TOURISM Retain your divine sense of balance with improvised and innovative faith-based travel packages, writes SOMA BASU

An invitation from the newly launched Daiwik Hotel in Rameswaram may not trigger much excitement in a frequent visitor to the Ramanathaswamy Temple. But a comfortable stay and visits to some less obvious spots actually outweighed the boredom that stems from familiarity.

Visits to small temple towns can be quite disheartening, with their narrow and dusty roads congested with shops and eateries, milling pilgrims and tourist buses, heaps of plastic litter and stray animals. Add to it the priests and autowallahs who force themselves on you doling out information on everything from accommodation to ticket and timing of darshan, where to eat and what to visit. Even if your bhakti is still intact after a darshan accomplished at the end of long and winding queues, you often feel like fleeing the place sooner than you planned.

Debashish Ghoshal, the MD and CEO of Kolkata-based Daiwik Hotel, feels a pilgrim town is no longer just about the shrine but rather about the whole experience. It is surprising that the demand for quality hotels and better facilities in pilgrimage centres has remained unmet for so long. But clearly, pilgrimages are the core driver for travel today and Ghoshal wanted to do away with the neglect of the modern-day pilgrim.

Six months ago he launched the first Daiwik Hotel in Rameswaram, as he found the town to be grossly under-provided. “In strong pilgrim destinations, which lack in world-class hospitality and knowledge-based services, it is easy to gain faster visibility,” he says. “We want to establish our brand positioning and become the first choice of discerning pilgrims. We are here to recapture Rameswaram’s prominence.”

Tracing a 5,000-year-old legend to its location and identifying elements that you have read about, according to Ghoshal, gives a true feel to what you see. “A pilgrimage is a journey of faith,” he feels. “Authentic information that gives a sense of security about religious views is of immense value as it helps to connect with the holy site. Travellers now are demanding more authentic spiritual and cultural experience.”

His company has built full back-up data and verified every piece of information after extensive interactions with the priests, temple authorities, local guides, senior citizens and residents in the town. With Delhi-based historian Subhadra Sengupta heading its research team for creating a knowledge base on the pilgrimage history of the country and the holy cities, the group has fleshed out quite a few unexplored locations as well. The guest can pick and choose from different itineraries. This includes an early morning visit to the famous temple or to other religious sites and some less familiar locations. The Rameswaram packages are called “In the footsteps of Lord Rama” and are all well-planned tours packed with facts and figures, stories and information as described in Valmiki’s epic.

Fifty per cent of the tourism industry’s revenue is generated by pilgrimage tourism. “If we manage to tap even a small portion of this, it means big business for us,” says Ghoshal, who is now going full swing to start his business in 20 temple towns including the chardhams, Varanasi, Tirupati, Madurai, Kanyakumari, Varanasi, and Thiruvananthapuram in the coming years. Targeting upscale pilgrims with specialised services and superior infrastructure seems to be working. With the tourist season on, the property has been going houseful as high-end religious travellers are now coming to these places for relaxation, meditation and well-being. We met a group of 30 NRI women from Trinidad and Tobago at the hotel on a spirituality-oriented vacation. “Spirituality is one element of the religious experience and travellers like us look forward to a vacation that combines faith with fun,” said one of them. Beaches and hill stations may not have quite fallen off the traveller’s map despite the suffocating number of tourists crowding these places round the year. But religion tourism, redefined to attract both pilgrims and tourists, is certainly gaining ground.