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Varanasi’s tourist footfall was 8 times that of Goa in 2022: Here is how major projects have led to a big jump in spiritual tourism

Utilizing its deep spiritual appeal, the government has put a specific focus on boosting the economy of Benares, which is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency

Varanasi has seen eight times the number of tourists as Goa in 2022, according to data shared by ICICI Direct. The holy city received a footfall of 7.16 crore tourists last year as compared to 85 lakh received by Goa.

In fact, after Kashi, other UP cities including Mathura, Ayodhya, and Prayagraj had more tourists than Goa in 2022, indicating a massive increase in spiritual tourism of India’s ancient holy cities. Kashi also received 80,000 foreign tourists last year according to the statistics.

The holy city of Varanasi located on the banks of the holy Ganga river has been a pilgrimage for Hindus since time immemorial. Devotees have thronged the ancient city in search of God, artists in search of creativity, and scholars in search of knowledge. It is one of the oldest living cities in India and is considered the abode of Mahadev, Lord Shiva.

Varanasi, also known as Benaras and Kashi, has long been associated with spiritual tourism centuries before the term was coined. It houses 4,000 ancient temples and several religious centres including Buddhist and Jain community centres.

Utilizing its deep spiritual appeal, the government has put a specific focus on boosting the economy of Kashi, which is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency. According to the ICICI Direct data, Varanasi hosts around 250 startups becoming one of the rising startup hubs in India in order to achieve CM Yogi Adityanath’s $1 trillion economy dream.

Uttar Pradesh in total has more than 8,000 startups and 50% of these are run by women. Special Secretary, IT & Electronics & MD, Uttar Pradesh Development Systems Corporation, Kumar Vineet reportedly said that the government is planning to have at least one incubator in every district.

Besides providing a nurturing ecosystem for businesses, Varanasi’s economy has received an impetus across sectors. The ICICI Direct report mainly credits four sectors in this regard namely, Tourism, Manufacturing, Hotel, and Education.

Projects like the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor, Tent City on the banks of Ganga, air-circuit pilgrimage, Ganga Ghat revamp, the longest river cruise network, and the ropeway project are some of the completed and ongoing projects directly aimed at increasing not only tourist footfall but also inviting investors.

Tent City in Varanasi by the ghats of Ganga (Source: TentCity.com)

The holy city has attracted big money in the tourism sector. In February this year, Benares received investment proposals worth a whopping Rs 11,500 crore with more than 40 MoUs signed with the tourism department. Local businesses and vendors too have seen a surge in demand for products and services.

ICICI Direct says the income of people associated with the tourism sector has increased anywhere between 20% to 65%. Employment in the tourism sector has increased by 34.18%. Consequently, another sector benefitting out of this and adding to the city’s economic growth is the hotel and hospitality industry.

As per ICIC Direct, the income of hotel owners in Kashi has increased by 65% recording a year-round profit. It said that the hotels in the city are booked for at least 15 days. Oyo founder and CEO Ritesh Agarwal too in December last year noted that Varanasi is outperforming Goa in terms of hospitality as hotel bookings in the city kept increasing by the hour.

In a big boost to the hotel and hospitality industry, Japan’s Hotel Management International Company Limited (HMICL) earlier this year signed a memorandum of understanding with the UP government worth Rs 7,200 crore. The chain plans to build luxury hotels across 30 major cities in the state including Varanasi. Ecotourism has also received great impetus with a focus on experience-based green tourism.

Famous for its Benarsi silk sarees, the holy city generates a significant percentage of its revenue from silk weaving. While the city’s silk products are exported globally, products from pottery, wooden toys, brassware, carpets, wall hangings, and more have a special appeal amongst tourists. Modi government’s vocal for local pitch, too, has given a much-needed boost to local artisans and silk weavers.

A Banarasi silk saree weaver (Source: HT)

The Yogi government in UP also plans to set up a silk exchange project called Integrated Silk Complex for the weavers of Benares for Rs 8 crore under One District One Product scheme. The city also houses heavy metal giants like Bharat Heavy Electrical Limited (BHEL), and Diesel Locomotive Works.

Education is another key contributing sector to the economy of Varanasi. The holy city has historically been a center of knowledge for saints, priests, subject scholars, intellectuals, and students. This learning center is home to the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) which sees an influx of students from across Uttar Pradesh and beyond. Varanasi’s average literacy rate is 79.27%.

IIT (BHU) has signed MoUs with many foreign universities in Japan, France, Finland, and others. It has also been at the forefront of implementing the National Education Policy, 2020. In March this year, PM Modi laid the foundation stone of ‘Centre of Excellence on Machine Tools Design’ at IIT (BHU).

Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, and Ustad Bismillah Khan are all sons of the blessed city or have lived here for a major part of their lives. Mrs. Annie Besant chose Varanasi as the home for her ‘Theosophical Society’ and Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, to institute ‘Benares Hindu University, the biggest University in Asia. Ayurveda is said to be originated at Varanasi and is believed to be the basis of modern medical sciences such as Plastic surgery, cataracts, and Calculus operations. Maharshi Patanjali, the preceptor of Ayurveda and Yoga, was also affiliated with Varanasi, the holy city.

Banaras Hindu University, representational image, courtesy: BHU

Moreover, Varanasi exports around three tonnes of green peas & green chillies daily to Persian Gulf countries. Fruits & vegetables are being exported to Nepal & Bangladesh. Its ‘langda’ mangoes, Ghazipur’s okra and green chillies, Jaunpur’s radish and melons have started reaching foreign markets. Agro-food parks in the city have also generated export quality food products thereby exposing the city to global markets.

Not only sarees and other traditional products but food also has aided the brand Varanasi. GI tag to Banarsi paan among other delicacies from various UP cities gives a “must try” message to domestic and foreign travelers introducing them to tastes and experiences specific only to Kashi.

In March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the clarion call for “Developing Tourism in Mission Mode”. He said that “events like global conferences and sporting events have the potential to create a stupendous level of infrastructure”. He cited the example of the recent FIFA World Cup 2022, which benefitted Qatar’s economy massively.

Ganga Aarti

Two months later, in June, Varanasi hosted the three-day G20 Development Ministers’ Meeting. In April, the city also hosted the G20 meeting of the Agriculture Working Group. Earlier this year, the city also hosted Khelo Banaras competition wherein more than one lakh youth participated across various sports disciplines. PM Modi also inaugurated the Sigra International Stadium in Varanasi in March.

While Varanasi is widely known as a spiritual tourism destination, the various development projects in the city across sectors have made it a center of amalgamation for the more modern tourism industries too.

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Pragya Bakshi Sharma
Pragya Bakshi Sharma
Journalist with a journey from print to TV to digital news. Multi-tasker. Unstoppable Type 1 Diabetic running on insulin.

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