Indian travellers with high spending capacity are giving a fillip to the domestic travel market. Our contributor reports on the travel revolution brewing in India. By Riaan Jacob George
Ask any stakeholder about the current state of the travel market, and they will tell you that the Indian luxury traveller is ruling the roost. Luxury hotels have seen a surge in travellers over the past couple of months, and people are willing to spend more money to ensure enhanced hygiene, isolation, and exclusivity. And this is just one of the trends that the domestic luxury traveller has kick-started. Let’s look at the others.
A PARADIGM SHIFT: INDIA FIRST
The biggest shift, travel experts say, is that luxury travellers are now taking Indian destinations seriously. Shoba Mohan, founder of RARE India, reveals, “Previously, luxury travellers would do, say, three international trips and one domestic trip in a year. Now hopefully, they will do two and two, since they know what is in their own backyard.”
The tables have turned in marketing too. The narrative for luxury hospitality in India was traditionally directed at high-end travellers from the West; it has now begun to target domestic travellers. Arun Ashok, regional head of India and Middle East, Luxury Escapes India, says, “Travel patterns for the luxury domestic traveller have taken a 180° turn post COVID-19. Now, it is all about exotic properties in India, which offer experiences of their respective regions. On our website, the growth rate pre-COVID-19 was 55 per cent year-on-year. Once COVID-19 hit, the number fell almost 90 per cent from April 2020 to August 2020. From September 2020 till February 2021, the growth has been more than 35 per cent, exceeding the growth rate for these months even pre-COVID-19.” Marketing strategies such as ‘buy now, choose later’ for increased flexibility have been adopted by different players, adds Ashok. “All this marketing is for the domestic market and for destinations like Ranthambore, Goa, and Alibaug.”
While resort destinations have it easier, the climb is uphill for luxury hotels in cities since they depended largely on international traffic and business travellers. But there are some positives. Zubin Songadwala, area manager – ITC Hotels, South and general manager of ITC Grand Chola, Chennai, reveals, “There is a pent-up demand and disposable income, and people are spending more than ever on luxurious vacations. Interestingly, given the overall drop in rates of city hotels, this has led to the emergence of a new luxury traveller—the aspirational segment—who would not spend the original high rates to enjoy a premium stay.” The choice of accommodation has been affected as well. Srijan Vadhera, general manager at Conrad Bengaluru, says there has been a huge uptake in suite utilisation, especially over the weekends. “Luxury travellers or staycationers have begun to book suites so that they can entertain guests in the living room while keeping their bedroom separate for safety.”
While Goa has been India’s biggest post-lockdown success story, there have been a few other emerging destinations too. Gulmarg in Kashmir, for instance, has seen a sudden rise in numbers this year, fuelled by a massive social media presence. This paved the way for a surge in domestic ski holidays. Mushtaq Ahmed Chaya, chairman of Jammu and Kashmir Hoteliers’ Club, explains the trend, “Given the diversity of Kashmir’s offerings, people can easily spend a month here and not run out of things to do. Since December 2020, though, skiing has suddenly become trendy.”
RARE India’s Shoba Mohan says that the jungles of Central India too are a luxury hotspot these days. Wildlife enthusiasts with deep pockets, who usually looked abroad, are now flocking to boutique lodges and safari properties in Central India or those within driving distance. According to a recent report by YouGov and Airbnb, travellers are looking for exclusive and secluded destinations in the lap of nature, with 24 per cent looking towards the hills.
The pandemic has been a tipping point for travellers, who have begun to favour experience over physical luxury. Understanding the destination and having unforgettable experiences is now the main focus. Mohan says activities like hiking, village walks, and tea-estate visits are trending. “Luxury travellers are also looking for a way for their kids to get engaged,” she says, while Chaya reveals that in Kashmir people are choosing houseboats and homestays to get a different perspective of the destination. Chain hotels are constantly looking to go beyond the room. Accor’s Fairmont Jaipur offers a series of Instagrammable F&B experiences, like an on-request private dining experience on the rooftop. Elsewhere, W Goa is marketing its ‘wellness experience’ strongly with the launch of the homegrown AWAY spa.
“The 21st century heralded two major concepts for global travel and tourism: ‘experience economy’ and ‘sustainable tourism’. The pandemic has brought in the realisation that they are no longer options but essential for survival. Luxury travel used to be directly connected to high-end locations, but, in the new normal, it is considered as locations that provide a ‘safe, secure, sustainable, and hygienic’ environment. We feel that there will be a positive psychological impact once the entire country is vaccinated, which will bring better recovery to the sector primarily driven by domestic tourism.” —Madan Prasad Bezbaruah, secretary-general, Hotel Association of India
CHANGES IN CONSUMPTION
Siddharth Bhatia, director of FSR Travels, says there has been a lot of demand for villas and offbeat properties. “Rajasthan and Kashmir were booming. Nobody expected the market to bounce back quickly. The Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa in Kashmir is sold out till April. Tree of Life Resorts & Spa, Jaipur has been popular because of its self-contained villas. The other properties in demand are Amanbagh and Aman-i-Khas.” One distinct change that has worked in the hotels’ favour is that the average spend of guests has increased since they don’t prefer to venture out of the property. The lead time of deals has also changed from 45-60 days to 30 days for domestic trips.
Goa, too, has seen a rise in demand for villas among luxury travellers, who want to escape the traditional hotel format. As a result, homegrown players like V Escapes are popular. This uber-luxe brand’s signature villa starts from INR 1.5 lakh a night, and comes with a chauffeur-driven car, a personal chef, a private pool, and wide spaces. Even the Hermitage Villas at Taj Fort Aguada Resort & Spa, Goa, and amã Stays & Trails are redefining the way one vacations in the state.
“Whether it is travellers showing up on a private charter at Vana in Dehradun, or a buyout at the Glenburn Tea Estate in Darjeeling or at the Mountbatten Lodge in Ranakpur, high-end travellers are increasingly moving towards understated experiences,” concludes Mohan. Amanpreet Bajaj, country manager, Airbnb India ,says that the way forward for Indian travellers will be restorative, inclusive, and sustainable travel, a sweeping concept that could well apply to the luxe segment as well.