Tourists go to some countries to lie on the beach, to others – to join the ancient and mysterious spiritual culture, to others – to look at architectural sights, to the fourth – to undergo a complex operation in a local clinic. India is lucky in this regard: there are plenty of beaches, and ancient wisdom, and architectural monuments, and skilled doctors. Until recently, tourism was an important industry in the Indian economy, but then suffered a spectacular collapse due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the industry is rapidly reviving, but it is not yet clear whether it will be able to achieve its previous indicators.
Origins of tourism in India
In Indian textbooks, the history of the tourism industry dates back to the time of Emperor Ashoka (3rd century AD). The annals say that he built hospitable houses and planted trees along the roads so that they would give shade and make it easier for travelers to travel. And who, if not tourists, were these travelers? Similarly, Chinese pilgrims and Persian merchants turn into tourists.
In colonial times, the high society of Calcutta traveled around India regularly – once a year, British officials with their families moved, fleeing the summer heat, to Shimla, a city built in the foothills of the Himalayas (now the state of Himachal Pradesh) in the English style. In the first half of the 19th century, European seekers of ancient knowledge and those eager to join the secret practices frequented India. In addition, India was often included in the program of school imperial tours, designed to acquaint the British youth from the upper classes with the empire, which they were to rule in the future.
After India gained independence, its government decided to put the development of tourism on a planned basis. In each five-year plan, from now on, measures were prescribed for the development of tourism, tasks were set and indicators were determined. At first, the main emphasis was on the development of domestic tourism, but then more and more attention was paid to attracting guests and investments from abroad.
However, the most impressive achievement in the history of Indian tourism is not related to government initiatives. In the 1960s, the beaches of Goa were discovered by hippies. It all started rather modestly – Western youth came in small groups, lived on the beaches, smoked weed by the fires on the coast and bathed for their own pleasure, without interacting with the locals in any way. But rumors spread quickly in an informal environment, and soon a real pilgrimage began in Goa – and already in the 1980s, colossal parties gathered at night on the once deserted coast, and heroin and opium replaced hashish. Local residents saw an opportunity to earn extra money, and soon money began to flow into the pockets of former fishermen, farmers and auxiliary workers.
Following the hippies, wealthy tourists began to settle in Goa. The former Portuguese enclave has turned into a major seaside resort, where charters from Europe began to fly. In 1971, the first modern large hotel in Goa opened its doors. A large tourist business began to gradually survive the hippies from their chosen resort. They resisted as best they could, creating communes and cooperatives, but in 2009 the Indian police took them seriously and began hunting for unregistered hippie businesses. By the beginning of the pandemic, there was little in Goa that reminded of the old days: the beaches were filled with representatives of the Indian middle class, who willingly spent money on a hyped resort with developed infrastructure.
White and sick
The COVID-19 pandemic hit the Indian tourism industry when it was booming. The authorities introduced a new visa policy: citizens of many countries could obtain an e-tourist visa simply by applying online and then having their passport stamped at the airport. The innovation turned out to be extremely successful: if in 2013, before the introduction of the e-visa, less than 7 million people arrived in India for tourism purposes, then in 2019 – almost 11 million. It is clear that these figures are rather crafty: the e-visa is so convenient, that both businessmen and scientists often used it. Nevertheless, the share of the tourism industry in the last pre-Covid year was 9.3% of GDP, the tourism business then provided about 100 million jobs. Almost a quarter of foreign tourists in 2019 came from Bangladesh (2.5 million), followed by the United States (1.5 million) and the United Kingdom (1 million) in third.
But the pandemic has changed everything. In March 2020, India began to close itself off from the world, and in May a nationwide lockdown was introduced. All flights stopped, and with them revenues from foreign and domestic tourism fell to zero.
India’s image as a safe travel destination has been hit hard. Not all foreign tourists managed to go home after the borders were closed and found themselves in the center of the coronavirus panic. Foreigners, primarily people of European appearance, were perceived by many Indians as potential covid carriers who brought the virus into the country. The media reported more and more problems for tourists stuck in South Asia: they were not settled in hotels, they were driven out into the street by apartment owners, taxi drivers and waiters in cafes refused to serve them. New technologies also contributed to the spread of panic (the wildest rumors then spread through WhatsApp), and it just so happened that 15 Italian tourists were among the first cases in India.
The panic subsided over time, the covid was gone, but the problems remained. In 2021, the tourism industry brought in just 5.8% of GDP, in 2022 this figure is expected to rise to 7.2%, but it is not clear how long it will be before it returns to pre-Covid levels.
Revenge and travel
The industry – as in many other countries – was saved by domestic tourism. In India, it was quite developed even before the pandemic: all Indian governments, regardless of party affiliation, paid great attention to it. Far from all representatives of the rapidly growing middle class could afford holidays abroad, preferring instead to travel to the resorts of Maharashtra and Kerala, and the poor, if they traveled, then, as a rule, in search of work and a better life or to places of worship, for their benefit. India is in abundance.
As soon as covid restrictions on interstate travel were lifted, travel-hungry Indians rushed to rediscover their country. This phenomenon has been called “revenge travel” – as if people are taking revenge on the pandemic for keeping them locked up, and trying to catch up, greedily absorbing more and more new impressions. Hotels are once again packed to capacity, including the most expensive ones: if there is no need to spend large sums on tickets, why not spend them on a suite?
The forms of tourism themselves have also changed: more and more often, Indians prefer to take micro-vacations or a couple of days in addition to weekends instead of full-fledged holidays for two or three weeks. In addition, covid has taught both employees and employers that many duties can be performed remotely. The terms staycations and workcations have firmly entered the Indian lexicon, that is, a hybrid vacation in a tourist place, during which you can work remotely in a sparing mode.
Representatives of the tourism sector, however, still hope for the return of wealthy foreigners.