"Lonely Planet effect" sparks omelette war in India

JODHPUR, India Thu Apr 5, 2007 5:10am EDT

Ramkishan Gawlani, an omelette shop owner, gestures during an interview with Reuters at his shop in Jodhpur March 9, 2007. Gawlani weeps over his frying pan as he explains how the Lonely Planet guidebook changed his life when it began listing his omelette stall in the west Indian city of Jodhpur. For 24 years he cooked mostly meat, rice, lentils and only the occasional omelette before Lonely Planet unexpectedly renamed his business ''The Omelette Shop'' in its listing. Suddenly business was booming, and Gawlani's new, foreign clientele only wanted one thing -- so he scrapped his old menu, and reckons he now cracks open about 1,000 eggs a day. REUTERS/Tanushree Punwani

Ramkishan Gawlani, an omelette shop owner, gestures during an interview with Reuters at his shop in Jodhpur March 9, 2007. Gawlani weeps over his frying pan as he explains how the Lonely Planet guidebook changed his life when it began listing his omelette stall in the west Indian city of Jodhpur. For 24 years he cooked mostly meat, rice, lentils and only the occasional omelette before Lonely Planet unexpectedly renamed his business ''The Omelette Shop'' in its listing. Suddenly business was booming, and Gawlani's new, foreign clientele only wanted one thing -- so he scrapped his old menu, and reckons he now cracks open about 1,000 eggs a day.

Credit: Reuters/Tanushree Punwani

JODHPUR, India (Reuters Life!) - Ramkishan Gawlani weeps over his frying pan as he explains how the Lonely Planet guidebook changed his life when it began listing his omelette stall in the west Indian city of Jodhpur.

"I used to be poor. I used to drink all day. I was tense and frustrated," said 60-year-old Gawlani, recalling the slow years before the listing in 1999.

"Now I'm relaxed," he said, even though the scores of guidebook-toting tourists squatting on plastic stools by his stall keep him pinned to his stove for most of the day.

Ideally, guidebooks try to unobtrusively nudge tourists towards the authentic sights and pleasures of a destination. In reality they have the power to transform almost anything they touch, especially in places popular with backpackers.

In Gawlani's case, the change was particularly dramatic. For 24 years he cooked mostly meat, rice, lentils and only the occasional omelette before Lonely Planet unexpectedly renamed his business "The Omelette Shop" in its listing.

Suddenly business was booming, and Gawlani's new, foreign clientele only wanted one thing -- so he scrapped his old menu, and reckons he now cracks open about 1,000 eggs a day. "I have a lot of respect from people in Jodhpur now," he said.

Except, he adds, from the city's other, less feted omelette sellers, most of whom got into the omelette business only after Lonely Planet created an appetite. Gawlani said jealous rivals had tried to bribe local authorities to put him out of business.

"They are my enemies," he said, his eyes welling up again.

A few footsteps away across the marketplace stands Gawlani's arch-nemesis, 20-year-old Vicky Chouhan, who is annoyed that his smaller stall is dismissed by the Lonely Planet as an imitation.

"He is not a nice person and I don't like him," Chouhan said, glaring at his busy competitor. "He says bad things about me."

BACKLASH

The Lonely Planet guide to India has sold over a million copies since 1981, its Australia-based publisher said.

But many backpackers say they have conflicting emotions about the thick paperbacks that send thousands of them shuffling around the same sights and sleeping and eating in the same hotels and restaurants every year.

They say they would be lost without guidebook recommendations. But at the same time many worry they are not having the authentic, off-the-beaten-track experiences that they took a long-haul flight to find.

"I think people are overdependent on it," said tourist Daniel Kirchner, 32, between mouthfuls of Gawlani's specialty, a 20-rupee (50 U.S. cents) toasted cheese omelette sandwich.

Indeed, Chouhan's rival omelette stall seems to be benefiting from a kind of Lonely Planet backlash, with some backpackers deliberately snubbing the guidebook's advice and submitting to Chouhan's boyish smile and confident patter.

"I've always gone with the underdog," said Israeli tourist Aviv Krasucky as he ordered a Chouhan omelette.

Tony Wheeler, Lonely Planet's co-founder, told Reuters in an email the company tried to responsibly handle its "disproportionate" influence in places like India.

"We tell our writers never to be over-enthusiastic -- his omelettes are not so superb that you must eat his alone, forsaking all others," he said.

"To some extent the problem is self-correcting. If the star omelette maker gets lazy and lets his standards slip, well next edition he goes out and the harder-working competition gets in."

So there is hope yet for Chouhan. But for now, Gawlani remains Jodhpur's omelette king.

He makes enough money to save at least 1,000 rupees a month, and his new-found peace of mind has helped him quit drinking and become a vegan, in keeping with his religious beliefs.

Gawlani, who serves omelettes in more than a dozen different ways, hasn't eaten an egg in years.

($=42.9 Indian rupees)

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