Tourism in India is big business. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that the industry supports over 21 million jobs and in 2018, the country is expected to have received 18.6 million international visitors.
But international tourism isn’t the key driver here. With such varied landscapes and destinations - from the deserts of Rajasthan to the lush hillstations of Kerala - there’s enough within the borders of this country to entertain any traveller. You could spend a lifetime exploring the multitude of cultures and cuisines on the Indian subcontinent, and this, says Biswajit Chakraborty, General Manager of Mumbai’s Sofitel BKC, is why domestic tourism is booming.
“The Indian middle class and upper middle class are growing, they have money, and there are some wonderful destinations in India which are much easier for them to visit in terms of cost and logistics – you don’t need to get visas for example," he says. “Each state can be like another country. You’d be surprised how many people in Delhi have not even come to Mumbai, Bangalore or Chennai.”
Understanding why Indians staycation
Domestic tourists account for over 87% of the overall direct tourism spending in India, and the types of guest are as varied as the country’s landscapes, attractions and cultures. David Pettitt, Managing Director of tour operator Pettitts that runs tailor-made trips in India, says Indians travel for a multitude of reasons, such as visiting family, taking a pilgrimage, attending festivals and celebrations, or shopping. He says there is also a trend for “going somewhere cold, as everywhere else in India is so hot". This includes places such as the hill stations like Darjeeling, Shimla, Manali and Ooty.
There are certain destinations, such as Goa – thanks to its beautiful beaches and laid-back lifestyle – that have been inundated with domestic visitors, says Chakraborty. But just because they’re domestic doesn’t mean they don’t need typical tourism services from hotels.
He explains: “A lot of the time [Indian] people are visiting a place for the first time, so the hotel and the concierge have to provide the same kind of information to to both international and domestic tourists. In that respect, their needs are similar – they all need guidance sometimes.”
Spot the difference
The international and domestic markets can also be wildly different, though. For starters, this is reflected in the way Indians book and undertake their travels. While many international visitors opt for organised tours with trusted operators, domestic tourists will usually book and travel independently. The latest statistics from the Ministry of Tourism back this up: in 2016 they recorded over 400 operators for inbound tourists, but just 105 for domestic tourists, and a recent report on domestic tourism in the country showed that just 2.4% of internal trips were made as part of a package holiday.
On a micro level, a prime example is the industry in Rishikesh. The northern city is a popular pilgrimage destination for Hindus – domestic spiritual tourists – as well as a yoga practise and study hub for international visitors. “There is a very big difference between these two groups,” says Rishikesh resident Mariellen Ward, who writes about travel in India on Breathedreamgo.com.
“The domestic pilgrims generally congregate at the Ram Jhula end of town, stay in inexpensive guest houses and ashrams, travel by bus, and eat street food snacks. They travel quite inexpensively,” she explains. Conversely, the international visitors will spend more, staying in high-end hotels and resorts, or ashrams specifically catering for foreigners.
“They eat at trendy cafes that offer smoothies, cappuccinos, vegan fare, and shop in organic stores that sell essential oils, yoga mats and expensive imported goods like chocolate bars and trail mix,” adds Ward.
How the middle classes travel
These are perhaps the most starkly different groups of tourists in India and those with more money travel completely differently. “There is a class of traveller in India who are more like foreigners,” says Ward.
“They are the upper middle class from cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore and they like to travel in comfort, seeking out slick, high status hotels like Taj Group, Oberoi, Leela. They are often more willing to pay for these high status names than foreigners.”
Speaking from his experience running numerous hotels for high-end brands across the country, Chakraborty says serving Indians at home can be a challenge. “[There are high expectations], especially in the luxury segment, because they’ve experienced good brands all over the world, so in India the big brands have to be just as good.”
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Hero image: credit to Jayakumar Ananthan
- Domestic tourism accounts for 87% of overall tourist spending in India
- The domestic tourism industry has many varied sectors, such as pilgrimage, shopping or festivals
- The majority of domestic trips are undertaken independently, without the help of operators
- The Indian middle and upper-middle classes travel more like foreigners and often have higher expectations