Revenge travel, workcations, wellness retreats: How Indians travelled despite the pandemic in 2020

Living it up.
Living it up.
Image: REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe (INDIA)
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On Jan. 1, Raghav Sikka made a resolution that he would visit a new place in each month of 2020. Three months later, India went into a complete lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and almost a year later, international travel from the country is still restricted.

The 25-year-old engineering student from New Delhi had to forego the white sand beaches and bustling markets of Australia, which he was planning to visit in April. However, even the once-in-a-century pandemic could not lock Sikka down in his house.

In December, after months of staying at home—and tired of doing the dishes—Sikka decided he needed a change of scenery and moved to Sikkim for a staycation. “I am still stuck indoors but now with a comfortable hotel bed, away from the monotony of doing household chores, and the view from my window is everything one could wish for the rollercoaster ride this year has been,” he told Quartz.

Sikka isn’t alone in scaling down and modifying travel plans. The pandemic changed the concept of vacation for many urban Indians in 2020. “Travellers are eager to step out and have a good time but they are careful of travelling in groups and opting for secluded stays or rooms,” said Dharamveer Singh Chouhan, co-founder and CEO of Zostel, a budget hospitality brand.

Pandemic travel trends

Lockdowns and caution restricted Indians from travelling for leisure for about six months starting March when the pandemic broke out in India. But around October, many urban Indians lost their patience and decided to dare the pandemic. The hotel industry is calling this “revenge travel,” as people are fed up with being stuck at home and are seeking change with a vengeance—and caution.

But instead of the usual week-long vacations, travellers in India are opting to mix things up. Based on the conversations Quartz had with various online travel portals, hotels, and travellers, the trends could be widely divided into the following categories:

Workcations: With most office-goers allowed to work remotely due to coronavirus, many people decided to change the location of their work. Instead of being cooped up in apartments in cities, they moved to scenic locations and continued their usual routines from there. Even as they were not at home, these people insisted on maintaining social distancing and coronavirus-related hygiene. “We have noticed a higher preference for premium hotel properties that have comprehensive safety protocols and other facilities as a strong internet connection among others. Many individuals are also picking alternative accommodations including private villas and independent homestays,” Vipul Prakash, chief operating officer of online travel portal MakeMyTrip told Quartz.

Wellness vacations: With work from home thinning the walls between personal and professional lives, people are longing to rejuvenate.  Many are seeking wellness retreats over regular holidays. At the Atmantan Wellness Centre in Maharastra’s Mulshi Lake, around 35% of guests this year have come for a stay seeking a stress-free living program, as per Nikhil Kapur, founder and director of the property.

Impromptu short trips: Throughout 2020, many popular holiday destinations made multiple flip-flops on travel restrictions and lockdowns according to the number of Covid-19 cases they were clocking. That made it almost impossible for travellers to plan vacations in advance. As a result, many urban Indians preferred short and sudden trips over long-planned ones.

Wilderness seeking: In the new normal of social distancing, nature breaks were far more appealing than visiting bustling destinations. Offbeat and remote locations such as a small village in the mountains, or a lesser-known homestay in Goa’s backwaters were ruling the travel trends of 2020.

Virtual vacations: For travellers who want to experience the wanderlust but sceptical about leaving their homes amid the raging pandemic, virtual vacations came as a respite. While platforms like TourHQ, a marketplace that connects local guides to tourists have come up with online guided tours packages, MakeMyTrip also launched online holiday tours for their customers.

But where are Indians going?

International travel is still suspended in India, therefore domestic tourism has come under the spotlight. Planning to end 2020 on a good note, Indians are flocking to popular spots such as beach city Goa and hill station Shimla for their year-end vacation.

At present, India has more than 10 million Covid-19 cases. But undeterred by this, some of the tourist destinations are witnessing far more hotel bookings this December than a year ago before when Covid-19 reached the country.

The hotel industry is now hopeful that this revenge travel trend will help make up for their losses from the lockdown period. “Revenge travel is going to gain further momentum as we enter 2021. The massive pent up demand is going to fuel that need to travel further with a lot of people yet to take their first flight or first real holiday (post the Covid-19 outbreak),” said Deep Kalra, founder and executive chairman of MakeMyTrip. 

Opportunities for India’s travel sector

The new-found travel trends have also encouraged many local residents in tourist places to turn their properties into homestays, laded with internet connectivity, and a home-like experience.

State governments are also using this opportunity to boost travel. For example, the Uttrakhand government is offering plenty of homestays, hotels, and resorts in the state at pocket-friendly prices to the visitors, which can be tailored to travellers’ demands.

Meanwhile, at a time when the pandemic has curbed the spending limit of many, travel platforms offering a “pay later” finance option is becoming popular among travellers. “The solution not only offers greater flexibility and convenience in managing expenses but is efficient too,” said Lizzie Chapman, CEO and co-founder at ZestMoney, an EMI financing and pay-later company in India. “We are witnessing a 50% month-on-month growth in customers opting for the pay later solution for the travel vertical.”