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Hospitality in Gods’ Abode

Although Pilgrim Tourism is the backbone of India’s domestic tourism, the physical infrastructure, including good accommodation, is still missing in most of the locations. While opportunities for right investments in the hospitality space at religious destinations are abundant, major players are yet to realise this untapped potential. Sanjay Pathak explores the scenario in detail

Wednesday, August 24, 2011, 11:00 Hrs  [IST]


In India, almost 70 per cent of domestic travel involves travel to pilgrim destinations. From time immemorial and before the advent of modern transport system, people used to travel long distances to visit pilgrim centres of religious and spiritual importance. These pilgrimages were undertaken painstakingly over long periods sometimes months and years. While travelling, people used to stay in way-side inns, known popularly as sarais and dharamshalas managed by religious groups. Over a period of time, especially after the advent of the modern transport system, pilgrimage has become less cumbersome and people started travelling to distant destinations in search of salvation at will.  With this, demand for accommodation facilities increased around the pilgrim destinations.

The accommodation facilities in most of the pilgrim centres in India are not up to the mark even today. A vast majority of these hotels are in the unorganised sector and their standards are nowhere near the national or international standards. Although, national and international hotel chains have started looking at these destinations of late, they are not yet able to call the shots in these places because of small inventories and smaller presence.

Number of people visited in the year 2010
Vaishno Devi
Ajmer Shariff
Source: State tourism boards, Shirdi Sansthan and Vaishno Devi Shrine board
Scope and potential
There is no denying the fact that most of our pilgrim destinations are underserved in terms of hospitality facilities. This is true in case of most popular places in the pilgrimage map like Shirdi, Tirupati, Varanasi, Ajmer, Pushkar, Vaishno Devi, Palani, Haridwar –Rishikesh, etc. Due to paucity of good accommodation, pilgrims going to these places find it hard to stay for a longer time.

The changing profile of the pilgrims in India opens up huge opportunities for professional players of the hospitality industry in these locations. Unlike in the past, a good chunk of these pilgrims are middle and upper middle income group who do not hesitate to pay extra for value for money. Some of the domestic hospitality chains who realised this potential and  set up their hotels in such  destinations are doing brisk business irrespective of the seasonalities involved. The industry pundits feel that movement of more professional chains into these destinations would definitely make the unorganised players think in terms of improving their product standards in the long run.

According to KB Kachru, Executive Vice President & Country Head, Carlson Hotels, “Religious Tourism in India has been growing at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 10 per cent year-on-year. It will continue to grow more in the near future.”

Commenting on the scope and potential for investments in setting up hotels in pilgrim destinations, Sudhir Sinha, President and COO, Best Western India said that a lot of celebrities from different streams - filmstars, sportspersons, political leaders, etc. - visit these places regularly and look for comfortable and branded accommodation. “Best Western India already have hotels in Amritsar and Shirdi and both are doing well inspite of having unorganised hotels in these cities. We usually enjoy 90-100 per cent occupancy during the peak pilgrim season, and about 40-50 per cent even during off- season. Tourists now look for branded hotels and services at reasonable rates. We have seen regular clients enquiring about our properties in these regions. As a result, there has been fast growth in this circuit. So far, we have recorded a 25-30 per cent growth ourselves and can only predict an increase in the same,” he said.

240811_cs_2.jpgLeisure Hotels Ltd, one of the leading players in religious destinations in North India, also receives good traffic round the year. Vibhas Prasad, Director, Leisure Hotels Ltd said, “Usually during peak season which remains from May - June and from mid-September before Diwali, we manage to get almost 90 per cent of our annual top line revenue. We usually clock around 60 per cent occupancy. Besides this, during   off season, we receive weekend tourists who opt for itineraries such as tour to either one of the Char Dham or Haridwar.”

There is a well-established demand for good accommodation in pilgrimage destinations in India, feels S Shasidhar, Vice President Operations and Technical Service, Absolute Hotel Services India. “Pilgrimage destinations hold a strong attraction and potential for the hotel business. These destinations serve the lower economy market very well. The upper middle class and the more upmarket travellers, usually have no suitable place to stay and either plan same day return or try and obtain stays in private or VIP guest houses,” he said. Citing the hospitality scenario in some of the popular religious destinations, Shasidhar said that while Tirupati and Shirdi have some brand presence, other destinations like Palani, Vaishno Devi, Puri, etc. have a small presence.

Identifying the right brand fit
While major hospitality chains have brands to fit in different locations, ranging from economy to mid-market to high-end luxury, it is important for them to do proper market survey, as to which brand would be most appropriate to the religious circuits. Generally, hoteliers go for smaller inventory and mid-segment brand in religious destinations. “A budget hotel is ideally suited at a pilgrimage location, since devotees will not look for luxury. Hotels having 60 to 80 rooms is enough to workout in such places,” opined Param Kannampilly, Chairman and Managing Director, Concept Hospitality.

Jaideep Dang, Vice President, Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels arriving at his suggestion on feasibility change said, “A price range between Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,500 is suitable for hotels at pilgrimage destination. Places like Shirdi, Puri, Tirupati, Varanasi, Vaishno Devi and many more places have higher segment coming, but the market still holds the mid-segment. One need to understand the requirement and demand from pilgrimage places. Place like Shirdi will give priority to rooms, but places like Amritsar will have focus on rooms and banquets, due to the demand by guests.”

Hotel Classification
Vaishno Devi
Ajmer Shariff

Quality and Service
The operators in these locations have to customise their services and brand standards in keeping with the religious and other sentiments of the guests coming to these destinations. The services have to be subtle but proper. The staff have to be trained properly to take care of the special needs of the guests staying with them. Services like food, housekeeping, etc play a major role in hotels at pilgrimage destinations.

“A person going on a pilgrimage would like to have vegetarian food, hence the vegetarian spread is larger at hotels closer to places of pilgrimage. The traveller expects to have a well informed guide, hence these provisions are made. Nowadays, be it a traveller on pilgrimage or business, one likes to make use of the efficient and modern ways of communication to keep in touch with family and friends. So, these services should be part of any hotel irrespective of the location,” explained Chender Baljee, Chairman and Managing Director, Royal Orchid Hotels.

Carlson Hotel maintains uniform brand standards across all properties, says Kachru. “Our brand specifications are fairly stringent and we prefer to offer our customers what they expect, even if the location is remote, or at a resort, pilgrimage or a business destination.”

According to Shasidhar, there are no hard and fast regimes with regards to facilities. Hotels can add their product offerings looking at the demand. “One needs to evaluate the market and look at adding facilities as required. In some locations, one may need to restrict to a no alcohol policy and vegetarian menu. However, this is not necessarily true at all locations,” he said.

240811_cs_3.jpgSustainability aspect
The hospitality infrastructure scenario in pilgrim centres in the country is improving day by day. The entry of organised players have definitely helped in improving it. There is a growing realisation among the stakeholders in each destination that business as usual will not help any more. “At pilgrim centres in India, most of the facilities are in the hands of unorganised sector. But things get a professional touch when corporates like us set up facilities. In short, a holistic development of a destination takes place when such facilities are established in a destination, especially in backward regions,” said Lt Col (Rtd) Rakesh Sharma, Executive Director, Usha Breco Limited, a major player in infrastructure creation in religious destinations.

“Pilgrimage destinations are historical hotspots for hospitality activity, since the demand but low branded supply at such places. Nowadays, the markets in pilgimage destinations have started growing and there is definitely money in this segment. Pilgrimage has a primeval cycle of demand with activity happening all round the year immaterial of which season it is in India. A hotel with a good partner at a suitable location with the right size and the right entry will sustain for longer time in pilgrimage destination,” observed Dang.

Anil Madhok, Managing Director, Sarovar Hotels and Resorts said, “One needs to study the market and plan according to what he is  doing. To sustain in the market one need to constantly try to save, keep minimum cost on spending and over budgeting. Control your cost from the beginning to have more effective budget. It is also important to upgrade the hotel’s interior, furnishing and other areas, time to time, to maintain the property. India’s pilgrimage destinations have great potential, thus creating chances for hoteliers to survive in the market, especially with the right investment spent at the right place, with a quality product being the outcome.”

With major chains eyeing for space in pilgrim age destinations, the competition is bound to increase in the coming years at these destinations. The operators in the unorganised sector will have to really pull up their socks to sustain themselves as the competition heats up. However, there is space for everyone in the religious hinterland of Incredible India.

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