Beatles’ Indian hideaway comes together, 50 years on

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Tourists walk past the now-derelict house of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at the ashram visited by the Beatles 50 years ago in Rishikesh, northern India. (AFP)
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Ajit Singh, a music shop owner, fixed John Lennon’s guitar and performed at George Harrison’s 25th birthday party when the Beatles stayed at an ashram in nearby Rishikesh in 1968. (AFP)
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A mural at the now-derelict ashram visited by the Beatles 50 years ago in Rishikesh, northern India. (AFP)
Updated 13 August 2018
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Beatles’ Indian hideaway comes together, 50 years on

  • Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram fell into disuse in the early 2000s
  • thanks to the efforts of a group of locals, the site has been reclaimed from the jungle

RISHIKESH: Fifty years after the Beatles came to India, the bungalows where the Fab Four lived, the post office where John Lennon sent Yoko Ono postcards and the giggling guru’s house are all ruins.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram, where the world’s most famous group sought refuge and spirituality in 1968 and wrote much of their seminal “White Album,” fell into disuse in the early 2000s.
But thanks to the efforts of a group of locals, the site has been reclaimed from the jungle and tourists now roam where tigers and snakes were until recently the most common day trippers.
“Before, people used to sneak in, which could be dangerous,” said local journalist Raju Gusain, instrumental in rescuing the area overlooking Rishikesh in northern India.
“There used to be leopard paw marks and elephant dung,” he said on a tour of the site. “Now we have erected a fence to stop animals getting in from the tiger reserve next door.”
By 1968, following the death of Beatles manager Brian Epstein the year before, fissures were beginning to show between John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.
But the group found a new mentor: the magnetic Maharishi who promised them happiness and enlightenment without drugs, through transcendental meditation.
The bushy-bearded sage persuaded them to travel to his spiritual retreat in Rishikesh, and so in February 1968 they fetched up with their partners, not knowing quite what to expect.
A world away from “Swinging London,” the band appeared to reconnect, penning almost 50 new songs.
Others there included fellow musicians Donovan and Beach Boy Mike Love, actress Mia Farrow and her reclusive sister Prudence, inspiration for Lennon’s song “Dear Prudence.”
The local wildlife — although the song is also supposedly about heroin or Yoko Ono — inspired “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” as well as “Blackbird.”
McCartney wrote “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” after seeing monkeys openly copulating, while Love’s presence helped spark “Back in the USSR,” a pastiche of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.”
The band — with the exception of Starr, who brought a supply of baked beans due to his sensitive stomach and left after 10 days — enjoyed the break and the meditation too.
“I felt like I actually was a feather floating over a hot-air pipe,” McCartney recalled later of one session. “And I reported that to Maharishi, and he giggled: ‘Yes, this is good!’”
One local old enough to remember is Ajit Singh, the owner of a music shop — still open — in the nearby town of Dehradun, who fixed Lennon’s guitar and performed at Harrison’s 25th birthday.
Turbaned, thin and with a croaky voice, the 86-year-old Singh recalls with twinkling eyes the band wandering into the store one day, pursued by a crowd outside, and him “inviting them home for tea.”
“They were very polite with me, they were not haughty or something,” he said in his shop. “I always said to people that they were good people.”
After a while though, relations worsened between the Beatles and the Maharishi, the atmosphere soured by the yogi’s rumored sexual advances and his evident desire to make money from his famous new pupils.
McCartney left after five weeks and Harrison and Lennon after two months. Asked the reason by the yogi, Lennon is reputed to have told the guru, “If you’re so cosmic you’ll know why.”
But still, the Beatles helped put Rishikesh on the map for Westerners, and popularized meditation and Eastern spirituality. The Maharishi even made the cover of Time magazine in 1975.
His ashram initially thrived but then went into decline and was abandoned in 2001. Nature slowly reclaimed the site, while parts of the buildings were removed and people sneaked in and left graffiti.
But in 2016, paths were cleared, a fence was put up and some of the structures were repaired. Ruins they remain, however, although a few new murals have been added.
The site now charges an entry fee — 600 rupees ($8.75) for foreigners, 150 rupees for Indians — and boasts a cafe and a small photo exhibition and some information signs.
One recent visitor was none other than Prudence herself, said Raju Nautiyal, a ranger with the Rajasthan Tiger Reserve who has helped in the clean-up.
“I used to sing ‘Dear Prudence’ and one day Prudence came to play,” he said.
American visitor Atta Curzmann, 68, a “great Beatles fan” inspired to take a lasting interest in Indian spirituality, said she hoped the site would not be restored too much.
“The first time we came four or five years ago it was really run-down and we had to pay baksheesh (a bribe) to get in,” she said.
“But I hope they don’t make it too lovely and perfect because you want to see that antiquity, that part of it that shows the history.”


For Gulf economies, Chinese outbound tourism holds passport to riches

Chinese tourists are widening their horizons with the Middle East tipped to be a leading destination by 2020. (Shutterstock)
Updated 19 June 2019
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For Gulf economies, Chinese outbound tourism holds passport to riches

  • GCC countries currently attract a mere one percent of China's annual outbound traffic
  • Gulf brands advised to engage with the world's fastest growing consumer group: Chinese tourists

DUBAI: “One learns more from traveling 10,000 miles than from reading 10,000 scrolls.” For China’s fast-growing middle class, there has never been a better time to be guided by the ancient Chinese proverb as 150 million people travel every year from the Asian country to destinations around the world.
Given the vast numbers involved and the fact that only eight out of 100 Chinese hold a passport, the mind boggles at the possibilities that could be in store for the global consumer market.
If the Gulf can capture even a fraction of the total Chinese outbound travel market, the economic bonanza for the region will be huge, according to consulting firms and experts.
Experts at the Arab Luxury World conference in Dubai last week advised regional brands on strategies to engage with the luxury market’s largest and fastest- growing consumer group.
“Because the Gulf had so much organic business, it wasn’t the first necessity to hunt for more opportunities,” said Jonathan Siboni, founder and CEO of Luxurynsight. “But now the market is repositioning itself. Chinese consumers are a new thing for the region.”
A report by management consultants McKinsey in November 2018 said: “More than 70 percent of Chinese tourists travel with family and friends. As a result, these groups are the world’s highest spenders per single trip. We expect annual growth of 6.1 percent for the next couple of years.”
Siboni said: “There are 3.5 million millionaires in China. No matter what the preferred focus of niche brands, be it adventure, nature or shopping, Gulf companies will be well positioned if they prepare and target well.” He uses the example of France, a country of 67 million people that receives 90 million tourists every year. Almost two million of the visitors are Chinese. More importantly, they account for 25 percent of France’s duty-free sales.
“If you have a very smart strategy, you can definitely generate results,” Siboni told Arab News on the sidelines of the Arab Luxury World conference.
“Look at the results from France’s two million Chinese tourists. I would be tempted to say the same for Dubai. If you really target well and manage to learn how to talk to them and provide something unique, then the contribution to the image and the economy can be tremendous.”
The number of Chinese tourists traveling to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries is forecast to jump 81 percent between 2018 and 2022 — from 1.6 million to 2.9 million, according to a study by Colliers International in partnership with the Arabian Travel Market. The data show that GCC countries are visited by a mere 1 percent of China’s tourists, but that share is expected to grow.
Local communication agencies can play a big role in the GCC tourism and consumer market’s transformation, Siboni said. Luxurynsight is not operating in Saudi Arabia, but he expects it to begin operations at some point as the Kingdom takes steps to reinvent itself as a major tourist destination. For international travel agencies, hotels, retailers and other allied industries, the good news is not only that Chinese outbound tourism is exploding, but also that Chinese tourists are widening their horizons. As Maissa Zard, Luxurynsight’s head of marketing and sales, points out, Chinese tourists have become a lot savvier when it comes to choosing digital products and brands. “Before they shop, they know exactly where to shop and what to buy,” she told Arab News. “There is a rise in cross-border e-commerce, so if brands in the region become loyal to tourists from the start, they would be building not only brand loyalty but also local store loyalty.”
Brands should stop viewing Chinese tourists as “something extra,” she said, adding that “they need to develop a loyal relationship with the Chinese consumer. According to the latest data, Chinese consumers represent 33 percent of the global luxury industry - a figure that will rise to 50 percent in a couple of years. As much as 75 percent of their purchases are made outside China, with the Middle East one of their top shopping destinations for 2020. Zard believes the Middle East has an important edge over Europe. “The region is very strong in terms of service and quality because it has a demanding local clientele,” she said. “They need to leverage that advantage. Brands must understand that Chinese tourists could well become their best clients. The local clientele isn’t sustainable because the world is becoming more globalized.”
A big question for regional brands is how to cater to Chinese consumers and approach them in the right manner. “It’s about vision and strategy,” Siboni said. “Providing them with a unique experience will be key. In Paris, it’s about luxury and culture. Dubai, for instance, has to define its best strategy.”
According to a report issued by Dubai’s Department of Economic Development, the emirate currently hosts almost 19,000 Chinese investors, who hold close to 6,000 active business licenses. “It is true that you have to deal with partners you are not used to, but it’s a market that is extremely structured,” Siboni said. “You have a few players who own the game, so once you know how it works, then you’re in it.”
The McKinsey report detailed eight distinct segments of Chinese tourists, ranging from value-seeking sightseers and sophisticates to backpackers and shoppers. Whatever the segment, engaging with Chinese consumers will involve the use of popular technologies and communication tools, such as WeChat and Little Red Book for payment processes.
“It means you have to integrate a payment system that is digitalized,” Siboni said. “Alipay and WeChat Pay are tools that are non-negotiable. You need to integrate them with your business processes no matter what because, if you don’t, then even if customers come to you, they won’t be able to pay.”
Siboni urges a 360-degree vision to ensure that content o ered by brands in the Gulf region resonates with Chinese tourists. However, more work needs to be done regionally to keep pace with international consumer trends.
“Elsewhere in the region, attracting Chinese consumers is still not the top priority,” Siboni said. “But Dubai has already understood that it has to diversify, which is why you see increasing numbers of Chinese tourists.”
If people do learn more from traveling than from just reading, as the proverb suggests, then Chinese tourists have yet another incentive to make the Gulf region one of their favored destinations.