Why luxury hotels are making a beeline for temple towns

With the cricket world cup scheduled in June in England, one would expect hotelier Ankur Bhatia to be busy promoting his Roseate properties in London. But his focus right now is the luxury chain’s latest domestic offering — The Roseate Ganges — a plush retreat on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh. He is devoting special attention to the new property because its March launch was accompanied by the opening of two other competing properties in Rishikesh—the Taj Rishikesh Resort and Spa and the Modi Yoga Retreat by BK Modi’s Spice Group.

Luxury resorts cropping up in pilgrimage towns—once associated with austerity and material and physical hardships—is not limited to Rishikesh. As well-heeled travelers seek safety and comfort on their spiritual sojourns, luxury hotel chains have been quick to spot the demand.

Between 2019 and 2021, ITC Hotels plans on opening its WelcomHotel-branded properties in Amritsar and Katra, and Fortune-branded hotels in Ajmer and Shirdi and a WelcomHeritage Hotel in Prayagraj. Apart from existing properties in spiritual towns, Radisson Hotel Group’s pipeline includes hotels in Amritsar, Katra and Nathdwara, with plans to expand in cities such as Madurai and Rameswaram over the next five years in line with their growth strategy for religious destinations. Sarovar Hotels, which already has a presence in Badrinath, Haridwar, Vrindavan and Tirupati, plans to open Portico-branded properties in Katra and Bodh Gaya this year and in Ajmer next year.

Indian Hotels Company (Taj Group), which has properties across its Taj, Vivanta, Gateway and Ginger brands in pilgrimage towns such as Varanasi, Amritsar, Madurai, Nashik, Ajmer and Katra, is opening a new property in Tirupati this financial year, and has also signed a property in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

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The Lemon Tree Hotels group, a mid-priced segment player, has a property opening in Rishikesh soon, and will start properties in Neelkanth and Tapovan in Uttarakhand and Dwaraka in Gujarat and in 2020.

With domestic religious tourism seeing a sharp uptick, towns such as Shirdi, Tirupati, Varanasi, Mathura, Katra, Gaya, Amritsar and Ajmer are in the cross hairs of hotel groups that are vying for the best possible locations and local alliances.

High Spirits
The rise in the numbers of spiritual tourists have been a function of rising affluence as well as massive recent strides in road, rail and air connectivity. Fast trains such as Rajdhani and Shatabdi have been introduced to these destinations; many new airports have been opened and luxury bus services on these routes have also become aplenty.

Central and state governments have also improved the infrastructure in and around religious sites. With religious trips being an integral part of the Indian family calendar, once the connectivity and infrastructure improved, premium hospitality was always going to be just one step behind.

Rajeev Kale, president and country head at Thomas Cook India, says that for India’s new age travellers, spiritual tourism no longer evokes images of hardship and penance. “Our consumer data reiterate strong and growing interest in luxury spiritual tourism—an increase of 15-20% year on year. Well-heeled HNI-UHNI pilgrims are opting for spiritual locales with stays in luxury tents, deluxe spa-resorts, private helicopter tours and exclusive darshans and aartis, indulgent rejuvenation through Ayurveda, spa and yoga packages, fine dining and uber-luxe experiences,” he says.

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Dipak Haksar, chief executive, ITC Hotels and Welcomhotels, elaborates that religious sites are extremely popular in India and have created hubs of demand for luxury chains such as ITC. “With increased inflow of celebrities, businessmen, young professionals and international tourists to spiritual destinations, the demand for branded hotels has gone up significantly. Today’s traveller expects quality accommodation along with full services at prices that are high on value,” he says.

Never a Lull
What hoteliers like about such destinations is also the lack of seasonality in demand. Spiritual destinations are in high demand almost around the year. “Demand is never a question in these cities. Political situations have minimal bearing on visitors at these places. There is never a lull,” says Ajay Bakaya, managing director, Sarovar Hotels and Resorts. With land available at reasonably lower costs as compared to major cities or tourist destinations and steady footfall, Bakaya reveals all the hotels needed to do was provide a decent stay option and focus extensively on making it easier for visitors to approach places of worship by liaising with locals and authorities.

It was one such family darshan that compelled Ankur Bhatia to fast-track The Roseate Ganges property. On one of his many religious visits to Rishikesh and Shirdi, he was firm in his resolve that these destinations needed luxurious stay options as well. “Rishikesh is a big travel destination. It attracts Indian and international celebrities and luxury travellers as well. Our idea was to allow people to do yoga by the ganges, attend Ganga aarti with a specialist, have a local curate the entire darshan for guests and then unwind over great food and spa offerings at a ‘5-star’ ashram,” he elaborates. And even before it opened, his resort was pre-booked till June.

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Experiences Galore
Airbnb data for 2018 shows religious destinations seeing a phenomenal growth with almost 150% growth in guest arrivals in Tirupati, 90% in Amritsar and 79% in Haridwar over last year.

Amanpreet Bajaj, country manager, Airbnb, is also noticing an increased draw towards experiences on Airbnb in places like Varanasi where the host takes you through the lanes, bazaars and ghats or tours in Chennai showcasing the beautiful architecture of southern temples.

Packages that combine the majesty of environment with the bliss of spirituality is also popular with premium travellers, says Thomas Cook’s Kale. Luxury packages in this category are popular with corporate honchos, industrialists and celebrities. “There are unique programmes of spirituality and private jeep safaris through wildlife sanctuaries. Madhya Pradesh’s Ujjain Omkareshwar combined with Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna; Gujarat’s Dwarka and Somnath/Nageshwar Jyotirling coupled with Gir/Rann of Kutch and Uttaranchal’s Chardham in tandem with Corbett and Rajaji National Park,” he says.



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