India's Tourism History
The road from independence
It’s 65 years
since independence, and in its wake Indian tourism industry has traversed a rocky road – much like the subcontinent itself. High Life surveys six colourful decades…
Flashing with heat and drowned by monsoons, with its rainbow of saris and the fast-changing blues of its overarching skies India, to the chilly British mind, has long defined the exotic… ´Characteristics grow more vivid beneath the Indian sky,’ EM Forster warned his stiff-backed Brits in A Passage to India, his taut epic novel set at the height of the Raj-era India. Of course, Forster’s Miss Questeds and Mrs Moores, taking their tea in the shade of neem trees and toddy palms, are long gone – this August, 60 years will have passed since Gandhi’s passive resistance movement achieved India’s independence from the crumbling British empire. Yet the breath-catching northern European captivation with the subcontinent has endured: from the hippies who first flocked to the butterscotch sands of Goa in the 1960s, to the package holidaymakers who followed in their wake from the mid-80s, and the top-end tourists of the 2000s, who indulge in spiritual repose and ayurveda in Kerala, or impeccable Mughali cuisine against the soaring backdrop of battle-scared fortresses and opulent former palace ‘heritage hotels’ of Rajasthan.
In 2007, tourism is both India’s largest foreign exchange earner and, importantly, a significant boost to coffers from domestic sources, as the country’s expanding middle class are able to indulge more extravagantly in the millennia-old tradition of pilgrimage to sites of religious importance. ‘In 2005,’ says Arvind Sharma, of trendspotter Leo Burnett and Arc, ‘some 390mn Indians were on the move for business travel, visiting family and friends and pilgrimages. That’s a 13% growth in number of trips within the country within two years.’ The dearly held notion of sacred journeying within India is encapsulated in the expression ‘Tirthayatra’, which translates as ‘undertaking journeys through rivers and fords’ and is considered one of the chief methods of achieving self-realisation and bliss. The Hindu sites alone would take a lifetime to explore, from the holy river Ganga in ‘city of light’ Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh in the north, to Kanniyakumari at the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula, where pilgrims gather on the rocks reaching up from the warm ocean at the foot of the Kumari Amman virgin goddess temple.
Naturally, major Indian hotel groups are scrambling for the rupees of these moneyed new Indian travellers. In particular Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, who have carved out the route for modern Indian tourism since launching their first hotel in 1903. The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Bombay, overlooking the giant basalt arch of The Gateway to India in Mumbai, was the apex of Raj-era grandeur, where British Viceroys once rubbed shoulders with Indian Maharajahs and rock stars now mingle with business magnates. And Taj, a subsidiary of Indian superbrand Tata, still remains ahead of the curve. In the 70s and 80s the group adapted the first of the palace hotels from royals in the Princely States of Rajasthan and the first resort complexes in Goa; in the 90s they brought business hotels to major Indian cities and today, with their Ginger Hotels mid-range proposition, they have their eyes trained on the Indian middle class pilgrimage market.
But spiritual tourism, of course, is also a huge draw for the non-domestic traveller to India. Journeys ‘in the footsteps of the Buddha’ to the foothills of the Himalayas increasingly attract tourists from across the globe, as do retreats and abstractly spiritual yogic and ayurvedic breaks in Goa and Kerala (which took off in the 90s, buoyed by decades of alternative lifestyle tourism in Goa). And temple tours also struck a chord...