Travel firms, hotels see a demand surge on pilgrimage circuit

Spiritual tourism is on a rise.
Spiritual tourism is on a rise.


Pilgrimage travel in India is thriving with a surge in demand for destinations like Ayodhya, Varanasi, and Char Dham circuit. Thomas Cook reports a 100% increase in bookings, while Sarovar Hotels sees significant revenue contribution from religious locations like Badrinath, Haridwar, and Tirupati.

New Delhi: Traffic gridlocks notwithstanding, travellers have been visiting popular pilgrimage destinations across the country this year, with travel companies seeing a rise in demand ranging from 30% to 100% compared to the last summer season.

Despite the heat, this year's pilgrimage season has started strongly, with travellers heading to Ayodhya, Varanasi, Prayagraj, Uttarakhand, the Char Dham circuit, and Tirupati.

Travel agency Thomas Cook (India) Ltd has witnessed a 100% increase in bookings over the last year for its Char Dham yatras, with growing interest among younger, millennial travellers. For them, the company has tailored a 'Pilgrimage Plus' offering, which combines temple visits with local experiences like cuisine trails and outdoor activities. It has also introduced aerial helicopter 'darshans' (view) for Adi Kailash and Om Parvat mountain peaks in Uttarakhand, in collaboration with the state's tourism board, which are already sold out for this summer.

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The surge of tourists has also prompted travel agencies and hotel companies to strengthen their offerings for religious and pilgrimage travel. For Sarovar Hotels & Resorts, which operates hotels like Park Inn in locations including Ayodhya, Bodh Gaya, Badrinath, Haridwar, Somnath, Junagarh, Mathura, Vrindavan, and Tirupati, this segment of the business will contribute significantly to its overall revenue, with about a 15% share coming from these locations.

However, Ajay Bakaya of Sarovar Hotels makes a clear distinction between religious and spiritual tourism. Spiritual tourism is not the same. It is led mainly by travellers who go to locations like Rishikesh etc. But from a religious standpoint, it is destinations like Ayodhya and Varanasi which, more recently, have shown "remarkable growth", he said.

Huge demand

"Demand for religious destinations has always been huge. However, most people engaging in religious tourism are not seeking luxury but rather focus more on austerity. Thus, there's a bigger market for mid-market hotels and even more so for the lower end of the pyramid, which is under-supplied," said Bakaya.

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The hotel industry is projected to record a 7-9% revenue growth in FY25, underpinned largely by domestic leisure travel, including pilgrimage tourism among other factors, said data from ratings agency ICRA.

Earlier this month, Tata group-owned Indian Hotels Company (IHCL) signed a hotel in Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, as a greenfield construction under its Gateway hotel brand with 160 rooms, while Sarovar Hotels & Resorts opened a Tulip Inn in the pilgrimage city of Shravasti, in the same state.

"We have noticed over the years that pilgrim tourism is impacted less by economic downturns than other segments, which we have particularly witnessed during and after the pandemic. In general, most spiritual/pilgrim destinations have been seeing an uptick, with our hotels in Haridwar, Katra, Rishikesh, Dwarka (Gujarat) etc. performing well. Further, with the Char Dham dates starting this month, we have witnessed growth in both occupancy and room rates in key markets like Dehradun (for Badrinath), Dwarka and Bhubaneswar (for Puri)," said Harleen Mehta, senior vice-president, sales, Lemon Tree Hotels Ltd.

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Online travel agency Yatra Online has seen a steady increase in the Char Dham pilgrims with a special focus on Ayodhya, and has recorded phenomenal numbers this year because of the novelty factor (the Ram temple in Ayodhya was inaugurated in January) and a general shortage of inventory. It said there are also no registration slots left for the Char Dham yatra. Other religious destinations like Tirupati, Vrindavan, Ujjain, and Amritsar have seen a jump, too. Badrinath, and Varanasi have been destinations with a strong footfall.

Slow recovery

According to the most recent data from the Union ministry of tourism, India had about 173.1 crore domestic tourists in 2022, growing 55% over 2021, but still below 2019, when the figures were 232.2 crore.

The story is no different in Uttar Pradesh. There are 24 flights operating from Ayodhya to other cities with some routes being serviced twice a week and others four times a week, including Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, and Ahmedabad. Interestingly, while it is still early days for Ayodhya, the state's tourism board said it is Varanasi's Kashi Vishwanath temple that has the highest footfall among the religious tourism sites in Uttar Pradesh.

Madhya Pradesh tourism, for instance, which has already surpassed its inbound tourist numbers of 2019 by about 2.3 crore visitors, saw a footfall of about 11 crore visitors in the calendar year of 2023. About 5.2 crore travellers visited Ujjain that year. Of the top ten most visited sites in the state, five were religious destinations - Ujjain, Maihar, Chitrakoot, Omkareshwar, and Salkanpur.

"Our focus has been on promoting religious tourism and enhancing tourism infrastructure, cultural heritage, and showcasing. This is driving the growth," said Shekhar Shukla, principal secretary, tourism and culture, and managing director of the state's tourism board.

Also read | From ancient structures to luxury retreats: Varanasi sees boom in spiritual tourism

“Searches for spiritual destinations on our platform have surged by nearly 97% in the last two years. During this period, the contribution of spiritual tourism to our holiday business has steadily increased from 7% in 2022 to 10% in 2023 to over 13% in 2024. We have also observed significant y-o-y growth in the top spiritual destinations from 2023 to 2024. These destinations include Uttar Pradesh (Ayodhya and Varanasi) with a 110% growth, Uttarakhand (Char Dham, Haridwar, Rishikesh) with a 42% growth, Gujarat (Somnath and Dwarka) with a 37% growth, Tamil Nadu (Rameswaram), Andhra Pradesh (Tirupati) with a 19% growth, and Jammu and Kashmir (Katra) with a 12% growth," said Rajesh Magow, co-founder and group CEO of MakeMyTrip.

"In our pilgrimage offerings, 45% of bookings are from families, with most bookings coming from individuals aged 36-50 years, and the average trip typically lasts five nights. Given the rate at which spiritual tourism is growing in India, we expect more investments in hospitality and infrastructure. This surge in interest is not only enhancing business but also stimulating local economies, creating jobs, and promoting cultural heritage conservation," Magow added.

Since the inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, there is an uptick in traffic of devotees looking to visit the temple, with the summer season seeing a 550% growth in searches for Ayodhya, said which mainly relies on search data. Destinations like Ujjain saw a growth of 86%, Badrinath 40%, Varanasi and Shirdi 20% each.

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