Monday, July 25, 2005

rustic luxury

Who ever said getting back to nature meant roughing it? Now travelers can have their truffles and eat them under the stars, too.

By Carla Power
Newsweek International

July 25-Aug. 1 issue - Travel used to be divided into two basic categories: luxury and no-frills. the former consisted of flying first class, dining at three-star restaurants and staying in decadent comfort; the latter involved backpacking and camping out in some of the world's most beautifully remote spots. Rich holidaymakers never had to go a day without a glass of fine Bordeaux, but they also rarely ventured beyond the confines of their posh resorts. Rugged travelers regularly communed with nature—but ate hot dogs cooked over an open fire. Now tourists can have their wine and see the wildlife, too: communing with nature and living the good life are no longer mutually exclusive.

In fact, they fit together surprisingly well. A private island in the Maldives or a sumptuous tent in the Serengeti provide perhaps the most elusive luxury of 21st-century life: sanctuary from traffic, the fax machine and business suits. But modern-day travelers don't want to do without their plush towels and designer coffee. So cutting-edge hoteliers are beginning to combine the timeless luxuries of solitude and nature with the more mundane ones of butlers and Frette sheets. India's Oberoi Group has erected magical air-conditioned tents with marble bathrooms in the jungles of India's Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, while the Gulf hospitality group Jumeirah has created Arab opulence at the Bab Al Shams Desert Resort in Dubai. Smart designers are catering to the same group of clients with accessories like the new Mount Everest-ready backpacks produced by luxury luggagemaker Tumi.

The quest for privacy and exclusivity means that haute civilization is popping up in ever more remote places, says author Martin Nicholas Kunz, whose latest book on sumptuous lodgings covers Africa and the Middle East: "The new nomads will help drive a market for many more exciting hotels to visit in the deserts, jungles, mountains, forests and even underwater." Once word of remote gems reaches civilization, notes Atlanta-based travel agent Betty Jo Currie, it's nigh impossible to get reservations. The sheer exclusivity "drives the price sky-high. It's supply and demand."

For those who can afford it, the rewards are rich. Giselle Hantz—a Manhattan lawyer married to an investment banker, and a self-described "luxury consumer"— recalls the glories of her mobile safari in Botswana, where the staff included zoologists and scholars. Camp, set up each night, was "very luxurious, with real beds and good food." The incongruity of having "elephants stomping around our campground" way out in the middle of the savanna made the experience something "very personal, very private."

"Personal" and "private" are watchwords for rustic-luxury clients, many of whom are baby boomers, says PricewaterhouseCoopers travel industry analyst Bjorn Hanson. With grown children and established careers, these forty- and fiftysomethings are no longer —afraid to go where they can't be easily reached. "Gen-Xers want more social activities," he notes. Their parents, by contrast, want to be free to make their own fun. Many of them came of age during Woodstock, and remain hungry for adventure. In fact, they've begun "competing with their children" for travel experiences, says Hanson. They choose rock climbing over rocking chairs, snorkeling over spectator sports, and now that they have money, are eager to merge the buzz of their youthful pursuits with luxury. "They say, 'I've been to the theme parks and the sound-and-light attractions. Now, let me get away'."

Opportunities abound. At the Mnemba Island Lodge, on an island off Zanzibar's coast, you can listen to the lapping of the Indian Ocean from your sumptuously appointed palm and wood hut. Guests visiting the Bullo River Station, a luxury hotel on a working cattle ranch on the northwest tip of the Australian outback, can muster cattle, catch bulls or hunt crocodiles. At this year's annual rock festival in Glastonbury, England—an event as famous for its sex-in-muddy-tents atmosphere as for its music—one entrepreneur launched Camp Kerala Village, where the £6,000 tents included VIP tickets, 24-hour room service and dressing gowns. In the Highlands of Scotland, the luxuriously appointed Alladale Wilderness Lodge offers clients rural Highland sports, including stalking, falconry and clay-pigeon shooting.

The trend has created a boom market for private villas, customized with support staff, ready to accommodate their clients' lifestyles. On the island of Dhoni Mighili in the Maldives, guests can lounge in beach bungalows equipped with Bose sound systems and L'Occitane toiletries, or sail around the Ari Atoll in traditional Maldivian fishing vessels, kitted out with Frette linens, Philippe Starck bathroom fittings and a butler. For managers Jacqueline and David O'Hara—formerly a chef for Jordan's royal family—the specific needs of their guests are paramount. When one party requested the chef rustle up their favorite French risotto, the O'Haras flew in mushrooms from Dubai. Last year, for a couple who returns annually for their wedding anniversary, the O'Haras organized a mock wedding on the beach, complete with lace, Dom Perignon and caviar.

Creature comforts like that, even in India and Africa, mean that high-end travel agents like Betty Jo Currie, of Explorations in Atlanta, can persuade clients who'd never have dared to visit exotic places before to get on planes "because I know these properties are going to blow their minds." Both India and Africa have achieved what Currie calls the "tipping point" in luxury travel, where the quality of the lodgings now matches the uniqueness of the experience. Indeed, with globalization and hotel chains making travel blander, the former haunts of backpackers are now the places to be seen. "For a lot of people, it's just the same kind of status game that everything else is," says luxury traveler Hantz. "For them, staying at the Four Seasons seems kind of bourgeois, since any doctor from the Midwest will know about it."

The rustic-luxury genre recalls the incongruities of Marie Antoinette in her Versailles dairy farm. This is a world where there are "penthouse-suite tents" set in the wilds of British Columbia, Japanese-inspired bathrooms in Belize rain forests and black-tie dinners thrown deep in the Adirondacks. Craftsmanship is prized as much as comfort. On the Placencia Peninsula in Belize, film director Francis Ford Coppola used Indonesian craftsmen and Balinese artifacts in the design of his exotic resort, the Turtle Inn. "We are now witnessing the birth of a new move in hospitality, which brings architecture and nature together," says Kunz. "It emphasizes transparence and open spaces, with no tangible or visible borders between inside and outside." Even some of the world's most rustic, ecofriendly accommodations are adding luxe touches. At the Green Magic Nature Resort in Kerala, guests can bunk in a treehouse, complete with an elevator, running water and a carpeted veranda. On North Island, an elegant resort in the Seychelles, guests shower and get massages under the sky. Its designers built the dining room and villas around a dead takamaka tree, a feature that helps create what the designers dubbed "an haute couture Robinson Crusoe look."

Savvy to the fact that the rustic-luxury market revels in local tradition, some hoteliers have even invented their own myths. Designing the sumptuous Tsala Treetop Lodge in South Africa, Jill Hunter invented a legend about an ancient civilization, the Tsala, originally from North Africa. The architects built a faux ruin of local stone, and then laid the boardwalks and decks of the lodge around it. "It could have been, but it is fictitious," says Hunter. Last month, on the islands of Phi Phi in Thailand, Zeavola opened a bamboo-and-rattan re-creation of a rural Thai village—if Thai villagers enjoyed plunge pools, a southern Italian restaurant and CD/VCD/DVD players.

Clearly the new fusion between local style and global luxury raises moral issues. Kishore Singh, an editor at India's Business Standard newspaper, recalls a trip he took on a houseboat in Kerala state, and the discomfort he felt observing village life from a vessel with rooms worthy of a five-star hotel, replete with silk throws, plush mattresses and lots of polished wood and brass. "It is a little decadent," he concedes. "You are sitting there in your luxurious, air-conditioned surroundings, sipping expensive wine in the face of so much poverty." When Currie organized a 50th-birthday celebration for a friend, hiking Peru's Inca Trail, she "got some ribbing," she recalls, for bringing extra porters and masseuses for the trek. And yet, she points out, the Peruvians they brought along were paid well—and perhaps more important, had never before seen the Inca Trail. "Philosophically, there is an argument that [traveling] well can benefit the local population," argues Currie. "Luxury can also be about sharing the wealth—and not just money." As any rustic luxurian knows, the best things in life are free.

With Mary Acoymo and Jason Overdorf

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

Monday, July 18, 2005

unclogging the courts

The Indian justice system is legendary for its delays and diversions. But changes are finally on the way.

By Jason Overdorf

July 18 issue - Sunila Awasthi, a 36-year-old New Delhi woman, isn't a big fan of India's justice system. It's easy to see why: when Awasthi was 10, her father died. Her uncles then legally forced Awasthi's mother out of the family home. The mother battled in court for eight years to claim her husband's assets before she settled and took her two daughters to live in the house of her own father, who had died around the same time. There was only one problem: except for the single, dilapidated room in which Awasthi's grandfather had lived, the house was occupied, and the tenants refused to leave. With no other choice, the women moved into the old room, a virtual cell.

They then went to court again, to evict the squatters. It should have been an open-and-shut case—and by the odd standards of the Indian court system, it was. Only one lawyer died during the course of litigation. Only four high-court judges passed the case on to colleagues. And the matter was resolved in only 16 years. "We were one of the lucky ones," Awasthi says.

That's no exaggeration. There is a joke in India that the closest anyone will come to experiencing eternity is the country's court system. The problem is a strange aversion to settling cases. Judges pass them along to somebody else, and rarely dismiss lawsuits, no matter how frivolous. The result is judicial gridlock: India's lower courts have a backlog of about 20 million civil and criminal cases. An additional 3.2 million cases are pending before the high courts, while the Supreme Court has about 20,000 old cases on the docket. Many of those cases will take far longer than 16 years to resolve, and if the Awasthis lived in a virtual cell while their case ground on, at least they weren't literally incarcerated, like the millions of "undertrials" who languish in prisons, often for longer than the maximum sentence possible for their alleged crimes, while they await a trial date.

But now, experts say, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is committed to fixing the problem. And the judiciary itself, long criticized as insular and resistant to change, seems finally to have concluded that changes are needed. R. C. Lahoti, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, has declared that 2005 will be the year that India reduces its massive case backlog. "There will be no place for any corruption or indolence in the system," he vowed last September. "I mean business."

His choice of words was telling. Whatever moral imperative exists, the chief reason that India is getting serious about streamlining the legal system is economic. Dysfunctional courts increase the risks to foreign investors, tortuous rules slow the rise of new enterprises and murky laws regarding land ownership and other issues stifle the growth of industries like construction and retail. Indian business is lobbying for change; the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, for instance, recently published a report that bemoaned the regulatory maze that confronts every commercial project, contributing to delays and cost overruns and providing one explanation why India receives only a tiny fraction of the foreign direct investment deposited in China. "Speedy judicial resolution will be one of the keys to making India a competitive economy, conducive to growth and foreign investment," says Nandan Nilekani, CEO of Bangalore-based software giant Infosys. Singh's reform-focused government is listening. "This is a new climate," says Law Minister Hansraj Bhardwaj. "If economic reforms are to succeed, we should have a compatible justice administration, where cases are not delayed."

The reasons for India's judicial debacle are legion. For one thing, India has fewer judges per capita than almost any country in the world. In 2000, India had fewer than three judges per 100,000 people, according to a World Bank study—less than half the number available in 30 selected countries. And the state itself, which accounts for 60 percent of court cases, is overly litigious. Branches of the government are often suing each other over contracts, land and other matters. The system also lacks the infrastructure to handle a large caseload and the documentation that goes with it. Only the Supreme Court is computerized.

New initiatives are beginning to help. In 1995, when Singh was Finance minister and Bhardwaj was serving his first term as Law minister, they helped introduce new methods of out-of-court dispute resolution, including conciliation, mediation and arbitration. Such decisions are binding, and they've helped slash the number of commercial disputes that go to litigation. The out-of-court settlement movement lost steam when Singh's Congress party was defeated at the polls in 1996, but it's now being cranked up again.

Likewise, Bhardwaj's predecessor as Law minister, Arun Jaitley of the Bharatiya Janata Party, established some 1,700 so-called fast-track courts to resolve criminal cases where the accused had been jailed for long periods while they awaited trial. Since 2000, these courts have helped to clear hundreds of thousands of old cases. In addition, this year the criminal-justice system will adopt the concept of plea bargaining for the first time—a key feature of the U.S. court system. And the agenda calls for the computerization of all of India's courts over the next three years.

Perhaps the biggest sign of the administration's commitment to judicial reform is the amount of money it's spending. "Earlier, it was very difficult if you asked for 100 or 200 crores [$23 million to $45 million] for computerization," says Bhardwaj. "Now the prime minister has given me 1, 000 crores [$227 million]." In the next phase, Bhardwaj hopes to establish more fast-track courts, to require every court to have an in-house conciliation program for litigants before their case goes to a judge and to set up additional "people's courts" to help resolve petty disputes arising from marital arguments, traffic accidents, billing errors and so on through mediation.

Ambition is not accomplishment, of course. The latest report from the parliamentary committee responsible for evaluating the Law Ministry's budgetary requests excoriates the government for its "lackadaisical approach" to setting up people's courts, noting that only three (of 28) states have set up permanent people's courts for public-utility disputes. It questions delays and cost overruns related to Bhardwaj's International Centre for Alternative Dispute Resolution, the centerpiece of the mediation and arbitration program. And it attacks the government for failing to fill bench vacancies at all levels of the judiciary. While paying lip service to the need to increase the number of courts, the judiciary has yet to fill two vacancies in the Supreme Court and 141 vacancies in the high courts, the report says.

But some progress is better than none. The criminal courts may be a shambles and arcane legal procedures may add 10 percent to 20 percent to the cost of doing business, but according to Bibek Debroy, head of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation think tank, the resolution of civil cases has improved, primarily because of the amendments to the arbitration law pushed through in 1996. "Computerization, infrastructure, all of that has helped," he says. Moreover, although India's courts are exceedingly slow, they're generally fair. "Foreign investors do appreciate that it is a fair, rule-based system, and not ad hoc," says Nilekani of Infosys. DaimlerChrysler India CEO Hans-Michael Huber agrees. "The judicial system works too slowly, and the backlog of cases is a big burden. But on the other hand, at least it works."

Sort of. While Sunila Awasthi is now a successful corporate lawyer, with a nice house and slick new SUV, the young judge who banged the gavel in their favor has since quit the bench in disgust and gone into private practice. He's just one more casualty of Indian justice.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.