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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.

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.