Gone are the days of simply ticking off the usual tourist hotspots. Indian travellers are venturing beyond the familiar, signalling a significant shift in travel preferences post-pandemic. Industry experts are witnessing a surge in interest for offbeat and newer destinations, while pre-pandemic favourites struggle.

“Travellers are increasingly seeking value for money and unique experiences,” says Saujanya Shrivastava, Chief Operating Officer - Flights, Holidays & Gulf, MakeMyTrip. “This is leading to a rise in bookings for destinations that were not traditionally on the Indian traveller’s radar.”

Data paints a clear picture. Bookings for destinations like Da Nang (Vietnam), Almaty (Kazakhstan), Paro (Bhutan), Baku (Azerbaijan), Tbilisi (Georgia) and Tashkent (Uzbekistan) have skyrocketed data from MakeMyTrip, SOTC Travel show. Vietnam, in particular, has witnessed a phenomenal rise. Travel companies report a staggering 250 per cent to 1000 per cent increase in interest compared to 2019 according to SOTC Travel, Thomas Cook. This stands in stark contrast to pre-pandemic trends, where established Southeast Asian destinations like Bali and Phuket dominated travel itineraries.

Established destinations are experiencing a mixed bag of results. While Dubai remains a popular choice with a 13 per cent growth compared to pre-pandemic levels, others are grappling with a decline in Indian visitors. Long-haul destinations like LA and San Francisco have seen a significant drop due to a 50 per cent surge in airfares said Cleartrip. Bookings on the Bengaluru-Singapore route have also plummeted by 28 per cent compared to 2020 (ixigo). This highlights a shift away from traditional long-haul vacations in favour of more accessible and budget-conscious options. Interestingly, within the Middle East region, Abu Dhabi is witnessing a surge due to its aggressive marketing campaigns in India.

New destinations take center stage

Relaxed visa policies are a major draw for Indian travellers seeking cost-effective travel experiences. “The announcements of visa-free entry have been a game-changer for destinations like Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Thailand, resulting in a significant uplift of around 35 per cent,” said Rajeev Kale, President & Country Head, Holidays, MICE, Visa - Thomas Cook (India) Limited.

This sentiment is echoed by the aviation industry. “Vietnam Airlines expects a 40 per cent increase in capacity in the upcoming fiscal,” said Nguyen Trung Hieu, Country Manager for India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal at Vietnam Airlines. “India is the fastest growing market for the airline. Since Vietnam Airlines started operation in 2022 in India, the flag carrier has seen a 40 per cent year-on-year growth every year.”

The opening of new direct flights further fuels the desire for adventure and exploration. “Our own operations and in the last one year itself, we’ve introduced a handful of very exciting destinations,” said Vinay Malhotra, Head of Global Sales, IndiGo. “These destinations cater to the growing appetite for adventure travel and cultural exploration.”

Social media also plays a significant role, with travellers increasingly seeking “Instagrammable” experiences and trending attractions. “We’re witnessing a fascinating shift away from traditional hotspots towards newer, visa-free destinations that offer a blend of Instagrammable experiences and trending attractions,” explained Manan Bajoria, Group VP Growth at ixigo.

Adapting to the new normal

The travel industry is actively adapting to this evolving demand. Airlines are expanding their networks to include new destinations, while tourist boards are acknowledging the need to constantly update their offerings to stay relevant.

Singapore, a pre-pandemic favourite aiming to reach 90-95 per cent of its pre-pandemic visitor numbers in 2024, acknowledges a slower recovery. “The air capacity between the two countries has been 8 percent pre-covid,” said Markus Tan, Regional Director for India at the Singapore Tourism Board. “We believe numerous intriguing destinations have surfaced, providing consumers with fresh options.”

South Africa Tourism, another pre-pandemic favourite facing similar challenges, is aiming to achieve pre-COVID levels of inbound tourism from India by FY25. However, FY24 saw only 79 thousand Indian tourists, a mere 82 per cent of pre-pandemic numbers. Neliswa Nkani, Hub Head for Middle East, India and South Asia at South Africa Tourism, elaborated on the challenges: “We’re facing issues like lack of direct connectivity and the emergence of newer destinations that are attracting Indian travellers.