More than two years after the Covid pandemic halted travel, India's tourism and hospitality industry is now cautiously optimistic. The freelance journalist Rubina Khan calls for optimism.
Tourism accounts for about 3% of India's GDP and has generated nearly 100 million jobs in 2019.
But the sector in India – like elsewhere – has been hit hard by the pandemic. Just 2.74 million foreign tourists visited India in 2020, compared to 10.93 million, according to official figures.
While the number of international visitors is still a long way from pre-pandemic levels, tour operators and hospitality executives say the surge in domestic tourists makes them more optimistic.
After a two-year break, the Indians embark on a revenge tour – a "Revenge Tour", as the event is called. And many, experts say, now prefer to travel domestically rather than fly to more expensive destinations abroad.
The industry will benefit from new pandemic-related trends such as micro-holidays and jobs.
Deep Kalra, the travel site's founder and president, said the industry started to recover in the last quarter of 2020 and has since recovered steadily.
"In fact, the last three financial quarters have been very profitable for our business," he says.
Experts say the pandemic has given Indians a chance to explore their own country.
India has always been a popular travel destination. From historic forts and magnificent palaces to dense forests, there is no shortage of options for visitors.
However, with international travel halted for several months, more and more Indians are opening up to the idea of vacationing in the country, said Vishal Suri, CEO of travel company SOTC.
"The pandemic has given Indians a new attitude towards outdoor recreation," Mr Suri said.
Demand for uncharted destinations has increased as people seek ways to combine pilgrimage and spiritual journeys with local cuisine, cultural itineraries and adventure.
The pandemic has created new trends such as co-working spaces and co-working spaces – which combine remote work and leisure.
Pradeep Shetty, a senior official at the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India (FHIA), said: “Travellers are now finding it very convenient to book exclusive locations, privacy and amenities like a home away from home.
Make My Trip's Mr Kalra agrees – he says people warmed to the idea of traveling to India as much as possible.
“Even the frequency of travel has changed and become more frequent. Annual leave has turned into mini-holidays, people are increasingly taking vacations spanning multiple weekends and seasonal vacations," he said.
Impact on the hospitality industry
This change has emerged as a source of revenue for hotels in India as people are now willing to spend the money they would have saved on international holidays on better domestic accommodation.
Some luxury hotels have slashed rates during the pandemic, leading to increased bookings and short-term revenue.
Puneet Chatwal, managing director and CEO of Indian Hotels Company Limited (IHCL) – India's largest hotel company, which operates the luxury Taj hotels – said the recovery from each successive Covid wave has been "strong and rapid".
"Today, IHCL's occupancy has returned to pre-pandemic levels, mainly due to domestic tourism," the statement added.
Located on a private island, Raffles Udaipur, managed by international hotel chain Raffles, opened in August 2021, months after the second wave of the pandemic hit India.
But the hotel has enjoyed a "healthy occupancy rate" every month in its first year in India, said Punit Dhawan, senior vice president for India and South Asia.
"Although we had no measurements prior to the pandemic, we have seen steady growth in response to our wealth," he added.
Mr Dwan said the hotel is gearing up for an even busier year – starting with the winter influx of tourists and the upcoming wedding season.
Mr Kalra said there were other positive signs, such as the recovery in business travel – a trend that will accelerate in the coming quarters and help the tourism industry's overall recovery.
But despite the optimism, domestic tourism cannot return the sector to pre-pandemic growth levels, industry insiders say.
In September, India's tourism minister said the government was working to revitalize the tourism sector.
But foreign immigrants remain terrible – data shows that in 2021 by 44.5%.
“India has not come up with a campaign to invite the world to her. We need a great marketing strategy to convince travelers to choose us, especially the 60 million people who used to travel to China but don't travel anymore," said Deepak Deva, executive director of the Travel Corporation of India, one of the leading travel agencies in India .
He added that the government should reintroduce the e-visa service as the current system is very cumbersome, especially for countries like the UK where many tourists visit India.
However, Mr Kalra believes domestic and international travel should "grow together, not against each other".
"With international travel back in focus, we are confident that international travel will fully recover within a few quarters."