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With Indian borders now open, will domestic tourism again be relegated to the back?

Last month finally broke the personal travel famine, first with the Jaipur trip which I wrote about in my previous article. The second trip of the month was a roadtrip to Coorg, a part of South India traditionally recognized for its spices and coffee, though I stayed at Coorg’s only tea estate. Owned by Tata Coffee, the colonial bungalow called Glenlorna sits in the middle of the tea estate and is one of several properties in the rapidly expanding portfolio of amã Stays & Trails. Launched in February 2019, amã Stays & Trails is interestingly a spin-off from IHCL, the umbrella that operates the Taj Group of Hotels. Mr. Rohit Thakural, who manages several such properties of the amã Stays portfolio, sat with us one evening and explained how the emergence of the brand is a response to growing demand by the Indian tourist for off-the-beaten path, unique and immersive experiences. It aims to achieve this as the country’s first branded product in the homestay segment, combining an existing selection of accommodation options together with the famed Taj Hospitality. While the launch was announced shortly before the pandemic gained steam, the course of the last year and a half has only validated and strengthened this strategy.

The start of the pandemic also coincided with RoadsWellTraveled’s early days. Anxious to forecast the future of the industry, on which depended my future career trajectory, I attended several webinars from industry experts. Didn’t we all?

Experts after experts dismissed smallest suggestions that the domestic market could play a role in keeping the industry afloat to a certain measure, while contributing to its recovery. This insistence of the stalwarts of India’s tourism sector appeared repeatedly in various conversations, and continues to baffle me.

More Indians travel past India’s borders than the international visitors we receive, with 17.42 million International Tourist Arrivals and 26.30 million Indian National Departures in 2018. Additionally, Indian tourists are amongst the highest spenders abroad. On an average, Indians spent USD 811 per person during international travels in 2018, with the total tourism expenditure adding up to USD 21.3 billion in the same year. 71% of the expenditure was for personal purposes and 29% for business purposes. India’s tourism dollar receipts were around USD 28.6 billion in 2018, making us a net exporter of tourism, and that might explain the focus on inbound tourism. However, as per pre-pandemic projections, total visitor spend by Indians on travels abroad was expected to increase to US$45 billion by 2022, a figure that might warrant an adjustment in India’s tourism strategy that relies on international arrivals.

Most of India’s rich live in urban areas, and count among 35% of India’s population that lives in urban areas (~50 cities) as per current World Bank data. By 2050, India’s urban population will be 53% of its total population, given the country’s rampant urbanisation. On a related note: The 10 fastest growing cities in the world are all in India.

While we are a middle income country (Gross National Income per capita of around US$2,000 in 2018, set to be US$5,700 in 2030), we are a lucrative spectrum of tourism markets. India’s large income distribution and disparity between urban and rural areas while not ideal for several reasons, do ensure that there’s a market for every tourism supplier- from the affordable and mass tourism ambition of 1,00,000 daily visitors to Kevadiya, or GHE’s Astrostays in remote & sensitive destinations like Ladakh and Spiti Ecosphere’s voluntourism initiatives in Spiti Valley (both destinations that might warrant a Bhutan-like strategy with considered carrying capacity), or religious pilgrimages on the Buddhist Tourism Circuit, to bespoke experiences such as unique river cruises on the Brahmaputra by operators like Assam Bengal Navigation. Airbnb in India too is a largely homegrown initiative, adapting to the Indian market.

With climbing disposable incomes of 350 million middle class Indians, we are increasingly seeking unique destinations and experiences. The Indian traveler market is big enough and diverse enough to authentically travel within its own borders (though I’m not promoting that exclusivity). As per UNWTO numbers, India reported close to 1.9 billion domestic tourist trips in 2018, the highest volume among countries that reported data on this indicator. Understandably so. India’s sprawling geographical and cultural diversity too makes it many countries in itself, extremely exciting for tourism to its own citizens. I still haven’t been to Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh, Calcutta, Varanasi, Andamans or the entire North East (all on my list). My visit to Spiti in late 2019 was unparalleled and nothing like any of my travels to 40+ other countries that include Cuba and Past-the-Arctic-Circle-Norway, destinations that are not unconventional to my Indian demographic. Why am I not interesting enough for Indian tourism industry veterans that dismissed the very demographic that I belong to — Indian, young and with money to travel?

However, there are several promising signs that makes domestic tourism’s prospects exciting.

A slew of new airports will soon connect urban India to neglected rural destinations. An international airport just opened in Kushinagar. New railway products are gradually reviving rail tourism in India, that has earned a bad reputation of being uncomfortable and unhygienic over the years (it still has a long way to go). New roads will soon take us to places that were earlier inaccessible (though the caveat of increased connectivity leading to overtourism must be presented). Private sector initiatives from brands like the Tree of Life resorts offering self-drive getaways that serve as respites from India’s urban capitals; amã Stays combining legendary service with incomparable locations; Not On Map and Zostel opening up remote, unconventional destinations to the young, urban Indian; startups like Urbanaut and individuals like India with Insia curating mostly Indian destinations and unique experiences to make discovery infinitely easier — it’s all coming together beautifully for India despite some expected bumps in the ride, and yet again mostly by enterprising Indians with a little help from the government.

The enduring and unevenly distributed pandemic, our susceptibility to similar diseases in the future that could curtail travel, a recent trend towards global protectionism and geopolitical barriers (proven further by vaccine inequality and vaccine diplomacy), and travel being looked at as less of a right and more of a privilege — all have driven home the point that borders may not be as permeable in the future as they have been thus far. Upping the ante on domestic tourism, and not letting it abate after the current momentum, might be a sensible strategy for India’s tourism policy makers and private sector alike. Data referred to in this article is from India’s Ministry of Tourism statistics, UNWTO or World Bank Data.


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