’ film “Eat, Pray, Love” this month, more and more tourists are heading to India to live out their own personal version of the film.

India is the backdrop for the spiritual destination Roberts' character visits in the film, and the pitch the international travel industry has adopted is: Why live vicariously through a movie when you can experience the real thing?

Publicity for the book by Elizabeth Gilbert, on which the film is based, had already boosted tourism among India’s meditation centers, according to travel firm Cox and Kings. But now that the film is here, those numbers are creeping even higher.

"There has been a 20 percent spurt in this segment recently,” said Cox and Kings' Thomas Thottathil. Previously, meditation circuits comprised a niche segment, attracting about 30 percent of tourists who came to India, most of whom were American or British, he added.

Haridwar and Rishikesh in the Himalayas, Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges and Kerala in the south are all seeing more eager tourists than they did before "Eat, Pray, Love" hit the scene, said Sanjay Datta, a member of the New Delhi-based group, Travel Agents Association of India.

In “Eat, Pray, Love,” the protagonist is a disenchanted, divorced New Yorker who journeys through the countryside of Italy, where she eats with such reckless abandon that she is forced to buy pants with an elastic wasteband. Next, she goes to India, where she wanders through the madness of the streets, ultimately seeking refuge in an ashram. She then completes her journey in Bali, where she attempts to balance hedonism and spirituality, among other extremes.

The book has sold over 7 million copies worldwide, riding the New York Times bestseller list for a whopping 170 weeks.

In India, the travel industry welcomes those who want to follow in the footsteps of Julia Roberts' character. Santosh Gupta of tour planners Holidays4India, however, is hoping that it won't only be dissatisfied, middle-aged women who come seeking inner peace.

"Most Western tourists are fanatical about feeling good inside and out," he said.

“What 'Slumdog Millionaire' did for Mumbai's Dharavi slums, 'Eat, Pray, Love' is doing for India's meditation hotspots," said Suvin Dev, from the travel firm Thomas Cook. Spa and meditation vacations were already popular, he added, but the book and the movie will drive sales further.

In an attempt to capitalize on the momentum of the film, travel companies are advertising “life-changing” luxury travel packages complete with exotic spiritual experiences, a holy bead-making workshop in the sacred city of Varanasi, a divine aarti (lamp lighting) ceremony on the river Ganges at night, sunrise-sunset trips to the Taj Mahal and visits to the cave temples of Khajuraho.

Even Western hotel chains have jumped in. In Mumbai, Four Seasons is offering an "Eat, Pray, Love" experience complete with a personal travel guru coordinating visits to such locations as a Muslim dargah (shrine) and Mani Bhavan, Mahatma Gandhi’s home that is now a museum.

U.S.-based budget travel company, STA Travel, is advertising packages that offer journeys taken straight from the film.

"See the world for yourself on a transformational journey taken straight from Liz’s itinerary in the film Eat Pray Love with STA Travel," their website says. The $1,099-a-head, eight-day tour includes a trip to Varanasi, the spiritual heart of India, and the sacred Saranth, where Buddha first taught dharma.

Luxury tavel firm Abercrombie & Kent has launched a "Cinema-cation" based on "Eat, Pray, Love." They are offering a 14-day package for female travelers priced at $6,825 that includes a cruise down the Ganges river at sunrise and an elephant ride in a village near Jaipur.

Luxurious spa vacations may be a tad removed from the ascetic ashram experience detailed in Gilbert’s memoir of self-discovery. But tour planners say that Western tourists are preferring packaged luxury experiences that include meditation, yoga and spa treatments in tranquil resorts because it buffets them from the chaos of regular tourist trails.

The ashram that Gilbert visited is apparently the inconspicuous Gurudev Siddha Peeth in Maharashtra in western India.

For lengthy stays, low-budget ashrams and religious hermitages are favored by those seriously seeking spirituality. Most tourist facilities in lower budget ashrams are spare but a $900 to $1,200 package provides a weeklong experience.

Deep Kalra, CEO of leading Indian travel portal, MakeMyTrip, says that an influx of tourists will force India’s sparse ashrams to build up their infrastructure.

“The book and movie will increase awareness about India as a hub for meditation and spiritual tourism," Kalra said, adding that he expected that trend to be reflected in the numbers very soon.

Kalra said that the recent global financial downturn has prompted many travelers to steer away from materialist Western countries in favor of India, where more spartan conditions are thought to hasten spiritual development and the quest for deeper fulfillment.

“The recent growth of meditation and holistic holidays is driven by changing priorities in the western world where people want to care for their body, mind and soul,” said Kalra.

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