Amritsar, Punjab, India – 10 July 2011: A crowd of Sikh pilgrims visiting The Harmandir Sahib or The Golden Temple, which is seen in the background.
REPORT FROM INDIA—“Jai Ho,” “Insha’Allah,” “Waheguru”—while these and other phrases of blessing are commonly heard along India’s religious circuit, global hotel chains are flocking to the region with another word in mind: opportunity.
The underserved religious tourism market segment drew 450 million tourists during 2010, or approximately 60% of the country’s 740 million domestic travelers, according to estimates from India’s Department of Tourism. By contrast, foreign tourist arrivals numbered only 5 million for the year in 2010, though both segments continue to grow.
Religious tourism has long been a fundamental characteristic of India’s domestic travel industry. “Pilgrim tourism forms an important segment of domestic tourism,” said Kashmira Commissariat, COO of tour operator Kuoni India’s outbound division. “India, as a confluence of different religions, has always attracted pilgrims from all over the world,” as well.
Religions that have their origins in the country include Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Islam has been practiced in India since the seventh century, while Christianity came to India in 52 A.D. India also serves as home to a sizeable population of Zoroastrians (Parsi), Bahá'ís , Ismaili (followers of Aga Khan) and Jews.
The top shrines in India, whether Tirupati, Vaishno Devi, Ajmer Dargah or Golden Temple, each draws an average of 50,000 to 100,000 visitors a day. Shirdi, the Abode of Sai Baba, sees a daily visitor level of 70,000 people on weekdays; weekends inflate to approximately 100,000 visitors, according to figures released by the management of these shrines.
Gaurav Sarin, associate VP of business development and quality assurance at Best Western India, said pilgrims stay one and half days at Best Western’s Shirdi property. Rajat Gupta, associate director of sales at Country Inn & Suites By Carlson Hotels India, said the approximate stay of religious travelers is two days; at Carlson’s Ajmer property, guests generally stay overnight. What is less definitive, however, is where those stays occur.
Big chains make their moves
In the past, large industrial houses or wealthy citizens built Dharamshalas (religious rest houses) or inns where pilgrims could stay for free. Though they still exist, such hospitality is no longer sustainable as crowds and demand continue to swell, said Ratan Marothia, president of the Federation of Hotels and Restaurants Association of India.
“This luxury cannot be followed in today’s world, and so there is a demand for hotels,” he said. “When one goes on a religious trip in the country, one does not travel alone but with the entire family.”
The hotels that do exist often are standalone properties, as nearly 80% of the sector is independent, according to the Department of Tourism.
Major hotel chains are looking to fill in the void.
Carlson, a global hospitality and travel company, for example, has a presence in Haridwar, Katra, Amritsar and Ajmer, said Gupta.
By the end of 2011, the number of hotels in India by Carlson will exceed 50, with plans to operate 100 hotels in the country by 2015.
Best Western International also is moving into the space.
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“Best Western India has been one of the few international chains to have recognized this trend early and to cater to this demand. The (unique selling proposition) of our properties in religious destinations is their close proximity to the individual pious destinations,” said Sudhir Sinha, president and COO, Best Western India.
|The Best Western Merrion is located in the holy city of Amritsar.
“Along with the recent launch at Shirdi and existing presence at Amritsar, we are coming up with a property in Ajmer, which is expected to open by October 2012,” Sinha said. “We are also in discussion for tie-ups in Katra and Puri, which will be announced shortly, once the agreements have been formalized.”
Additionally, domestic player and privately owned Indian hotel chain Sarovar Hotels & Resorts has more than 50 hotels throughout India.
Room for all segments
Most of these and others properties that cater specifically to religious tourists are in the mid-market segment. Luxury or high-end hotels are virtually nonexistent to religious tourists. Sources interviewed for this report said religious tourists might not wish to be seen as splurging or living in luxury when on a religious trip where frugality and devotion are the focus.
Because religious travelers come from all strata of society, FHRAI President Marothia said, “There is demand for all kinds of hotels, be it budget, mid-market or luxury, there is a demand for every kind of facility.”
Most properties provide concierge services regardless of chain-scale segment. The service might assist guests with trip planning, connect them directly with shrines to offer prayers or reserve a token in advance to bypass queues to access shrines more quickly.
“It is not luxury but comfort which is important,” Best Western’s Sinha said. “There is a change in trend, and people don’t mind spending a little more. We should be able to service people at a more reasonable tariff, so we need to design a hotel accordingly and the investment should be low.”
Other obstacles to development include:
• laws and regulations that vary from region to region;
• high cost of land;
• difficulty acquiring available land;
• underdeveloped infrastructure.
Several players are looking to circumvent this by adopting the franchisee mode of operating existing properties under a brand name. The next few years should see more development in this sector, the sources interviewed for this report said.
For now, the sector remains a virtually recession-proof, 12-month feeder of high demand.
“This segment is becoming an organized segment and has tremendous potential in future as this segment is becoming highly systematic and commercialized,” Commissariat said.