Connect to share and comment

India's tourism banks on "Eat, Pray, Love"

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

Julia Roberts and Swami Dharmdev
Julia Roberts poses with Indian priest Swami Dharmdev in Hari Mandir Ashram in Pataudi, southwest of New Delhi on Sept. 22, 2009. Roberts was in India shooting the film "Eat, Pray, Love," which hit theaters this month. (AFP/Getty Images)

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.