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Online firms bet big on packaged pilgrimages

Travel websites, such as Make My Trip India Pvt. Ltd and Yatra Online Pvt. Ltd, are battling to win over India’s Rs 16,000 crore religious travel market, reports Priyanka P Narain.

business Updated: Apr 17, 2008 02:14 IST
Priyanka P Narain

Want to send your parents on their dream pilgrimage but don’t have the time to iron out all the details? Or maybe you plan a trip to Tirupati or Ajmer to thank God for all your blessings? Travel websites, such as Make My Trip India Pvt. Ltd and Yatra Online Pvt. Ltd, are battling to win over India’s Rs 16,000 crore religious travel market.

Both companies control about 90 per cent of the online travel market, according to Phocus Wright, a company that analyses travel market, and both said they are interested in expanding their fast-growing religious travel segments. There will be packages for all: Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Jains.

“As the largest consolidator of hotel rooms in India, we observed that every New Year’s, when we would be pushing travel offers for Bangkok and Dubai, it was hotels in destinations such as Shirdi and Vaishnodevi that filled out first,” said Amit Sabarwal, vice-president of business development at Make My Trip, which raised $15 million (Rs 60 crore) in October and hopes to go public by next year.

“Indians wanted to spend the first day of the New Year visiting God. We realised we needed to cater to this market,” he said. Even as luxury and overseas travel enter many Indians’ holiday plans, pilgrimages remain a growing constant in the industry. Last year, almost seven million people travelled to Vaishnodevi, the shrine of goddess Vaishnavi, according to Phocus Wright.

In the Himalayas, Uttarakhand has beautiful hill stations such as Mussoorie, Nainital and Dehradun. But most tourists in the state — about 70 per cent according to Phocus Wright — gravitate to Haridwar, where the Ganga river is worshipped every evening and where visitors watch their offerings of hundreds of lamps in tiny flower-filled leafboats bob down the river in the dusk. Travel services for these pilgrimages had once meant listing hotels and bus options online. Now, the listings are packages: pre-programmed itineraries that include pick-up from home, personalized food service, lodging, special darshan (visit) tickets and even arrangements for dolis (palanquins) and pony rides to save tourists the hassle of haggling.

“It works well,” said 40-year- old Iqbal Nabi, who travelled to Ajmer last week on a Make My Trip package. “I needed a place to stay and they found it for me. I will use them again.” In many ways, these services are catering to rising incomes that afford middle-class Indians the luxury of travel, but little time to plan them. Users say they like being able to plan trips quickly without making agonising, time-consuming decisions. And as travel grows, online travel companies are bound to keep looking for ways to offer more, says Keyur Joshi, chief operating officer of Make My Trip.

“The sector has grown 400 per cent since our launch two years ago,” Yatra marketing head Nikhil Rungta said. He says his company is watching the sector closely, but is not ready to unveil plans yet. “We are doing research on travel patterns right now. We already have an inventory of 3,000 hotels, but we are checking out more. Many unorganised agents have come before us, showing something and delivering something very different,” he said. “It has eroded trust.”