Cox & Kings, which bills itself as the longest established travel company in the world, doesn’t want to over-promise the celebrities and heads of state you might meet on one of their customized luxury adventures. But somebody at the agency likely does know where the Dalai Lama is right now. If meeting him is on your bucket list, they’ll do what they can to make it happen.
That goes as well for just about anything you might want to do on a custom trip, especially if you’re booking with Cox & Kings USA, which focuses almost exclusively on personalizing luxury vacations and streamlining executive business travel. If you’d like an insider look at Machu Picchu, they’ll find a renowned archeologist to give you a tour; if you’d like to hang out with a fellow art collector over cocktails at their home in an exotic locale, they can plan that, too.
Some might find it surprising that Cox & Kings, which now does most of its business in India, began as an agent of the British army during the Crown’s campaign to colonize the Indian subcontinent.
Richard Cox, originally a secretary in the British army, started the business in 1758, when his boss appointed him the army company’s “agent.” At the time, agents were a key third-party to any British military unit, doing all the logistical work that keeps a regiment humming, including making sure soldiers got paid; sourcing clothes and weapons; managing the company band; handling the mail; and hunting down little luxuries requested by officers.
The clockwork efficiency of Cox’s agents was instrumental in helping the British Army occupy their colonial territories and negotiate among competing forces in those campaigns. When British East India Company mercenaries ransacked an Indian fortress using guns and supplies they stole from the British army, for instance, Cox negotiated reparations: The company agreed to pay for the guns.
In World War I, Cox & Kings — then called Cox & Co. — became a bank and insurance agency for British soldiers, taking their place as a cultural institution: It was in their vaults that Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ famed sidekick, kept his records of all the cases Holmes couldn’t solve.
The company kept expanding for several years, opening several offices in Egypt and what was then Burma. They became Cox & Kings in 1922, when they bought the Henry S. King Bank.
From the outside, the company seemed successful, but, having taken a hit when the war profits dried up, they were spreading themselves too thin. A year after buying the bank, the company sold to Lloyds Bank, the first of several changes in ownership and structure throughout the 20th century. Cox & Kings was sold separately from its banking interests, and so the company became solely an India-based travel agency and cargo transportation business with offices in London.
Despite the rocky finances, Cox & Kings stayed busy. In 1922, they arranged travel for the first Western expedition to Mount Everest, which traveled through India; in 1931, they planned Mahatma Gandhi’s trip to London to discuss a free India with the British government.
But overall, the company continued to flounder, and when Indian hotelier Ajit Kerkar bought a majority stake in Cox & Kings in 1980, it had dwindled to just a handful of clients. Kerkar put his son Peter, fresh from undergrad at Stanford, in charge of the business, which proved to be a wise move: He rapidly grew the company, doubling down on business and leisure travel and jettisoning the shipping division.
Kerkar has since expanded the company to two dozen countries over four continents. The core businesses are selling travel packages and arranging business travel, either directly or through travel agents; they also sell a variety of educational trip packages. Their American outpost specializes in luxury tours customized by one of their “destination specialists,” while their Indian offices market trips that fit a variety of budgets.
Throughout their history as a tour operator, Cox & Kings have prided themselves on offering unusual destinations — as with their military operations, they always manage to get the job done. For the right price, they’ll take you to pyramids in northern Sudan, monasteries in the shadows of the Himalayas, or ancient ruins in Iran, all in luxury and style — or as much luxury and style as a place can provide.
“For our clients, of course, safety is number one. And then number two would be comfort,” said Warren Chang, newly appointed COO of Cox & Kings USA. “As you can imagine, there aren’t the same caliber of hotels in Sudan currently, but that’s not stopping people from going.”
He does not, however, recommend you go to North Korea at this time.
Seeing the Profitable Niche
As with any company catering to tourists, Cox & Kings tends to smooth out the roughest edges of the countries they visit, including local tensions that simmer just beyond the edges of their luxury camps. The comfort they sell varies based on the buyer: For Westerners visiting far-away lands, the company presents a narrative of safe voyeurism, a peek into an exotic place without getting too close. For the Indian market, they are more likely to make the trip personal, whether it’s themed tours based on a popular Bollywood movie, or taking spiritual pilgrimages in style.
Seeing a potentially profitable niche and shifting to fill it has kept Cox & Kings alive for centuries, and let them expand to nearly every continent, including floating tours of Antarctica through a partnership with Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten. Like the empire out of which it was born, the sun never sets on the Cox & Kings territories.
The company hasn’t particularly shied away from its colonial past. In 2009, Cox & Kings expanded its American business, originally opened in 1989, by acquiring boutique travel agency East India Travel Company. The company has helped them shore up their custom luxury programs, which are mostly sold either through a travel agent or through Condé Nast’s Voyages program, “a curated collection of customizable itineraries from the editors of Condé Nast Traveler.”
Many of these luxury trips offer facetime with a local as entertainment. The Condé Nast safari in Botswana, for instance, invites travelers to “enjoy a morning walk to learn the way of life of local Zu/’hoasi Bushmen trackers,” while Cox & Kings’ suggested itinerary for its Kenyan safari offers “authentic encounters with a Maasai tribe, a world unchanged by the passage of time.” The schedule allots three days to the Ol Donyo Lodge in Chyulu Hills, southeast of Nairobi to spy on a long list of animals, including elephants, impala, lions, cheetahs, giraffes, and wildebeests.
“Members of the Maasai tribe also live here, sharing the land with local conservation efforts,” the brochure continues. Safari-goers then travel to the Mara Plains Camp, in the 583-square-mile Masai Mara Reserve, during which they can “roam the reserve, together with hundreds of other species,” as well as “embark on authentic visits to local villages.”
The Maasai are a group of nomadic herding tribes who eke out a living in what are now Kenya and Tanzania. Beginning with the arrival of Europeans and continuing with subsequent kleptocratic governments, the tribes have lost much of the land they once laid claim to, hemmed into progressively smaller reservations to make room for white colonial settlers and, later, wildlife reserves.
The interplay between East African pastoral tribes and Western conservationism is morally complex, where the needs of poor nomadic peoples don’t often align with the needs of species on the verge of extinction. Western conservationists still stand in the shadow of a brutal colonial legacy. For all of Cox & Kings’ romanticizing, chopping up herdland has drastically altered the nomadic way of life. In recent years, severe drought in East Africa has driven many nomadic people onto private and protected lands in search of grass and water.
Fraught locales mean challenges to tourism, luxury or not. Earlier this year, armed nomads herded 135,000 cattle onto private reserves in Kenya (none that Cox & Kings works with). Several people have been killed, including a British conservationist who ran a luxury horseback safari tour company. He was shot by herdsman who were burning tourist lodges and slaughtering lions, zebras, and elephants on his land.
Providing Creature Comforts
Your best bet to meet the Dalai Lama, for the record, is asking Cox & Kings to book you a trip to Chamba Camp Thiksey and Chamba Camp Diskit, seasonal luxury tent cities in Ladakh, the Buddhist-majority region of Jammu and Kashmir. This is one of the toughest places in the world to survive, but even here, Cox & Kings doesn’t ask clients to give up any creature comforts.
This is glamping as imagined by Elizabeth Taylor: Guests stay in climate-controlled tents with chandeliers and four-posters, are attended to by a private butler, eat lavish meals, read in the library, and watch locals play polo on steppe ponies.
Cox & Kings CEO Peter Kerkar visited in 2016 for lunch with the Dalai Lama. “You get to meet many people in life, but there are very few who you can actually feel are holy, who embody something that is otherworldly,” he later explained to Cox & Kings’ branded magazine, Compass. “Spending even that short amount of time with him was a deeply profound experience.”
The land is owned by the 15th-century Thiksey monastery, which overlooks the Thiksey camp, and leased out to luxury tent hotel company The Ultimate Travelling Camp. The arrangement serves both as a job creator — locals grow flowers to decorate the camp, and organic vegetables to feed the guests — and as a source of support for the isolated monks, who struggle to bring new recruits to the ascetic lifestyle.
It was Thiksey Khenpo Rinpoche, the head Lama of the monastery, and a good friend of the Dalai Lama’s, who approached the glamping organization in 2013 with a deal on 28 acres, tucked between the Himalayas and the Karakoram Mountains. The partnership has since begun a second yearly camp, accessed over a harrowing mountain road in an air-conditioned vehicle. Cox & Kings arranges travel to and from Delhi, and between the two sister camps.
“I wish only to raise consciousness globally about Thiksey,” Thiksey Khenpo Rinpoche, head Lama of the monestary, told travel site DestiAsian in 2014, when the camp first opened. “This allows us to stand on our own resources and provides good jobs for local Ladakhis.”
Cox & Kings clients can connect with the Dalai Lama in other ways — in the sample itinerary for travelers headed to the Himalayas, guests are encouraged to “immerse [themselves] in the religion that animates the ancient land of Tibet” by exploring both of the Dalai Lama’s summer and winter palaces. The trip costs around $6,780, not including getting there or flights during the trip, including a morning of helicoptering around Mount Everest and flying back and forth between Kathmandu, Nepal, and Lhasa, Tibet.
Internet for an Icon
As helicopters have revolutionized the way tourists can climb Mount Everest, the internet has changed the way they find the chopper in the first place.
CoxandKings.com goes directly to the company’s Indian site, which functions like a regular travel site, allowing users to book hotels, car rentals, flights, and other basics; travelers can also book specialty trips, including learning to dive off Sri Lanka and cycling through Bhutan. The trips are startlingly cheap — $1,250 for seven days in Bhutan, $1,455 for five days in Sri Lanka — although many of them are open only to Indian nationals. In keeping with the bespoke focus, the American site only offers descriptions and phones of the available journies, and an option to request information.
Cox & Kings has used the internet for some clever cash raising, as in 2015, when they bought UK-based hotel booking site LateRooms for $10.9 million and then, six months later, sold it for $25.8 million. More recently, they bought a 50 percent stake in startup WeAreHolidays, which allows shoppers to shop between different travel packages.
The company also just launched a website, Enable Travel, which connects disabled travelers to accessible hotels and attractions — no more calling and finding out if a hotel is wheelchair accessible, or if a tourist attraction is outfitted to allow guide dogs.
The Tricky Balance
Online or off, packaging and selling authentic experiences of obscure places and communities around the world is a tricky business, especially when those same places come to rely on that income that tourism brings. A balance has to be struck between being intrusive enough to provide a positive experience for guests while not intruding too much.
Having profited immensely, Cox & Kings also takes some responsibility for the communities that serve as the backdrops for their trips. After an April 2015 earthquake triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest that killed 9,000 people, the company both donated relief money and returned to the area as soon as possible, a necessary rebound for the wounded economy. But their cultural voyeurism hasn’t always been welcomed, even when it brings influxes of cash.
In 2001, they earned the ire of Hindu holy men when they pioneered the concept of renting out luxury tents at the Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious festival. As 40 million Hindus gathered on the banks of the Ganges for a sin-cleansing dip, Western journalists and celebrities (supposedly including Sharon Stone and Madonna) camped out in the Cox & Kings tents to drink Evian water and watch the festival.
A group of ascetics from the Naga sect, formed to ward off the influences of Islam and Buddhism, had a sit-in demanding Cox & Kings close up shop, over claims that the encampment was serving meat and alcohol, both banned at the festival. The sect — whose members go naked, their bodies smeared only in ash, and smoke marijuana religiously — is the first group to bathe in the river during the festival, a right they protect fiercely. Festival officials at the time showed concerns they might turn that energy on the Western encroachment.
“The Nagas are locked in a stand-off with the local administration which could prove unpleasant as they are highly aggressive,” Pratap Somvanshi, a festival representative, told the Telegraph. The organizers eventually told the travel company to roll up their tents, but Cox & Kings sued, and managed to ride out the length of the festival with the question of closure tied up in court.
Risks and the Thrills
When traveling to exotic locales, tourists have to worry about more than stepping on local toes. Every location offers dangers, whether minor or serious. Cox & Kings destination experts keep an eye on potential risks from the land or sea. The threat of terrorism, especially, looms large in several Cox & Kings destinations. But, the company finds, clients are often willing to take risks. And since its inception, Cox & Kings has never shied away from helping adventurers to do so.
“With today’s world, terrorism and the threat of personal danger is ever present — it almost doesn’t matter if you’re in some remote African location or, unfortunately, if you’re in Paris,” said Chang, COO of Cox & Kings USA. Of course, that doesn’t mean they want clients to take unnecessary risks, and they prioritize making sure everyone makes it home in one piece. They also, of course, want happy customers.
“If we’re catering to our luxury clientele and the hotel and guide experience are not what they would expect, then we would shy away from offering that destination,” Chang said.
He went on to clarify, though, that some of their high-net-worth clients were willing to rough it for a unique experience. In the last year, for instance, they’ve begun running popular trips to Chad, despite an underdeveloped luxury hotel industry. They also run trips to northern Sudan, which boasts more pyramids than in all of Egypt. But what about a luxury client who wanted to travel to other parts of Sudan, where the security situation is more unstable?
“I’m not sure we’ve had a request for Darfur yet,” Chang said. But “when there is terrorism of some sort, we don’t get a lot of calls to the office saying, ‘What do we do?’ It’s become more of the norm.”
Yet Cox & Kings does require that clients carry travel insurance. And even if travelers are willing to take risks looking for that perfect vacation experience, insurance companies may not be so enthusiastic.
New European package travel laws require tour operators to offer refunds if there’s any dramatic change in circumstances. Underwriters, already risk-averse, particularly detest avoidable, well-labeled dangers. In the last few years, British travel advisories have forced the cancellation of Cox & Kings tours to Gaza, Nepal, Ethiopia, and Syria.
The travel insurance policy recommended by Cox & Kings USA is fairly generous, covering cancellations for everything from natural disasters, like a volcanic eruption or an earthquake, to personal crises like a divorce or jury duty. (It does, however, exclude pre-existing conditions, including having a baby after nine months of pregnancy and booking an island getaway after the National Hurricane Center forecasts a relevant hurricane.)
But U.S. clients make up only a small portion of Cox & Kings group tours, where travelers buy a spot on a pre-planned vacation; most of their American efforts focus on custom trips for individuals. The company returned to Iran in 2016, after halting trips to the country in 2011. After President Trump’s travel ban, Iran’s cancellation of American visas forced many agencies to cancel trips. Instead, Cox & Kings doubled down on promoting the destination, which they had previously declared one of the hottest trends in travel.
Having established itself in the British colonial era, Cox & Kings enjoys a prominent spot in Indian culture. It’s a mutual relationship: Cox & Kings India is the largest part of the global brand, and makes up 66 percent of its revenue. The tours targeted to middle class Indians don’t share quite the same rose-tinted sentiment as those that bring Westerners to Africa: In an IndiaToday article about how to see tigers before they go extinct, Karan Anand, head of relationships at Cox & Kings India, suggested going during monsoon season for good deals. They also often emphasize value, rather than catering to a clientele for whom money isn’t really a concern.
The company has also earned significant goodwill through the Cox & Kings Foundation, which partners with NGOs around India on charitable projects such as helping poor women in Mumbai set up and start using debit cards, which are a much more secure than keeping cash in their homes in the slums. The foundation also recently helped open a school for poor children in Pune.
For those looking for a pilgrimage, rather than a tourist attraction, Cox & Kings has a number of spiritual holidays targeted primarily at Indians, including a ten-day trip to Tibet’s Mount Kailash, home of Lord Shiva and a holy site for three religions. That costs pilgrims around $2,500, not including a flight to Lucknow airport in Northern India. It’s an accessible luxury.
Creating Space for the Important Things
It’s difficult to define authenticity in a globalized world. When Cox & Kings writes a description of the Masaai people, and refers to their culture as unchanged by the modern world, they’re following a narrative that has been firmly entrenched by Rudyard Kipling poems and National Geographic photospreads. And what customer would want them to tell a messier truth? Luxurious experiences are sold as a getaway from your own problems.
But authenticity is their business, and the company’s vacations maintain a commitment to the extremes of high-end however they can, through partnerships and licensing deals. They’re still finding more niches to fill. The company has recently appointed new leadership to Cox & Kings USA, tasked with building brand recognition in the luxury market. The company also just launched a website, Enable Travel, focused on connecting disabled travelers to accessible hotels and attractions — no more calling and finding out if a hotel is wheelchair accessible, or if a tourist attraction is outfitted to allow guide dogs.
Cox & Kings, ultimately, is a problem-solving middleman, whether it’s for militaries, dignitaries, or vacationing CEOs. The business is based on negotiating the necessary, difficult details of booking a hotel and finding a guide who speaks the local language, of knowing how to flag down a taxi and how to ship luggage someplace without a UPS store. They create space for the important things, the real reasons for traveling, whether it’s negotiating the end of colonialism, as in Gandhi’s case, or lunching with a holy man. You just need a true purpose and proper funding, and they’ll help make it happen.
UPDATE: Cox & Kings says it is the longest established travel company in the world, not the oldest tour operator.