The tragedy in Uttarakhand brings into focus a trend governments need to be prepared for: a spurt in religious tourism.
The data speak for themselves. While close to 5 lakh people undertook pilgrimage to Badrinath in 2004, the number has risen to 9.25 lakh over the years.
The Allahabad Mahakumbh saw 100 million people visit it this year, a jump from 60 million in 2001. The number of those undertaking Hajj was 1.25 lakh in 2012, a jump from about 72,000 in 2011.
A survey by travel website TripAdvisor in 2011, found many young people going for pilgrimage. About 70% respondents in the age group of 20-30 in an online poll covering 3,800 people said they visited religious destinations.
“Identities are on the rise worldwide. In India, people have more expendible income, and it makes sense to combine tourism with piety. Governments will have to act,” says Arshad Alam, a sociology teacher at JNU.
“The government should create a database of places people are visiting most and improve arrangements of health, safety and hygiene.”
Governments have worked more to facilitate religious tourism than to ensure it’s safe. Earlier this year, the Rajasthan government signed an MoU with the IRCTC, for a scheme under which it would bear expenses for senior citizens to go on select pilgrimages.
Announced in the 2013-14 budget, the scheme would cover centres like Puri, Gaya, Rameswaram, Vaishno Devi, Tirupati, Varanasi, Amritsar, Dwarkapuri, Bihar Sharif and Shirdi.
Before Rajasthan, it was Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh who launched such a scheme.
The Rs. 20-crore scheme bore the expenses of senior citizens visiting Rameshwaram, Puri, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Haridwar and other places.
The facility is also to be extended to Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains for their pilgrimage centres.