Home / Industry / Retail /  Spiritual tourism picks up as restrictions end

NEW DELHI : As places of worship across the country open up, hotels and travel companies are upbeat about the return of business from spiritual tourism.

Demand for travel is rising for destinations like Shirdi, Vrindavan, Ajmer and Bodh Gaya, among others, as pilgrims lock dates to visit temples and religious cities.

Firms like MakeMyTrip, Sarovar Hotels, Indian Hotels Company Ltd (IHCL) that manages a portfolio of hotels, resorts, palaces, under different brands, Thomas Cook and Lemon Tree Hotels are expecting April-July to be positive months for business from religious tourism across the country. Some companies are seeing upwards of 80% occupancy in their hotels across locations.

Online travel agency MakeMyTrip said religious cities are picking up with locations like Mathura, Haridwar, Puri, Varanasi and Pushkar seeing a steady increase in tourists.

Puneet Chhatwal, MD & CEO of the Indian Hotels Company said spiritual tourism is crisis-resistant unless authorities shut down these places like they did during a pandemic. "It (religious tourism) is a massive business. We are going to launch a Vivanta hotel in Katra soon. We already have a Ginger Hotel there. We have a Ginger in Dwarka (Gujarat) and have opened a Taj in Tirupati as well and all of these have opened during the pandemic," he said.

Ajay Bakaya, managing director of Sarovar Hotels & Resorts said this year he anticipates that even across the hot summer months of April-July, there will be a surge in religious travellers to their hotels. The company has hotels in Bodh Gaya, Badrinath, Haridwar, Somnath, Junagarh, Mathura, Vrindavan and Tirupati. It also intends to open three more hotels by the end of this year in Amritsar, Dwarka and Katra on the back of growing demand.

"From our point of view, once the worst of the covid was over, while there was a limitation in numbers in places like Tirupati, without exception we have seen close to or over 80% occupancy at all of these locations. Which is great for places like Bodh Gaya, particularly since that would rely on international tourists," said Bakaya. Pre-covid, he said, the occupancy generally hovered around the 70% mark in most of these cities.

Indians are leveraging weekends/extended weekends for spiritual travel and Thomas Cook India, for instance, had witnessed a significant three-fold increase for the long weekend during Holi starting 18 March. Rajeev Kale, its president and country head, holidays, meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions and visas, said the past two years of the pandemic have caused an upheaval in people’s lives and that they are seeing a definitive trend towards spiritual travel, and this is driving demand for religious tourism with an uptick of over 70% versus 2019.

Individual hotels, too, are benefitting. Skyview by Empyrean Patnitop, for instance, is located 90 minutes from the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine in Katra. This is a major source of business for the hotel. The first Covid wave in 2020 hit devotees visiting the shrine and the number dropped to 17 lakh people to Katra. In 2021, footfalls rose to 55.77 lakh and this year the numbers are expected to be in sync with pre-covid times, said Syed Junaid Altaf, managing director, Empyrean Skyview Projects. As per the shrine board, 2019 saw close to 80 lakh pilgrims.

Spiritual tourism occupancy for the hotel is close to 30% of the company's entire business which had dropped to zero during covid. Similarly, Svatma which has luxury resorts in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, depended primarily on foreign inbound travellers pre-covid, is now looking at domestic tourism due to demand pent up demand for religious tourism in the area.

Lemon Tree Hotels has been witnessing high demand for its hotels located within or close to pilgrim destinations, including Amritsar, Jammu, Katra, Rishikesh, Neelkanth, Dehradun and Dwarka. "For us, Rishikesh is leading the trend with high occupancies at strong rates, followed closely by Amritsar, Jammu, Katra, Dehradun and Dwarka. We expect Neelkanth also to see an upward trend once family travel starts during the summer holidays," said Vikramjit Singh, the company's president.

According to one research firm, the Indian religious and spiritual market reached a value of $44 billion in 2020. The market is further expected to grow at a CAGR of 10% in the forecast period of 2022-2027. The market is being driven by increasing spiritual tourism. Puri, Varanasi, Tirupati, and Shirdi are some of the leading religious and spiritual tourism destinations in India, said Expert Market Research.

Svatma, a Relais & Chateaux heritage hotel which has luxury resorts in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, pre covid, had an occupancy which was primarily dependent on foreign inbound travellers. It is now focused on domestic tourism due to pent up demand for religious tourism revival in the area.


Varuni Khosla
Varuni Khosla is a journalist with close to 14 years of experience in writing business news stories for mainstream newspaper companies like Mint and The Economic Times. She reports and writes on luxury and lifestyle brands, hospitality and tourism news, the business of sports, the business of advertising and marketing and alcohol brands.
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