India’s pilgrimage centres are fast becoming hot-spots for hotel chains, as both domestic and international groups look to plug a gap in the market for quality accommodation. Devotees flocking to so-called “temple towns” such as Shirdi in western Maharashtra state, the Sikh holy city of Amritsar in Punjab and far-flung Haridwar have for years had to make do with basic facilities. But a rise in disposable incomes and more Indians experiencing foreign travel – both the result of India’s buoyant economy – have led to demand for more than just a bunk-bed in a community centre or floor space at a guesthouse. “There was a time when people who were visiting these temple towns didn’t have the money for quality accommodation,” the associate vice-president of Best Western India, Gaurav Sarin, told AFP.
“That’s changed very drastically in the past few years. The people who are now visiting are people looking for an international hospitality experience and they have the disposable income to spend on the room and other facilities.” For Best Western, temple towns and “Tier-II” cities – India’s fastest-growing cities outside Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore – have become a key market and religious tourists core clients, he added. It’s not hard to see why: religious pilgrimages remain an essential part of life for millions in India, from the lowest-paid manual worker to the high-flying corporate executive, cricketer or Bollywood movie star. The latest available government figures show there were just over 650 million domestic tourist visits in 2009 – up 15.5 percent on a year earlier. The number of foreign visitors fell 3.3 percent to 5.1 million.
“The bulk of (domestic tourists) are religious tourists wanting to visit places like Shirdi near Mumbai, Vaishnodevi in the north, Haridwar and Rishikesh in the Himalayas,” said Ankur Bhatia, executive director of the Bird Group, a travel and hospitality conglomerate. “The sector is growing tremendously. We’re looking at about 10 percent growth every year. It’s from the lowest to the highest economic groups in society.” Demand for rooms outstrips supply in places like Tirupati, a temple city in southern Andhra Pradesh state which reportedly receives a staggering 50,000 to 70,000 visitors every day. Chains see high returns, even at lower room rates and without additional revenue from hotel bars and restaurants on the pilgrim trail, where being teetotal and not eating meat are prerequisites.