Rent-a-Fort in India's Rajasthan


One of India's prime tourist attractions, the princely forts and palaces of Rajasthan state, are hoping for a new lease on life -- literally.

More than two million domestic and foreign tourists visit Rajasthan every year for a glimpse of the state's royal past and to experience the architectural legacy of kingdoms that lost their identity when India became a republic.

Topping the must-see list in the desert state are sites like the majestic Mehrangarh Fort, which dominates the skyline over the city of Jodhpur, and Jaipur's 16th century Amber Palace.

But thousands more historic forts, palaces and private mansions, or "havelis", lie unvisited and uncared for -- victims of decades of neglect.

Shortly after Indian independence in 1947, many passed from private to public hands, either sold or ceded to the state government by their erstwhile princely owners who were unable to afford their upkeep.

Now the state authorities -- who also struggled to fund their renovation and maintenance -- are offering them up for rent.

Target tenants are domestic and foreign hospitality groups with the financial muscle to turn the properties into heritage hotels for well-heeled travellers.

"We are ready to lease the heritage properties. Those interested can sign a long-term rent agreement with us and they are free to convert them into hotels or any other interesting business venture," said state tourism secretary Usha Sharma.

"Our idea is to save the heritage forts and palaces and also promote tourism," Sharma said.

It's an ambitious plan and, some say, a deeply flawed one, given the state of some of the properties on the rental list.

Ruined ramparts, once used to keep out Mughal invaders, now provide a prime spot for locals to hang out their washing lines, while many properties have been stripped of their carved sandstone slabs, which end up in local markets.

The concept of "heritage hotels" in India originated in Rajasthan as owners unable to afford the upkeep of their ancestral homes converted them into hotels, sometimes with private partners or with the help of the government.

Rajasthan currently accounts for 128 of the 178 heritage hotels spread across the country.

"Heritage hotels are always seen as something romantic. People from all over the world love to experience the glory of the bygone era," said Gaj Singh, secretary of the Heritage Hotel Association.

"The idea to lease these places is very interesting. They are untapped assets, and have the potential for massive growth," said Singh, who owns six heritage properties in Rajasthan.

But the government's initiative has been clouded by a combination of poor infrastructure and excessive bureaucracy that has put off a number of potential takers for the leaseholds.

"These properties are extremely maintenance-heavy and are mired in complications at various levels," admitted Ashutosh Pednekar, the administrator of Alwar district, which has the largest concentration of forts in the country.

"A lot more needs to be done by the government to put them to good use. Private investors cannot do it alone," he said.

One group that has made a go of it is the Neemrana Hotels heritage chain, which runs more than 20 properties across India and decided to take on the 19th-century Tijara Fort (200 kilometers) 130 miles from Jaipur.

"We appreciated the government's plan, managed to acquire the lease of Tijara Fort and started our work," said Aman Nath, co-chairman of the Neemrana group.

Despite signing a 60-year lease agreement in 2005, it took the group several years to get final possession of the property.

The original agreement was that the government would be responsible for providing basic infrastructure like roads, electricity and water.

"But everything is off-loaded on us," Nath said.

"We paid for the electricity and got the cables laid. We bought the land, drilled the water, did the piping and built the access road.

"We are doing all the work and the government is still on our back saying: why is it not happening on time?" he added.

Rajasthan's tourism secretary, Usha Sharma, insisted that the government was firmly committed to the leasing program.

"I don't think there is any problem. We are doing the best we can," she told AFP.

Meanwhile, most of the properties listed for lease remain derelict and ignored.

"Some forts have simply vanished -- their stones taken by villagers to build their own home," said Alwar administrator Pednekar.

"Only the names are left now," he added