KARNAI FAMILY TAKES ON THE WORLD
From house-boating in Kashmir to award-winning tours of India, the Karnai family’s formulation for travel success continues as they showcase some of the best the world has to offer.
After fifteen plus years catering world class tours to India, Explore India’s founder and president, Nazir Karnai, is taking the family business to the next level with Explore World Journeys. The genesis of this move has been a longtime in the making and is being realized with exciting tours to Africa, Europe, Asia as well as Australia, New Zealand, and more…
To learn more about Explore World Journeys and all the fabulous new tours we are offering CLICK HERE
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IT ALL BEGAN MORE THAN 95 YEARS AGO
Although Nazir Karnai and the Karnai family’s Explore India Journeys Inc. has been a successful Canadian touring company for nearly fifteen years, the history of the Karnai family in the tourism industry dates all the way back to more than ninety-five years ago in the beautiful Indian state of Kashmir.
Often referred to as ‘the Switzerland of the East’ Kashmir is known for its breathtaking views, serene lakes, and incredible mountain scenery. Nearly 12.5 million people populate the area of Kashmir which is approximately 135 kilometers long and 32 km wide. While Kashmir’s economy is centered on agriculture, it is also famous for cashmere and Kashmiris make and manufacture some of the best woolens in the world. Similarly, there are many expert crafters and artisans in Kashmir who make pashminas, silk carpets, rugs, and pottery and knitting is a common skill amongst both the young and old. Also, a major producer of the rare and delicate saffron, Kashmir cuisine showcases this spice in many of their local dishes along with other Indian favourites like ginger, cardamom, fennel, cinnamon and cloves. Kashmir is also known to be one of the oldest centres of tourism in the world and one can see why with its beautiful mountains, lakes and gardens. For over 100 years, Kashmiris have greeted and housed curious foreigners who sought long summer stays in the exotic and tropical Kashmir, one of India’s most stunningly beautiful regions.
THE EARLY DAYS OF THE KARNAI FAMILY LEGACY
Dating all the way back to the late 1800’s, the Karnai family has always called Kashmir home. Generations upon generations of the family lived and worked in Kashmir and were almost all exclusively in the tourism industry. It all started with a very determined young Karnai man, Mr. Rafiq Karnai, who saw that people were interested in coming to Kashmir to enjoy the weather and scenery but they had very few places to stay while they visited the area. At the time, Kashmir was ruled by the local maharaja, or ‘King of Kashmir’ as he was then referred to, and he decreed that no foreign person could own land in Kashmir. This posed quite a problem for visitors to the area, especially the British, because there really weren’t that many places one could stay even for a short while, let alone to take up residence to enjoy a long summer vacation.
With the lack of hotels and places to stay, the British started to look at ways they could just stay on the lakes as there were no strict rules relating to housing on Kashmir’s scenic and tranquil waters. It was the British who first set up houseboats as hotels and dwellings on both Dal and Nageen Lake and the idea of setting up houseboats for visitors as well as residences for the people of the area was welcomed. It wasn’t long before many Kashmiris were seeing the opportunity of owning a home but for Mr. Karnai, it was also the opportunity to start a business venture too.
At the young age of seventeen, Mr. Rafiq Karnai, Nazir’s great grandfather, purchased a two-bedroom houseboat that he named ‘Eagle’. The name reflected the powerful bird as it soared in abundance amidst the waters of Lake Dal in Srinagar. Eagle, and other houseboats in Kashmir during this period, were not your ordinary houseboats as we know them today. Known as ‘shikara’ in India, these houseboats, which date back to the early 1900’s, are beautifully carved wooden boats adorned with the most exquisite and intricately carved wood paneling. Made of local cedar wood and bamboo, the boats are typically 60-70 feet long and feature bedrooms, a kitchen, ample living space, and all the amenities to make living on a houseboat quite comfortable. With the outside porch space being one of the best views from the boats, there is room to enjoy the tranquility of this sub-tropical part of India aboard a houseboat, whether it is stationary or not.
With the idea of using his newly bought houseboat as a business venture, Mr. Karnai senior took the necessary steps to be able to house guests to Kashmir. Eagle was transformed into an elegant houseboat with luxuries that made it an accommodation of choice amongst foreigners. The visitors who came were mainly British tourists and high-ranking officers who enjoyed short-term holiday stays on the houseboat, however, there were also many long-term vacations stays that saw guests stay through the entire summer. The floating homes on water were a unique feature and with luxury amenities similar to many of the best hotels of the time, people would book quite early in the season to secure their summer vacation on Eagle. Little did Mr. Karnai senior know that he was beginning a tradition in the hospitality and tourism industry that would span generations of the Karnai family for generations to come.
FAMILY TRADITIONS PASSED ON
In 1927 Nazir’s great grandfather married and two years later they had a son. Rehman Karnai was raised on another houseboat right beside the luxury guest boat Eagle. Learning the art of hospitality from his father, Nazir’s grandfather enjoyed the comings and goings of the guests which stayed on Eagle. In addition to attending school, he would help his father greet guests as well as prepare the houseboat for new arrivals. Because telephone calls were so expensive, part of Mr. Karnai’s work to help his father was to receive telegram messages of reservation requests and incoming new guests too. It was all very exciting to receive telegrams requesting long stays such as this one collected from the archives of the family reservation book:
SIR JOHN SMITH ARRIVING ON FEB TWO (STOP) PICK UP AT BORDER – (STOP)- 30 DAY STAY ON EAGLE HOUSEBOAT -(STOP)-
Eventually, Nazir’s grandfather joined the family business full-time and, as time went by, he passed down the traditions of the business to his own son, Rahim Karnai, who was born in 1948. With Nazir’s father being very busy now as he was at the helm of the family business, Nazir remembers spending a lot of time with his grandfather. A small boy at the time, Nazir has fond memories of his grandfather who entertained him with colourful stories of people from faraway lands who journeyed great distances to be able to enjoy Kashmir while staying on Eagle. With the Karnai men teaching Nazir at a very young age, the stage was set for Nazir to also become a part of the family’s tourism legacy.
“I too, in turn, grew up on the houseboat and was exposed to people of different cultures from around the world. I could not have asked for a better childhood nor a better informal education on how best to meet the needs of travelers.” Nazir Karnai
MAHARAJA GARDEN – SECOND KARNAI HOUSEBOAT
When Nazir’s father purchased a second boat in 1966, it completely opened the door for their business to flourish amidst the growing interest in foreigners wanting to travel to India. Their new boat was named Maharaja Garden and cost only 8000 rupees which is approximately $180 Canadian dollars today. Although quite an investment at the time, the family was proud of their father who was committed to expanding the business and creating opportunities for his family as well as others in the area too. Similarly, with great anticipation of the transformation of Maharaja Garden, their business thrived as they had built a business based on referrals of overjoyed travelers who raved about the Karnai’s luxury houseboat stays as well as the fabulous service they received while in Kashmir.
Being raised so close to the business gave young Nazir the opportunity to not only learn about the house-boating business but he also learned the art of being successful in the hospitality industry. With years of grooming to succeed in the tourism industry in India, Nazir remembers all the lessons that his elders bestowed upon him and his four brothers as they were growing up. However, one of the most important things he remembers from these early teachings from his father was that the people coming to stay on Eagle and Maharaja Garden were not to be referred to as tourists rather they were guests of the family and, essentially, like a part of the family.
This ancient philosophy of the ultimate in kindness translates to the Indian saying of “Atihi Devo Bhava” or the guest is like God, which has also remained a mission statement within both the house-boating business, the Karnai family hotels, as well as their award-winning tour company Explore India Journeys Inc.
Now, years later with Nazir, Manzoor, and the other Karnai brothers running the family business, they have a fleet of houseboats as well as hotels, touring agencies, and the successful Vancouver based Explore India Tour Company. Most recently, the company has expanded to include destinations all over the world with their new venture, Explore World Journeys. They attribute their success to the seed which was planted nearly 95 years ago with the purchase of their first houseboat.