Highwire Thrills for India’s Heritage Tourists

NEEMRANA ~ High above the tranquil lawns of a 15th-century hillside fort, a man flew through the air attached to a steel wire.

“There goes the British high commissioner,” said one of the impressed spectators at the opening last week of India’s first “zip wire” adventure venue.

Neemrana, 100 kilometers south of New Delhi, is one of several magnificent forts and palaces in Rajasthan that have been converted into luxury hotels over the past 15 years to offer tourists a taste of history and romance.

Now it has added a new twist to the country’s popular “heritage trail” by giving visitors the chance to be strapped into a harness and slide down cables that are suspended far above its battlements.

The exhilarating activity of “zip wiring” is well established in New Zealand, Europe and North America, but India has been slow to embrace the booming adventure tourism market.

“Sitting on a camel was about as much as tourists in India could expect before this,” said Jonathan Walter, one of two Delhi-based British entrepreneurs behind the scheme.

“Zip wiring is extremely exciting and certainly gets the adrenaline pumping. Teenagers and their parents both get an extraordinary kick out of it.”

The Neemrana course consists of five separate wires which carry participants over wooded valleys, cliffs and rivers in the hills above the fort before delivering them back to base – just in time for a cocktail by the pool.

“This is a unique way to observe Rajasthan’s landscape and architecture, as long as you dare to open your eyes,” said Walter, 40, a former Gurkha army officer who has led mountaineering expeditions around the world.

“Zip wiring is also very low-impact on the local environment, which is crucial at a protected cultural site like Neemrana.

“The wires don’t ruin the view, it is quiet and we haven’t had to interfere with the fort’s structure at all.”

The whole course takes over two hours to complete once clients have hiked up to the start of first wire, been given safety guidance and then completed the various “zips.”.

The longest wire, at 390 meters, has been labeled “Where Eagles Dare” and gives an stunning view of the fort set against the Aravalli hills and the plains below.

Much of the equipment and cables has been installed by specialist Swiss engineers, and a full-time team of eight instructors have been employed on site to guide groups and issue instructions.

“When I first heard about this plan, I was not entirely sure it would ever happen,” said Richard Stagg, the 53-year-old British high commissioner (ambassador), before he flew down the wires last week.

“But here it is and it is fabulous. The project will be a great boost to tourism, which needs all the help it can get at the moment.”

India’s tourism industry is struggling as the global economic downturn worsens and after the Mumbai terror attacks, with some hotels in destinations such as Jaipur city – two hours south of Neemrana – reporting only 15 percent occupancy.

An opulent new sleeper train, the Royal Rajasthan, launched last month for wealthy foreigners, has already been shunted into the sidings due to a lack of bookings.

But Walter is certain that zip wiring is going to generate huge interest, and “Flying Fox” – the company he co-founded to bring the adventure sport to India – is already scouting for its next location.

“We’re expecting a lot of Indian clients, as well as overseas tourists,” he said. “The domestic market is still strong and every year India becomes an easier place to visit as roads and hotels are improving all the time.”

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