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TODAY’S TOPIC: Asian Indians Operate 28 Percent of U.S. Hotels and Motels

June 11, 1985

SPARKS, Ga. (AP) _ As the sun sinks over a pine forest, Jayram Patel sits at the front desk of his brick motel, awaiting the weary travelers who pull off busy Interstate 75.

Armed with a master’s degree and an entrepreneurial spirit, Patel left his native India in 1971. He worked as a chemist in New Jersey and Tennessee until he had saved enough money to buy the Sparks Inn in 1979.

″The first year was a little disappointing,″ said Patel, noting that he and his wife, Nila, sometimes had to work 24 hours a day while building a reliable staff of 15. ″If the cook doesn’t show up, you have to be a cook. You’ve got to be prepared for everything.″

The Patels, seeking what he described as ″better opportunity,″ and their fellow Indian immigrants have found a niche in the motel business.

Indians in large numbers began entering the United States from Canada, England and Africa in the early 1970s. Unlike some other immigrants, they had cash to invest. At the same time, the Arab oil embargo had cut down on holiday driving in the United States.

Many American motel owners sold their slumping businesses to the Indians, who were looking for businesses they could learn quickly.

According to one estimate, about 15,000, or 28 percent, of the nation’s 53,629 motels and hotels are owned by Indians or people of Indian descent.

″They just got in at the right time and began helping relatives,″ said Thomas Abraham, president of the New York-based National Federation of Asian Indian Organizations in America. He’s compiled a list of Indian businesses in the United States.

Although only 16,000 Indians entered the United States between 1871 and 1965, their numbers surged from 107,000 to 361,544 between 1973 and 1980, according to Abraham. By the end of this year, he said, 500,000 Indians are expected to immigrate to the United States.

Asian Indians currently have the highest per-capita income of all ethnic groups in the country, said Abraham.

Because of their traditional emphasis on education, many Indians work as college professors, engineers and scientists, but thousands have put their degrees aside to be innkeepers in rural towns like Sparks, a south Georgia farm community of 1,300 that Patel calls slow to accept newcomers.

″They’re very conservative people,″ Patel said. ″They don’t like too much foreigners. They don’t even like people from North Carolina.″

Thousands of the Indian motel owners have the same surname, Patel, but are not necessarily related, according to Abraham, who joked that ″the Patels own more motels than Hilton and Sheraton combined.″

Patel is a caste name for a Hindu business class in Gujarat, a state in western India known for its merchant-entrepreneurs.

Although Indian innkeepers are found in nearly every state, many have settled in California and in the Southeast because of the warm climate.

″We are warm blooded people,″ said Kiran R. Patel, the Oxford-educated owner of a 50-room motel in Athens. ″Most of us have had enough of that miserable weather up North.″

Nizar Motani, an owner of the 151-room Sheraton Motel in Albany, the largest city in southwest Georgia, said many people in India, influenced by movies and television programs, view the United States as a land of ″golden opportunity.″

″People have an image of America as a place they should go to improve their lot,″ said Motani, a former college professor whose Indian grandparents settled in East Africa in the 1890s.

″There’s no doubt in my mind that America is the greatest country in the world. Those of us who are here should consider ourselves very fortunate.″

Kiran Patel said Indians enter the motel business because it doesn’t require a lot of experience, the entire family can participate and they often can secure assistance from the seller in buying the property.

″Indians are hard workers,″ he said. ″Families play an important role in making a success of it.″

Among Georgia’s 4,347 Asian Indians in 1980, an estimated 200 to 250 were listed as working in the motel business. In Albany, which has at least three Indian-owned motels, they have formed the India Sports Club and regularly play cricket at the local junior college. On holidays, the local Indian Association, made up mostly of motel owners and their families within a 100- mile radius of Albany, meets for special celebrations.

Jayram Patel pointed out that nearly every exit of Interstate 75 in Georgia has an Indian motel owner. A major link between the U.S. heartland and the Florida beaches, I-75 is among the busiest interstates in the nation.

Jayram Patel has furnished his 80-room motel in a rustic style that complements the pine forests and tobacco fields that dot the south Georgia landscape.

″We do fairly good. Once you know everything, it’s easy,″ he said, noting that he hopes eventually to buy a bigger motel near a city. ″The profits are better than any other business.″

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