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Mumbai tops must-see list

TODAY's Peter Greenberg reports from a trip to city formerly known as Bombay.

Here’s the bad news: The drive from the airport into Mumbai, India can sometimes take three hours. And, once there, the traffic get worse.

Now the good news: You still need to go there, and the sooner the better. The country is experiencing near double-digit economic growth. And expansion and construction sites are virtually everywhere. It has an amazing train system.

More and more airlines are flying there. More hotels and resorts are being built. Beach areas are being developed.

Welcome to India, on the top of my list of must-experience, affordable and accessible destinations.

Ever hear of Jet Airways? Kingfisher? Both are relatively new airlines offering great affordable service to and within India.

How about hotel rooms for $75 a night on the beach? And then there’s connectivity. India is now a wired nation — and a wireless one. Each month, more than seven million new cellphone numbers are issued. That’s right, seven million.

Of course, there’s the infrastructure — the sheer size of the country can be daunting, especially the condition of the roads. But no problem — smart travelers pack light and take the train. And for longer journeys, the plane.

And the plane offers some surprises. Recently I took a flight on Jet Airways (it has more than 300 flights daily to 44 destinations in India and Europe) between Delhi and Mumbai, a flight lasting barely more than 90 minutes. It was a 737, densely packed with passengers. And then, the meal service: linen tablecloths and a three-course meal on chin

Boats sail during an international boat show in Mumbai February 25, 2007. REUTERS/Prashanth Vishwanathan (INDIA)Stringer/india / X01242

a. In coach!

That was my introduction to Mumbai, formerly Bombay.

Mumbai has a fascinating history. The Portuguese gave it away in the 17th century. The British inherited it and leased it out for just 10 pounds a year to a private firm, the East India Company. And that company transformed Bombay into the trading headquarters for the west coast of the country.

And it’s been that way ever since.

Service in India is intoxicating. You will be spoiled to the point of not being happy anywhere else in the world. There is no language problem. If you want it, it will be provided — from great shopping to every kind of food (at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai, my recommendation is Wasabi, a world class sushi restaurant).

In a three-day trip, I hit the Chor and Zaveri bazaars (no reason NOT to do your Christmas shopping early). The Chor (“thieves market” is a wild circus of shops, mosques, temples, narrow streets and very cool stuff: antiques, clocks, brass lamps, and furniture. (Tip: Don’t go on Fridays. Most of the bazaar is closed). Looking for bling? Zaveria bazaar is loaded with gold, silver and jewelry workshops.

Perhaps the most surprising development in Indian tourism is that the country has quietly (and now proactively) become one of a number of countries (including Argentina and Thailand) actively promoting itself as a dedicated destination for medical tourism. Surgery ranging from hip replacements and heart surgery to kidney transplants offered in state of the art hospitals, with a pre- or post-operative vacation thrown in — for one third to one fourth the cost of the operation back in the United States.

And the numbers keep growing. As well as the tourists. And where are the travelers coming from? The number of American visitors is slowly growing. But the real tourism push is regional. Consider this: Two years ago, the number of weekly flights between China and India was eight. Today, there are more than 58!

Remember, that’s just regional tourism. Now, imagine what those flight connections will be like 18 months from now.

And a modified government open-skies policy is making more and more flights from the U.S. —and routes — possible. In the U.S. Continental, American and Delta each fly nonstops to India. And more flights are being planned.

Bottom line: If you can live with the traffic — and yes, it is a challenge — India is worth a visit now. Again, take trains and planes and see a country that is at a delicate, threshold moment of travel and tourism— where service and attitude have not yet been destroyed by further development.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY's travel editor. His column appears weekly on Visit his Web site at