Officials of the Karnataka Tourism Development Corporation (KSTDC) had a new spring in their step when they headed to the International Tourism Bourse (ITB) at Berlin. They could finally show off -- The Golden Chariot was ready to go.
It's been a saga that has been running from 2002 and finally, Karnataka has got its own luxury train. The state had been chafing for a long time as "God's Own Country" stole all the branding thunder in South India. The Golden Chariot is tasked with building a similar image.
Palace On Wheels did the magic for Rajasthan and is today supposedly booked out a year in advance. Maharashtra has its Deccan Odyssey. The plan for Karnataka was in a state of dormancy and was shaken awake when the state neared its 'Suvarna Karnataka' (golden jubilee). It was supposed to cap the celebrations on November 1, 2007 but never turned up, thus missing its launch pad and the peak tourist season.
The bill for the train is said to be Rs 50 crore (Rs 500 million) and it was built at the Integral Coach Factory, Chennai. It consists of eleven plush and fully air-conditioned passenger cars, two restaurant cars, a bar cum conference hall, a gym car, a staff car and finally two cars to power everything including satellite Internet and television.
The peak season fare for a single person for the seven-day journey is $ 3,395 (roughly Rs 136,000). Starting at Bangalore, you will wind your way through Tipu Sultan's Srirangapatna, the royal heritage of Mysore, the forests ringing the backwaters of the Kabini dam, the Jain holy site of Shravanabelagola, the ruins of Belur and Halebid, the UNESCO world heritage site Hampi, more architecture at Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal and finally, you run up the Konkan coast to end up on the beaches of Goa. There is an overnight trip back to Bangalore included on the same train.
The train has had more than a fair share of hiccups during its gestation. First, the route was hotly contested as it gives northern Karnataka a complete miss. It is a region rich in its own way and desperately needs an impetus to find a place on the tourist map.
The reason for the Goa stop was to allow a link with the Deccan Odyssey, which also arrives there. The naming saw suggestions being invited from the general public and various political lobbies trying to have their say. There was an objection from the Kodava community to the uniform worn by the stewards as it almost resembled their traditional warrior outfit. And even painting the coaches didn't go smooth as a spell of rain during the process left it a lighter shade of purple than intended.
Implementing The Golden Chariot experience will be the Mapple Group hospitality chain that says it will be an interesting venture for them. "We don't have any prior experience in running a train such as this but you will find everything that you find in a good hotel," says Sanjay Wadhawan, Joint Managing Director, Mapple Group.
The restaurants on the train are called Nala and Ruchi. Wadhawan says the fare will include dishes from all parts of Karnataka but will also include Continental and Chinese.
The critical barometer for The Golden Chariot will be profitability. The KSTDC and Mapple are hoping anything above "40 per cent occupancy" will enable them to break even.
The passenger coaches have been labelled Kadamba, Hoysala, Rashtrakuta, Ganga, Chalukya, Bahamani, Adilshahi, Sangama, Satavahana, Yadukula and Vijayanagar and interiors have been done by the couple Kusum and Pramod Pendse, who have earlier worked on the Deccan Odyssey.
"Our brief was to weave the interiors around Karnataka culture," says Kusum Pendse. Thus in the passenger cabins you will find Ilkal designs bordering kasuti works, motifs from all parts of the state, embellishments such as miniature Channapatna toys and one cabin has even been done up themed on Mysore using silk from there.
The Palace On Wheels brand sustains itself but the Deccan Odyssey was stopped by the Maharashtra government for a while in 2004 because of "poor response".
The KSTDC and Mapple are hoping anything above "40 per cent occupancy" will enable them to break even but they have already hit a hurdle with the rupee appreciating against the dollar. A shift to the Euro has been mooted but will be difficult to implement as internationally the travel industry deals in dollars.
Plans for the future are ambitious and it is hoped that tourists will one day hop from the Palace On Wheels to the Deccan Odyssey and finally end up on The Golden Chariot. It is a journey that will be fascinating to watch unfold.