Santosh Joshi is a busy man these days.
The owner of Joshi Cottage, a homestay 2 kilometres away from the nearest motorable road in Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttarakhand, handles guests for 150 days per year, weighed against 80 days per year before the pandemic.
"A lot of young people from cities are staying at my lodge. They find peace when they are close to nature," he observes.
Once the preserve of tech-industry freelancers, the blending of business and leisure (bleisure) travel and working from anywhere as part of The Great Untethering is becoming increasingly mainstream, and it is these ‘digital nomads’ with the travel itch who have greatly helped revive businesses like Joshi’s.
And Joshi isn’t an anomaly.
Travel agents and hotel owners are observing that a significant section of domestic tourists prefers ‘experiential travel’, flocking to places off the grid and at high altitudes, encouraged by better accessibility and the proliferation of package tours.
Statistics from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which administers more than 3,650 ancient monuments, archaeological sites, and remains of national importance, reveal that the number of domestic tourists visiting popular monuments like the Taj Mahal or the Qutub Minar has yet to touch pre-pandemic peaks.
In 2018–19 (FY19), the number of domestic visitors to the Taj Mahal stood at 5.99 million. Meanwhile, in the April-December period of 2022–23 (FY23), the Taj Mahal had just 3.64 million domestic visitors, according to the ASI data that has been reviewed by Business Standard.
The number of domestic visitors to Qutub Minar was 2.64 million in FY19. In the April-December period of FY23, this number was just 1.19 million.
"The peak season for domestic tourists to visit these monuments is the summer season (May–June). Consequently, we do not expect a big jump in the January-March data that is being collated," says an ASI official.
"The sites under ASI are not as well maintained as they ought to be. Confusion prevails, whether the entry is through a physical ticket or an online booking. These sites also need to be innovative in sustaining people’s interest levels; if somebody has visited before, they see no charm in visiting again. Besides, domestic tourists are exploring new destinations — closer to nature and places that have not been explored thus far," says Rajiv Mehra, president, Indian Association of Tour Operators.
A travel agent based out of Kullu in Himachal Pradesh says the pandemic has pushed the reset button, and tourists (especially youngsters) want to travel to the upper reaches of the mountains, where it is more pristine.
"The number of bookings to such areas has increased 50–60 per cent after the pandemic," he says, adding it would be helpful if airlines started operating more flights from Kullu. Currently, only Alliance Air (earlier part of Air India and currently owned by AI Assets Holding) operates flights (22 per week) connecting Kullu to Delhi.
Aashish Gupta, consulting chief executive officer, Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism and Hospitality, says a significant section of domestic tourism is now shifting to remote and unconventional locations.
India is geographically diverse, with landscapes ranging from snow-capped mountain ranges to deserts, hills, and plateaus. Atypical locations always get repeat visits, he adds.
Karthick Prabu, head of strategy, Cleartrip, says people are looking for places that travelogues often skip.
"While monument visits are showing fewer numbers than pre-Covid, states like Rajasthan have reported that their domestic tourist count is twice the pre-pandemic number," he added.
The number of foreign tourists visiting the ‘must-see’ monuments in India is also below the pre-pandemic peaks of 2018–19 (FY19).
For instance, Agra Fort, which received 527,535 visitors in FY19, welcomed only 85,311 visitors in the April-December period of FY23.
"The reasons for low foreign tourist arrivals (in FY23) are myriad. The kind of marketing support that was expected from the government was largely missing. The marketing budget has since been slashed. Additionally, airfares have soared. Our neighbours are offering better packages since they enjoy certain tax advantages we don’t," says Mehra.
Sunil Gupta, ex-president, Tourism Guild of Agra, says destinations need to be constantly promoted to attract visitors.
"Sadly, there hasn’t been enough marketing of Agra among travel trade partners, and that is one reason why it has fewer domestic tourists now than before the pandemic breakout. Agra also doesn’t receive repeat tourists like other cities do," he rues.
He says international tourists plan their trips well in advance. Since India permitted scheduled international flights on March 27 last year, the number of foreign tourists who came to India in FY23 was much lower.
"I expect foreign tourist arrivals to pick up this winter," he says.
Aashish Gupta says if government-to-consumer marketing kicks in during the next few months in key countries and if airfares stabilise, the number of foreign tourist arrivals to India in 2023–24 (FY24) could be about 75 per cent more than the pre-pandemic peaks. He adds that the domestic tourism sector is expecting a full recovery in FY24 if airfares remain stable during the year.