Friday, Jun 09, 2023

Pilgrim’s Progress: Indian Tourism Has Remained Rooted To Faith

Pilgrim’s Progress: Indian Tourism Has Remained Rooted To Faith

Pilgrimage remains the Indian traveller’s primary motivation. But around that, everything else has changed down the decades.

Pilgrim’s Progress: Indian Tourism Has Remained Rooted To Faith

It was a strange period. Having attained freedom from the British, India underwent radical changes—not only politically, but also in the realms of geography, culture, society, economy and national behaviour. Our obeisance to religion, however, hardly tapered. Even today—despite sections bathed in modernity and lateral thinking—religion is the bedrock of life.

In a conversation with a teenager sitting snugly in the sprawling ‘recreation’ room of a house in a posh part of Delhi, I realised that some presumptions are far removed from the larger reality. For him, vacationing meant skiing in the Swiss Alps, shopping in Knightsbridge in London, or a wildlife safari in Kenya. He was shocked to hear that spiritual or religion-based tourism accounts for over 60 per cent of domestic flows.

Pilgrimage tourism has grown over the decades, but during the formative years of independent India, it was the primary travel that people undertook, apart from events like marriages. Members of joint families gathered around the dining table as the patriarch announced they would visit another temple city during the next school holidays. You get the drift.

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The trend of spiritual tourism has not changed. India is still a rural nation, and villagers (as also urbanites) are still firmly rooted in religious beliefs. Maybe, they became more unyielding in their religious stance in recent times. Religion motivates the tourism economy like no other category. Special trains are run and ‘devotional tour packages’ are offered to lure travellers.

Speaking of trains, the long, inter- linked metal chambers of motion-sickness have, for long, served as the spine of Indian tourism. Inter-state buses did the same too, where rail tracks hadn’t reached yet. But it was the popularity of trains that really set off the culture of travelling, and the country in motion.

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“I remember train journeys vividly,” says Ritika, a middle-aged woman who switches effortlessly between tending to her teenage daughter and a year-old German Shepherd.

She recollects the ‘dress-code’ for the train journeys. “Back then, we were conscious about how we dressed. We couldn’t even dream of anything less than salwar-kurta! Today, some kids haven’t even seen a train compartment. They fly to places, and wear whatever is comfortable. There’s a paradigm shift.”

I remember my sister and me filling up Rasna bottles, and mom packing poori-sabzi for train journeys. Today, travel is about individual expressions.

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My father had worked his way up the corporate ladder in the private sector and was often sent on business trips. But as I was not keen to initiate my mother’s chirp on dad’s work trips, I chose to speak with a friend about business travel instead. “I travel across the world on business class tickets. But in the 1990s, things were quite different,” recalls Ajay Kasana, a businessman who manages a fleet of container trucks. “I was judicious and planned everything meticulously. I’d travel through the night by bus or train to get to meetings. Flying wasn’t an option even for a mid-level businessman. It was prohibitively expensive. Now, time is money.”

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Business travel has come a long way. Between the 1960s and 1990s, senior management travelled. Today, everyone across the corporate hierarchy flies. Business travellers are drivers of change, and separate hotel economies have sprouted around this micro community. Kasana emphasises that middle-income individuals were instrumental in changing industry dynamics. India’s middle class rose dramatically since 1991. It not only changed the market but caused a behavioural shift across the hospitality industry. The visits to grandparents during summer breaks transitioned to escape to the hills or beaches.

But the most significant shift occurred around the turn of the century. The iPhone wasn’t just a mobile. It gave birth to the App Store. Had it not been for the App Store, you and I wouldn’t be able to book tickets from our smartphones, nor could Jeff Bezos afford an expensive divorce. From MakeMyTrip to Zomato, Airbnb to Uber, it is these applications offering convenience at our fingertips that changed how we travel. I remember the time when flight tickets came in small booklets, and inter-state bus tickets were small pieces of paper the conductor tore off. Today, you need to show a QR code, and entry through the airport terminal’s gate is ensured. The new generation would laugh if you told them train tickets once meant razor blade-sized cardboard cutouts.

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Veeresh Malik, a former seafarer, expounds, “Due to the digital transformation, I can find what I want—carpet-free rooms, vegetarian restaurants, hotels with secured parking, decent accommodation for retainers and drivers, and self-cooking facilities. It’s about the experience, not just the costs.” His comments on the digital transformation are fascinating. The millennials are expected to be tech savvy. The Generation Z is born in the cradle of technology. This is why when someone in his sixties describes technology as a great enabler of regular life experiences, it seems like a new and beautiful reality.

Malik also touches upon the growing trend of people going for batch reunions and special-interest groups travelling for activities that bind them on passions like birding and adventure trips, or indulgences like angling. Sustainable tourism has become a buzzword, and growing consciousness among travellers is a welcome change over the past decade or so. The number of people immersing themselves in such activities may be small, but it displays cultural evolution and proves that travel experiences are not restricted by the wonted generational notions anymore.

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Road trips have gained popularity, solo travelling does not raise eyebrows, and seeking experiences isn’t the preserve of the rich. Aspirations got bigger, and people in smaller cities are as clued-in as those in the metros. The evolving behaviour patterns have altered popular notions of finances. It is no longer about saving hard-earned money for annual vacations.

There are travel-specific credit cards and loans. Banks have evolved and one can go around the world without carrying cash. The industry of accommodations has flipped on its head. It’s not about multi-starred hotels and resorts; we are drenched in home-stays, and Airbnb has created a parallel stream of incomes. Remote working helped. It’s not just the way of travelling but also the experiences around it that have changed. Getting out of Rajdhani Express was as much of an occasion as haggling with the kaali-peeli cabbies, or negotiating with a Maruti ‘van’ driver. This gave way to the battery-powered Blu cabs you can call through an app.

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If you’re in the mood to hit the road at the spur of the moment, Ola or Uber will gladly take you on interstate journeys. The modern way of life shows its effects in tangential industries. Youth in metros aren’t buying cars. If they feel the need for an escape, they rent one from Revv or Zoomcar.

From the legendary hospitality of Air India’s Maharaja to the economy seat booked in a rush before the price shot up. From first-class non-AC compartments to shared AC chambers in trains. From making STD calls to book hotel rooms to a click on an app. From familiar, staid destinations to immersive adventures. Intrepid, cross-country road trips that one could scarcely dream of becoming a statement of cool.

India has come a long way in the way it travels. 

(This appeared in the print edition as "Reinvent the Wheel")


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