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The name India has become synonymous with culture and heritage. No matter what we sell to world, be it basmati rice or an Ayurvedic spa, is communicated against a backdrop of culture and heritage. However, what draws the international travellers to India is not just the experience of these gems of tourism – it is owing to the whole package India offers its luxury travellers.

As per statistics provided by the Ministry of Tourism, Govt. of India, 27.1 per cent of the 65,77,745 FTAs in 2012 were luxury travellers. This is owing to the fact that the country is equipped to give it’s guests the full luxury experience. India is home to beautiful palace hotels, both renovated palaces turned into hotels and hotels that are designed to give guests the royal feel. Leveraging our popularity as the land of Maharajas, these hotels attract the right kind of customers by providing them the experience they made the long journey for even when they are resting in their rooms.

This service is not just offered by palace hotels; domestic and international hotel chains, too, have begun to offer the Indian royal hospitality treatment to guests, including the ones in metro cities. Right from garlanding the guests upon arrival in the lobby to providing service upon bended knees, hotels have channelled India’s heritage to best cater to the luxury inbound traveller.

For those on the move across India’s popular tourist circuits, India is serviced by luxury trains that provide the international visitor with a royal experience on wheels. Every year, these trains enjoy full occupancy during their peak seasons.

India is also rich in spas and treatments, products that have rapidly gained importance as facets of luxury tourism. Furthermore, owing to India’s diversity, each region offers its own kind of luxury product offering.

“Luxury has not only become more affordable but also more desirable amongst the elite niche and the upper middle classes. Where else in the world can you be welcomed by elephants and horses or play polo on elephant backs and be in a comfortable environment sipping champagne at the same time. Aspirations are increasing as well as disposable incomes means good times for all. From seven star luxury, limo transfers, caviar hor’sdoevre’s all have come closer to the travellers,” opined Romi Trehaan, Director, The Luxury Trains.

Luxury trains

The luxury trains of India have grown in popularity over the years. Much like its counterparts in the heritage hotel industry, the IRCTC embarked on an endeavour to provide travellers with a luxury rail experience, one that reflects luxury the way the royalty enjoyed it at the time of monarchy in India.

The Palace on Wheels, launched to promote travel across the state of Rajasthan. Modelled along the same lines was the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels.

The Golden Chariot provides a luxurious connection between the southern states of Karnataka and Goa. Not to be left behind, the West got itself the Maharaja Express.

Adding to the luxury train offering, the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation and the Ministry of Railways, Government of India launched the Deccan Odyssey to popularise travel along the Konkan route of the Indian Railways. Earlier this year, Cox & Kings was outsourced the operating rights for the train, further cementing the growth of the popularity of this product.

According to Karan Anand, Head – Relations, Cox & Kings, India has predominantly been a luxury market. “We have always attracted the well heeled traveller from Europe and USA which are our source markets. The Deccan Odyssey has just begun its run and it will be difficult to make an immediate comparison. Our aim is to make it the luxury train of choice for the international traveller as well as the Indian domestic traveller,” he said. He further added that he estimates a 20-30 per cent growth in bookings over the previous year.

Luxury trains operator, The Luxury Trains, has also been notching a healthy growth in numbers over the years. “Not only the business from other nationalities but also NRIs living overseas who wish to showcase India to their kids and families are coming to India and enjoy the erstwhile lifestyle and luxury of the Maharaja’s through the Luxury Trains of India. Train journeys are one of the best ways to travel through the countries, in comfort and style,” Trehaan opined.

Speaking about this year in particular, Trehaan is expecting The Luxury Trains to see a growth of 5-7 per cent in bookings. While UK, USA and Europe have been their strongest source markets, she added that new destinations such as Scandinavia, Russia Australia and Middle East are coming up as well.

What keeps India ahead

Despite there being no dearth of luxury products across the world, travellers have continued to flock to India, not just because of increasing affordability or connectivity, but because hotels offer everything from infinity pools to presidential suites. Despite the industry’s battle with an oversupply of rooms, luxury hotels have seen a steady return on investments, a fact cemented by the increasing number of luxury hotels across India.

According to Gaurav Sindhwani, Director Sales & Strategic Planning, The Imperial New Delhi, the luxury segment in India has not grown as per the predicted numbers, but has remained steady over the last three to four years. The hotel expects some growth by mid of 2015.

“India is a land of experiences and our country’s diversity allows a traveller to have a different experience in every part of India. Also, there are several products that can create unique and high-end experiences for the luxury travellers, and which attract tourists to such countries,” he said.

According to Prashant Narayan, COO and Head Leisure Travel Inbound Business, Thomas Cook India, a country once looked up to as a destination for volunteerism and backpackers, is today witnessing a noticeable shift in the mind-set of luxury travellers from all around the globe who have now discovered its Indian decadence.

“At Thomas Cook India, there has been an upward shift in this number of foreign travellers demanding luxury itineraries, seeing a delightful y-o-y growth of approximately 7-8 per cent. Our internal research and analysis estimates this figure to rise by a 10-12 per cent owing to the positive infrastructural upgrades that the government has been undertaking,” he stated.

He added that, spacious villas, spectacular hotels, private tours, and rich cruises – today India has it all! Furthermore, he opined that, luxury is no longer only restricted to first class travel or five star accommodation. “Destination India amidst all its cosmopolitan chaos, does offer spectacular glimpses into an era of mughals and royalty, of authentic heritage, culture and spectacular beauty be it in the form of architectural magnificence or the indulgence of its cuisine. To top it up the incomparable Indian hospitality coupled with high-affordability are add-ons that inbound travellers are unable to compare with any other destination offering,” he said.

Challenges and trends in luxury inbound

A common notion when discussing travel to India is that India is an expensive destination, and that is one of the deterrents to inbound travel. However, the industry is of the opinion that the assumption is unfounded. “It is a wrong assumption that India is an expensive destination. If one considers various aspects including the levels of services imparted to guests and the experiences tied with them, India offers a lot more than a lot of other destinations. The positioning of the destination is thus important and positive reinforcement in terms of showcasing the right products and experiences creates the emphasis,” said Kale.

According to Anand, what has changed over the last couple of years is that luxury is now more accessible and the market who can indulge in luxury has grown quite significantly. Luxury is not confined to only five star hotel accommodations. It is about experiences in a pre-determined setting, he opined.

“India is fast becoming more and more affordable. Pre and post stays are always attractive options which can be bundled along with the packages. Mixing with events is also an increasing phenomenon – Kite festivals, cultural and religious festivals, renewed marketing by individual states as well as regular promotions in international markets, all add up to good times. Experiential holidays including wellness as well as theme based journeys can be made much more attractive. One of the hurdles we constantly face is infrastructure development which is improving, yet still we have a long way to go. Now we have multiple train journeys that can be offered to our guests which was not there earlier,” said Trehaan.

What’s new

Rajeev Kale, President & COO- MICE, Domestic, Sports Holidays & Cruises, Thomas Cook (India) stated that, in the past couple of years, the observation has been that engaging and exclusive experiences create impactful “brag value” and this is even more of a draw for luxury travellers from emerging non-metro and tier II markets. The company’s luxury ‘Indian Indulgence’ product team has created unique programmes such as undersea walk in the Andamans, Malabar Cuisine private classes with chefs at Wayanad, Elephant Safaris at Amber Fort in Jaipur, Nature treks in the Himalayas (Kausani), a Tiger Safari at Corbett, the martial art of Kalairipaytu at Munnar and Ayurvedic spa therapy in the Nilgiris. “We have also observed that the UNHI traveller is hungry for more than the vanilla holiday. The elements of discovery, thrill and adventure are crucial for this new age voyager,” he said.

Narayan added that, a majority of foreign inbound tourists to India comprise of the FIT segment that are keen on experiencing the splendour and quaintness of a holiday in solitude.

What lies ahead

When asked about the potential of India in terms of further growth as a luxury destination, the unanimous opinion was that the possibilities are endless. “Given the potential of India, it is imperative to showcase the right products at the right platforms. A hassle free visa on arrival scheme or e-visa scheme that the Govt has been talking about will go a long way in increasing the attractiveness of Destination India, along with other improvements in infrastructure,” said Narayan.

Trehaan believes that, education, motivation and facilitation are key factors in business development – Educate through trade events, personal visits, Familiarisation visits, training – specialisation programs, newsletters and social media ; Motivate through incentive schemes, gratis holidays and facilitate in world vernaculars, global time zones and provide back office – operational support. “Tourism should get the industry status it deserves for businesses to thrive. Tourism promoters should be given the same forex earning status as exporters so that we are treated in the same way and received just rewards for our efforts,” concluded Trehaan.

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