HVS India – Roaring success and quiet struggles: The dynamics of wildlife tourism in India

  • Roaring success and quiet struggles: the dynamics of wildlife tourism in India

Wildlife tourism in India is making a strong comeback, becoming a luxury experience. Eco-friendly accommodations capitalize on this growing demand by offering distinctive experiences with minimal environmental impact. Read on to learn more.

Wildlife tourism, a part of ecotourism, is steadily growing in India, registering a CAGR of 15% in tourist visits by 2020, according to government and media reports. This segment has carved a niche for itself as a luxury experience, attracting tourists for multiple reasons. In an age where our cities are turning into concrete jungles, there has been a palpable surge in our collective fascination and appreciation for the natural world. The main appeal of this niche segment of tourism lies in the deep desire to see wildlife in its natural environment. In India, the appeal of wildlife tourism is further due to the unique combination of landscapes ranging from dense jungles to vast grasslands that are home to various species including Bengal tigers, Indian rhinos and elephants. This combination acts as a powerful magnet, attracting wildlife enthusiasts from all over the world. As a result, despite a slight downturn during the pandemic, wildlife tourism is making a strong comeback, surpassing pre-pandemic levels.

Hotels and resorts in wildlife locations have successfully capitalized on the growing popularity of wildlife tourism by creating luxury experiences through eco-friendly and nature-oriented accommodations that blend seamlessly with their surroundings. It’s a fascinating fact that the individuals and organizations behind these ecolodges and sustainable resorts often include unconventional hoteliers who are passionate about protecting wildlife and the natural world. A prime example is Pugdundee Safaris, one of the earliest entrants into the luxury accommodation market, which operates 6 resorts in wildlife destinations in Madhya Pradesh and one in Maharashtra. The company has established itself as a brand and has set a high standard of service and amenities. In addition to the largely independent hotel market, established and reputable chains such as Taj Safari Resorts and the Oberoi Hotels Group through the Oberoi Vanyavilas in Ranthambore are leading the way in providing undiluted ‘eco-luxury’ experiences. Independent and branded resorts are driven by a common mission to create accommodations that provide guests with a deep connection to nature; offering a unique range of services that focus on one-of-a-kind experiences, including guided wildlife safaris, nature walks and eco-friendly activities that are in tune with the environment. Additionally, sustainable lodges often offer local and organic dining options, further promoting sustainable practices.

Average prices for resorts in wildlife tourism destinations in India had a CAGR of approximately 3% from 2016 to 2020 with annual occupancy rates of 30-35%. The annual closure of all national parks in India for 3 months, during the monsoons and breeding season, contributes to low annual occupancy rates. However, most resorts are sold out during the high season, with booking times ranging from 3 to 12 months, indicating a shortage in the market. Also, the deliberate lack of urban development and commercial outlets in these areas allows the hospitality business to offer mostly AP plans in the accommodations, which is beneficial to the resorts as the costs associated with food and ancillary activities can be managed, for to increase profitability. In general, hospitality establishments typically achieve 30-40% GOP annually. Given the high seasonal demand, robust profit margins and government initiatives to create more wildlife destinations in India; the market remains attractive for further development, especially given that most of these locations are undersupplied. For example, the top 10 wildlife markets in India currently have only 1,500+ quality hotel keys, of which 36% are branded establishments.

Government initiatives help maintain the fine balance between wildlife conservation and sustainable tourism growth.

India’s forests and jungles are primarily under the jurisdiction of the Department of Forests, which provides controlled and regulated access to wildlife areas. This approach supports conservation efforts while providing tourists with a safe and controlled wildlife experience. Unlike the Indian system, some African countries allow private ownership of forest lands, sometimes restricting public access and shifting the responsibility for conservation to private parties, along with the heavy costs of managing the large tracts of land. In comparison, the Indian system has been praised by stakeholders and has shown qualitative improvements in improving forest health. The increase in forest cover and wildlife population leads to an increased number of sightings, thus fueling steady growth in tourism demand.

Because wildlife tourism destinations are often located in remote or pristine areas that sometimes require effort to access, the cost of travel to these destinations often includes connecting travel via flights, cars, and sometimes even boat trips. Over the past few years, there has been an increased effort by the government to improve last-mile connectivity, intending to further boost demand in these regions.

The wildlife tourism market in India has achieved a harmonious balance, with government interventions and initiatives effectively complemented by the tourism industry’s focus on small, nature-oriented experiential resorts. Unlike some regions, such as game reserves in Africa, where over-the-top wildlife experiences are provided to visitors through private ownership of forest lands, India has traditionally veered away from this path to prioritize conservation. However, with the escalating demand for such immersive experiences, a collaborative approach involving the government, forest departments and industry stakeholders can be beneficial. This collaboration can aim to meticulously create such experiences, maintaining the delicate balance between conservation and visitor access, ensuring a more disciplined incursion into the natural habitats of our wildlife, often overlooked by less conscientious tourists. Also, as more and more branded resorts enter this segment, destinations are seeing increased demand while achieving significant increases in average rates and occupancy, as seen in Ranthambore. This further highlights the scope for growth in emerging destinations such as Kanha National Park and Gir, which do not yet have the supply of quality hotels required to meet growing demand.

Adit Atrolei, Associate – Consulting and Evaluation, was born and raised in the city of New Delhi, India. With a background in financial performance management from Les Roches, Switzerland, Adit combines an analytical mindset with a passion for hospitality. Apart from work, Adit is an avid golfer, movie buff and enjoys new culinary experiences.
Adit can be reached at [email protected]

Deepti Mohan, Senior Manager – Research with HVS South Asia, is a seasoned knowledge professional with extensive experience in creating research-based content. She has authored several “viewpoint” papers such as thought leadership reports, expert opinion articles, white papers and research reports. Contact Dipti at [email protected].

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