New Delhi: Many visitors in India head for big-name draws like the Taj Mahal. But now tourism officials are touting rustic activities like yak-herding, shawl -making and boat-building, promising visitors a slice of “the real India".

“Rural tourism offers a unique experience, and there is an authenticity about what you see… You’re seeing what life in that particular village is really like," said Leena Nandan, joint secretary at the ministry of tourism.

The ‘real India’: The new focus is on providing an authentic experience.

In an India growing sleeker by the minute, with cows replaced by cars and street peddlers by malls, officials are doing their best to assure foreigners that an “authentic" Indian experience can still be had. Even the ubiquitous “Incredible India" campaign reflects the shift in marketing; one sign in New Delhi’s international airport assures travellers that washing machines might get their clothes clean but don’t make for good photos—the advertisement shows colourful saris drying on steps.

Now, through an overhaul of the website, the ministry of tourism and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are focusing on rural tourism as a means to generate employment and promote sustainable livelihoods in India’s villages.

In the past five years, “there’s been a huge shift in tourist interests from the back of the bus, five-star tour to something interactive," said Sudhir Sahi, a UNDP national consultant.

Tourists want genuine experiences, said Nicole Patel, a former project officer and marketing coordinator for a rural tourism project in Hodka, Gujarat. “I think people are really tired of just going somewhere like a beach and being served in a western way."

Patel, who worked at Hodka’s Shaam-e-Sarhad Rural Resort until June, said about 70% of the visitors are Indian and 30% are foreigners. Patel predicted that more foreigners will come to the area due to a combination of rural tourism’s popularity growth and recent marketing campaigns.

The website lays out the rural attractions of 15 locations (21 more will be added in the next six months). Users can search by craft or region. In addition, there are email addresses through which potential guests can enquire about accommodation, guides and activities. They are promised a response in 6-12 hours, said Sahi. In 2005, when the website first launched, it was just a listing and unable to be searched, he added.

In places such as Samode, in Rajasthan’s Jaipur district, visitors can book home stays with local artisans. Handicrafts include stonework, jewellery and painting. Accommodation and meals run to about Rs400-600 per day, said Sahi.

Tourism remains a booming business in India. According to Sahi, India received 4.19 million visitors from overseas in 2006 and has experienced a 15% growth over the past year. According to the ministry of tourism, the total foreign exchange earnings in the first 10 months of 2006 was more than $5 billion (almost Rs20,000 crore).

The ministry of tourism has allotted Rs50 lakh per site for infrastructure, including sanitation, sewage systems, repair of roads and illumination, said the ministry’s Nandan.

UNDP has allocated $3.5 million to the project from 2003-2008, with funds going towards activities like training in visitor handling, advocacy to communities on the importance of the project and marketing to tourists. Sahi said approximately Rs42-45 lakh will be spent on marketing the programme, targeting both nationals and foreigners.

J.K. Malhotra, owner of Malhotra World Travels, a Delhi-based company that arranges tours and hotel bookings for foreigners, said very few tourists know or go to the locations that are on the website.

“I think more and more tourists will want to go to these places if there are more advertisements," said Malhotra.

Sarah Wiles, a tourist from Los Angeles, California, who was visiting New Delhi this week, said she mostly visits places in her guidebook, which focuses on larger cities. “I would love to go into the rural areas and see what life is like there," said the 24-year-old . “I just didn’t know it was possible."

While there is no typical rural tourist, said Sahi, many are often on their second or third trip to India. They have seen the major tourist sties and want to dig a little deeper, he said. Another segment includes nationals and foreigners who have a taste for something different and want an interactive experience.

Said Sahi: “The heart of India still lies in the villages."