India is often termed as the most diverse destination in terms of the mix in religion and culture. India is home to thousands of major temples, shrines, mosques, churches, gurudwara and holy sites, etc. Each year the domestic travel flow for religious travel is significant especially to destinations such as Amritsar, Ajmer, Fatehpur Sikri, Goa, Velankanni, Fort Kochi, Srirangam, Tirupati, Rameswaram, Thanjavur, Varanasi and Puri, etc. Despite huge numbers, there is no tapping mechanism, or major marketing strategy by states to promote religious tourism. If religious travellers add a leisure element to their itinerary, states can generate huge revenue.
To further brainstorm and look at the lucrative opportunity, SATTE organised a session titled, ‘Religious tourism: potential untapped’. Moderated by Murari Mohan Jha, Editor, T3, the conference witnessed noted speakers from across the fraternity including; Dr. Achyut Singh, Jt. General Manager, Indian Railways (IRCTC); Arun Srivastava, DDG, Ministry of Tourism, Govt. of India; Pawan Jain, Assistant Director, State Department of Tourism, Rajasthan; Gopi Vishrolia, I/C Manager, Gujarat Tourism who brainstormed and covered various aspects of religious tourism including tapping the high spending religious travellers, devising the right marketing strategy to make religious tourism more organised, creating circuits.
Addressing the audience, Srivastava said, “Earlier lack of infrastructure, activities, and lack of experiences were the major reason travellers were only going only for pilgrim tourism. Over the year’s things have improved a lot as the State Governments and the Central Government have worked to improve the accessibility and infrastructure. Around 25-30 years ago, ‘Chardham Yatra’ used to take around 25-30 days to complete, but now on an average it takes around 6-7 days to complete the entire tour. With better accessibility people have more time in hand to explore more.”
One of the major players in the religious tourism segment in India, IRCTC, has been developing various ciruits and itineraries over the years.
Speaking about the development of religious tourism, Singh said, “Today domestic tourism is core sector which the country is focusing on and religious tourism is the main purpose for domestic tourism growth in the country. There is a big difference between pilgrim and a religious tourism, pilgrims majorly visit the pilgrim sites and return, they are not major spenders and don’t contribute big to tourism sector. Religious tourists impact the local economy as they stay there and are enjoying the services and also, they perform various religious activities.”
Earlier Pilgrim tourists were never associated with luxury. Now with a trend of multigenerational travel for religious purposes, the element of luxury has come into play.
Speaking about the luxury in religious tourism Jain said, “Pilgrim tourism is different from leisure travel. A pilgrim traveller doesn’t look for luxury. Religious destinations are usually on an unapproachable spot, where one need to travel for a long distance. Religious tourism is the only form of tourism where all generations travel together. This multigenerational travel has now helped in driving demand for luxury during religious tourism. As a trend a lot of resorts are now being developed in and around religious places in Rajasthan. We are promoting religious tourism in Rajasthan and are trying to include luxury tourism element in the religious tourism. Pushkar as a destination is famous for its religious tourism and it is globally popular, and tourists visit every year during Pushkar Fair.”
Gujarat is offering additional support to the tour operators to promote religious tourism itineraries. The destination is showcasing the Saurashtra Darshan circuit which can be clubbed with leisure tourism.
Speaking about the circuit, Vishrolia said, “In Gujarat, Dwarka is one of the most important pilgrim destinations and is popular across the nation. In Gujarat we have a popular circuit known as Saurashtra Darshan which includes Dwarka, Bet Dwarka, Somnath, etc. we recently started promoting Okha which is near Dwarka which can be a leisure destination combined with Dwarka. We are also introducing some experienced guides in these religious destinations to enhance the experience of the travellers. In the Saurashtra region we are bringing an element of leisure by tying up with a few private players and resorts. We also have tour operators coming to us with packages from across India to Gujarat for religious tourism, we are promoting them jointly. We are now trying to create awareness about the destinations and also about the offerings we have in terms of experiences.”
To further accelerate the pace of religious tourism, IRCTC has crafted various circuits with one single special train catering to those. Also, they are looking at promoting hidden destinations to the travellers.
Speaking about the combinations, Singh added, “In terms of itineraries, when travellers are going to Badrinath they can combine Auli, destination like Hampi is a key leisure destination but has a lot of importance as it’s known due to Ramayana, etc. In railways we have created religious circuits and have operated trains accordingly. We have operated Ramayana circuit, Takt Circuit, Sufi circuit trains, Jyotirlinga circuit, Devine Tour for South India, we have successfully operated the Buddhist circuit. Apart from these we are also offering special packages or itineraries for religious tourism with special quotas in trains. We have also introduced religious tourism packages by flight. Our major focus has been to include leisure activities or destinations along with religious tourism. We cannot convert religious tourists into leisure but can associate them to an extent.”
Experts feel that accessibility issue to majority of the destinations have been addressed over the years. But we have not been able to create experiences in and around the religious places to increase the length of stay of travellers.
Srivastava said, “The main challenge now is the lack of activities and experiences around the pilgrimage. Now with Ayodhya being developed, the government has kept this in mind and a lot of experiences are being developed around. Even in Amritsar now there are various attractions packaged such as Jallianwala Baugh, and various attractions around the Golden Temple. We need to slowly increase the length of stay of the travellers and introduce leisure experiences, with religious tourism as the focus.”
Rajasthan tourism has been one of the states with ample religious tourism opportunities. To further enhance the experience, the destination has now sanctioned Rs. 100 Crore during the state budget to develop the religious destinations.
Speaking about the plans, Jain, said, “Recent, the Government of Rajasthan has announced Rs. 100 Crore budgets to develop infrastructure around these religious places. The announcement of Rs. 100 crores is a part of the Budget 2021-22. We have the Krishna Circuit under which three destinations are promoted Nathdwara, Jaipur, and Khatushyamji temple. As a trend we have seen pilgrims coming by their own vehicles, so we are developing the parking infrastructures in these sites. The infrastructure requirements for the religious tourists are basics and we are trying to address these challenges. To further accelerate religious tourism, Tour operators should plan the itineraries and include leisure elements in the religious travel.”