Indian Tourism Landscape – Spiritual and Religious Tourism
Spirituality is entrenched into the very core of Indian culture. The country is the destination of choice for many who embark on a journey of spiritual growth and enlightenment. The Beatles put India on the world map when they ventured to Rishikesh to learn Transcendental Meditation at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram back in 1968. Today, spiritual tourism is a growing industry, with travel companies and hotel chains beginning to recognise its immense potential and opportunities.
Spirituality is often confused with religion, with the words “spiritual” and “religion” often being used interchangeably. Spiritual tourism involves people traveling to places to find the meaning of life and attain inner peace through self-realisation and personal transformation; they may or may not follow a particular religion or faith. Rishikesh, McLeodganj, Varkala, Mount Arunachala, Auroville, Tiruvannamalai, Shirdi and Bodhgaya are some places people travel to for this purpose in the country. Religious tourism, on the other hand, involves devotees travelling individually or in groups to undertake pilgrimages or to visit temples and other places of worship. There are organised practices and rituals that followers are expected to adhere to. Amritsar, Ajmer, Fatehpur Sikri, Goa, Velankanni, Fort Kochi, Srirangam, Tirupati, Rameswaram, Thanjavur, Varanasi and Puri, to name a few, are popular for religious tourism in the country.
Evidently, India is dotted with spiritual and religious destinations, attracting tourists in large numbers each year, with the scales generally tipping in favour of the latter. The International Yoga Festival, held annually in Rishikesh, receives almost 2,000 participants from over a hundred countries. The Pushkar Fair (Rajasthan) attracts anywhere between 200,000-400,000 pilgrims over a two-week period every year. And, the Kumbh Mela, which is considered the largest conglomeration of religious pilgrims, witnesses millions in attendance. In fact, in 2013, numerous reports suggest that an estimated 120 million people visited the “Maha Kumbh Mela” in Allahabad over two months. While most of these fairs and festivals have a religious bent, they successfully attract international and domestic tourists in search of spirituality as well.
There are, however, many lesser known towns and cities in the country that are overshadowed by these popular religious and spiritual destinations. Add to this their poor accessibility, lack of infrastructure and ineffective marketing, many places in India still remain unexplored. Having said that, the renewed focus of the central government on tourism in general and spiritual tourism in specific, is promising. Funds have been allocated for the development of five spiritual tourist circuits and the Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spirituality Augmentation Drive. In addition, the Incredible India 2.0 campaign showcases India as a wellness and spiritual destination, promoting places such as Lahaul Spiti, famed for its monasteries, and Ayodhya, the setting of the epic Ramayana, apart from smaller cities like Rishikesh, Agra, Mathura-Vrindavan, Govardhan, Kanyakumari, Guwahati and Kurukshetra. While the campaign is certainly likely to enhance travel to these locales significantly, it brings us to another challenge; with so many tourists, is there adequate and quality accommodation for them to stay in?
One might expect the Indian hotel industry to be cashing in on this huge influx of current and anticipated visitors, but sadly, that is not the case yet. Hotel chains and organised travel companies have just recently begun targeting this massive untapped segment. Most of the aforementioned destinations still lack good quality hotel accommodation. For example, popular markets like Rameswaram and Srirangam have little to no branded hotel supply. The former now has the Hyatt Place, which was launched last year, while Srirangam, famed for its Ranganathaswamy Temple, has a Red Fox hotel on the outskirts of the town. Tirupati has a branded supply of approximately 550 rooms, while Varanasi has a little less than 400; this is surprising, as most branded hotels in Varanasi record occupancy north of 80% year-round, turning business away during festivals like Dev Deepavali. Also, interesting to note is that Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga and the Yoga Capital of the world, does not have a single branded hotel. Hence, there is a clear opportunity for companies to enter such virgin markets and capitalise on one of the most popular forms of tourism in the country. With visitors from all economic strata of the society travelling to these highly under-supplied cities, there is an enormous opportunity for branded hotels, especially in the budget and economy space, with some of the larger destinations having the ability to support higher-positioned hotels as well.
In closing, even as the government draws inspiration from Rome in Italy and Mecca in Saudi Arabia, we believe that India has a diverse range of spiritual and religious destinations that are worthy of being international landmarks and can increase the country’s tourism revenue significantly. However, this initiative needs an all-round thrust including proactive government policies, adequate infrastructure, quality accommodation and effective marketing at a macro level, and cleanliness, better safety and security and inclusion of the local community at the micro level.
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