“I still vividly remember the scene. Mounted on an elephant back and dressed elegantly, he looked like a prince,” recounts Neha Agarwal, a homemaker in Kolkata, about how her husband, Mayank, looked the day she got married. That is not the only beautiful memory she has of the day or indeed the entire wedding ceremony that lasted three days and for which Neha, Mayank and 300 guests went to Bangkok.
She says that the idea of getting married overseas and that too in Bangkok was entirely her father’s. Ever since Vijay Kumar Dabriwal, a well-to-do businessman from Kolkata, attended a wedding at Hua Hin in Bangkok, he had decided that he would get his daughter married off at the same spot. His wish came true and in July 2016, he took a group of over 300 persons to Sheraton at Hua Hin for the wedding of his daughter.
The families had engaged a wedding planner and Agarwal says that the wedding was very well organised as the planner had taken meticulous care of every detail, providing an ideal mix of Indian culture and traditions with the local Thai flavour. “One of the highlights of the entire ceremony was of course that it came with a real Thai flavour with fire shows and other local entertainment programmes organised for the wedding party,” recounts Agarwal.
In the last six years, the outbound destination wedding market has seen revolutionary changes. First, it has grown multi-fold in size as many more couples are opting to tie the knot overseas and the demand is no longer restricted to the large metros like Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata as many Indians living in Tier II or even Tier III cities are heading abroad for their big day.
The pandemic, of course, badly hit the weddings, both in India and overseas, but things have picked up ever since travel restrictions were removed.
Most stakeholders say they have seen an unprecedented surge in demand for international destination weddings taking place in 2022. Many reports say the destination wedding markets is one of the hottest selling properties in the global tourism market as it begins to rediscover its pre-pandemic colours.
A report by market research and analyst firm Future Market Insights says that destination wedding market is set to grow at over 30.6 pc CAGR in the period 2021-2031 and its value will surge to USD 290 billion by 2031.With over 10 million weddings taking place annually, and an increasing number though yet a small fraction of these, taking place overseas, India takes a lion’s share in the outbound destination wedding market.
From Türkiye to Thailand, tying the knot in 2022
Many destinations say they are witnessing a huge growth in the number of weddings taking place, mainly perhaps as almost all outbound destination weddings had to be delayed for well over two years due to the travel restrictions imposed after the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic.
Turkiye is one of the hot favourites this year. Türkiye Tourism Board says that the country is expected to host weddings of over a 1,000 couples in 2022. Wedding tourists this year will be predominantly from India and some other countries. It goes on to say that with weddings being the significant revenue generators for the Turkish tourism industry, the outstanding numbers witnessed this year have already outweighed the dent caused by the pandemic.
“Considering the international number of visitors received from January to August 2022, Turkiye is expecting to welcome the highest ever number of Indian families in the year 2022 than in 2019, which was a record-breaking year for international travellers in Turkiye. Also, autumn is considered the ideal time for organising a wedding in Turkiye with Istanbul, Bodrum, and Antalya being the top 3 destination choices for couples,” says a statement by the board.
Far away from Türkiye in South East Asia, Thailand has for long been a hot favourite for Indians to tie the knot in. “Amazing Thailand is very well known as a dream wedding destination and has always been one of the most popular destinations for the grand Indian wedding and other celebrations such as milestone birthdays, anniversaries, family reunions, and bachelor & bachelorette parties,’’ Vachirachai Sirisumpan, Director of Tourism Authority of Thailand, New Delhi, tells India Outbound.
Sirisumpan adds that before the outbreak of the pandemic, as many as 400 Indian couples tied the knot in Thailand every year, with average number of guests ranging from 200 to 500 per wedding, while for some it went up to 800 guests. He adds that the market has begun to recover in 2022 and that the country has already hosted many Indian weddings. “Now that the situation is better, the wedding segment from India has definitely bounced back and Thailand has already hosted many Indian weddings this year. Also, for the period, November 2022 to February 2023, we have been receiving information on many more Indian wedding celebrations that are being confirmed in Thailand,” Sirisumpan adds.
Several other destinations, notably Dubai, Sri Lanka, Maldives in Asia as well as Spain and Italy in Europe or Mauritius in Africa have reported a recovery in this key segment of the global tourism market. Even Sri Lanka, which had been in the throes of economic and political chaos for months earlier this year, says it has hosted several Indian weddings this year. “The market was in a state of recovery rapidly from the Covid-19 pandemic situation and we hosted several high-end destination weddings just after the pandemic. Then again there was a shock due to the economic recession and the fuel crisis that we experienced few months back. Sri Lanka Tourism intervened to provide necessary support to the wedding organisers and several weddings took place. Right now even if it has not recovered fully, the organisers say that they have many enquiries for hosting the weddings in Sri Lanka,’’ Chalaka Gajabahu, Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau tells India Outbound.
About 4,000 km south of Sri Lanka, in the Indian Ocean, the island nation of Mauritius, too, is experiencing a swift recovery in destination weddings from India. “Mauritius is always a favourite and most preferred place for Indians to host their weddings. The groups even come in chartered planes with family, friends and guests and celebrate magnificently amidst the picturesque locations, serene beaches, friendly locals, enjoy Indian cuisine, and the fun and closeness of relatives,” Arvind Bundhun, Director of Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority tells India Outbound.
Beyond Africa, in Europe, thanks to its romantic beaches and cities, Italy has been a long-time favourite with Indian wedding planners as well as families of couples. But Italy is considered as a high-end destination and many very wealthy Indians have organised weddings over there, mainly in and around the Lake Como region. Some of the most famous couples in India have chosen the region for their engagements or weddings. In the last four years, itself just this spot in Italy has hosted weddings of actor couple, Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, actor-sports star couple, Anushka Sharma and Virat Kohli, as well as the engagement of Isha Ambani, daughter of India’s second richest person Mukesh Ambani, and Anand Piramal, son of billionaire Ajay Piramal.
With such A-listers opting for Italy, it is no surprise that the country has become a hot favourite for those couples who can afford it. “Currently, most of the demand for a wedding in Italy comes from the country’s biggest metros,” Italian State Tourist Board tells India Outbound.
“The recovery is in progress. There is a lot of demand for Italy be it for tourism, business, MICE or honeymoon. As a wedding destination, Italy is one of the most preferred ones but it is obvious that the pandemic put a halt to the growth. We are confident, however, that the market will soon pick up very well. As you may understand, the very high-end customers are those who can opt for such luxurious wedding celebrations, and mostly coming from Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Emerging cities like Bengaluru, Indore, Hyderabad as well as states like Gujarat and Kerala are opening up for destination weddings,’’ says the board.
Dubai is another well-known destination for hosting Indian weddings. It, of course, helps that Dubai is home to a huge population of Indians, who have been living there for decades. Bader Ali Habib, Head of Region, South Asia at the Dubai Department of Economy and Tourism says that the growth in Dubai’s tourism sector in the first quarter of 2022 has really outpaced the pre-pandemic levels, attributing it to various strategic measures taken by the emirate’s leadership enabling the city to safely navigate and accelerate inbound travel.
“When it comes to Dubai as a hub for destination weddings, the city is a popular choice for a number of reasons – easy access, varied offerings across tastes and budgets, experts in delivery, and the weather, to name a few. We have also stepped up as one of the choice destinations to host invitation only weddings for the HNI audience including high-profile celebrities. As an ever-evolving destination for travel, the wedding sector in Dubai is no different and continues to grow and scale with numerous restaurants, venues, hotels and service providers to choose from,” Ali Habib tells India Outbound.
Portugal enters the fray
Seeing the immense opportunity that destination weddings hold in India, Portugal is the latest kid on the block. Ever since Portugal set up a dedicated office to promote tourism in 2020, the country has been promoting the destination weddings segment by organising various activities, notably through specialist wedding related forums and companies.
The country is banking on its diverse landscapes, heritage monuments as well as a competitive offer. “We have almost 900 km of coast with amazing beaches, mountains and heritage monuments that date from the 13th-14th century, that are very rich in history. We also have a rather mild climate round the year and you can get very good deals from hotels of international quality. In addition, as we have a big Indian diaspora, not just from Goa, but also Mozambique, so we are very aware of the Indian culture and like Indians for us also, the family is very important and we understand how important these kinds of events are and the need to have the family involved. I think we have a lot of similarities in that sense as well,” Claudia Matias, Director of Turismo de Portugal in India, tells India Outbound.
“Apart from that, because of the diaspora, we are familiar with the Indian gastronomy. And we understand that it plays a big part during the wedding. You can find Indian catering companies over there. I know that many weddings people like to take their chefs, but if you are not too fussy about it you can easily find Indian chefs and Indian catering companies in Portugal,” Matias adds.
Destination weddings: A daunting task
Organising a destination wedding is no mean task due to the sheer logistics involved because of the large number of guests. A typical Indian destination wedding, whether in India or overseas, can have anything from 50 to 1,000 guests and each of the guests wants to be given the same attention as would be given to the bride or the groom. Add to that the complicated ceremonies and requirements of an Indian wedding and you have a big challenge ahead of you. Ask any wedding planner. Over the past couple of decades, with the growth in the industry, a number of wedding planners have entered the business, where they understand the requirements of the two families for the wedding and then take over the entire organisation.
Zashank Bhatia, Director of Tailormade is an old hand at organising destination weddings, both here in India and overseas. One of the biggest weddings that he handled recently was the high profile wedding of actors Richa Chaddha and Ali Fazal in Delhi and Lucknow. Bhatia says that handling clients is not easy, but experience helps in dealing with the numerous demands of the Indian clientele, especially overseas. “That’s a trick of the trade, weddings are very personal affair, expectations are always 200 pc. We have been in the business of events and weddings for more than 15 years so we understand how to manage expectations and we plan in advance to avoid any last-minute chaos,” Bhatia tells India Outbound.
Kunal Laungani is the Founder and Chief Consultant of Chapter 2 Events, a specialist wedding organiser, with offices in India, the United States, Azerbaijan and in Portugal. Laungani says that the clients can be demanding, but as a wedding planner he tries to do all he can to satisfy the demands, from wherever they may come.
“Well, 100 pc, every client is different and they push us in different directions. I think as a wedding planner it is our responsibility to understand fully and build that trust, because you’re not dealing with one decision maker but 7, 8 of them. From the brothers to the parents and everybody else. So, from that perspective, they definitely challenge us and we definitely try to come up with solutions and every step of the way you learn from that and you teach them. That’s what we believe in and that’s ethos. We work very closely with the family to understand their expectations. We tell them that we are on the same team and we work better together as a unit. It is definitely challenging but it is also a learning, which will never stop,’’ Laungani tells India Outbound.
Often, the wedding is sought to be organised in a destination that has had little exposure to hosting destination wedding of Indians. Laungani recounts the tale of a particularly challenging wedding organised by him in Porto, Portugal. The couple had been looking for an ideal destination since 2019 and visited many places like Bali and Spain. The outbreak of the pandemic led to the wedding getting delayed. Finally, the groom opted for Porto since he visited Portugal frequently for business. Laungani says though Porto did not have much experience of hosting Indian destination weddings, a very helpful approach of the Turismo de Portugal and a combination of multiple local factors like the beauty of the location, the hospitality of the hotel and the facilities swung the deal.
Both Bhatia and Laungani say that certainly Covid-19 pandemic has changed their clients’ expectations and behaviour as well. While the number of guests may be perhaps a bit more limited, from about 500 earlier to about 200 people now, the couples are looking at new and unique locations to be the first Indian couples to tie the knot at that particular destination.
MTPA’s Bundhun says that even beyond Covid-19, the millennials are looking at more compact and eco-friendly weddings. “The trends of a big destination wedding will always be there even post pandemic, but with some changes, the millennials are shifting towards more intimate, eco-friendly, and sustainable weddings. The couples-to-be are keeping health and safety in the top of the chart. They are focusing on proper sanitisation and selecting mainly high-end venues to make it a unique and hyper-personalised wedding,” says Bundhun.
But pandemic or not, the market for overseas destination weddings is showing no signs of slowing down. Besides the novelty and the memories it creates, organising destination weddings overseas has become more popular due to the shortcomings of the options available in the domestic hospitality sector here in India.
“With destinations in India getting more expensive, there are times when a wedding in Thailand or Middle East turns out to be cheaper than one in Goa, Jaipur or Udaipur. So, a lot of people who planned to get married in India, after comparing costs, think of moving abroad and the Big Fat Weddings will move to more unique and new locations,” says Bhatia of Tailormade.
Laungani agrees. “Because of Covid-19 and because of limited inventory in good hotels in India, a lot of couples have started looking outwards because it is better value for money as India is definitely expensive with the taxes and comes with too many administrative issues. As a result, couples have looked at destinations, whether it be, Thailand, Sri Lanka, or now we are also looking at Turkey and Europe where it is becoming more of a value proposition. The only drawback which comes into question is connectivity which sometimes becomes a major deterrent,” says Laungani. In smooth organisation of a wedding overseas, support from a destination plays an integral part for the wedding planners, but more than fiscal support, it is administrative support that helps the planners. Both Bhatia and Laungani say they often need assistance in fast tracking visas for the entire group and also assistance in getting permissions for locations that are not event venues. The destinations also support the event organisers by educating them on the specific do’s and don’ts about each location.
Destinations play on their strengths
In order to attract clients – be it the couple or the wedding planners – various destinations are putting their best foot forward. Well established destinations like Thailand or Dubai play on their numerous advantages, while new comers highlight the uniqueness and the novelty factor in the beauty pageant that takes place every time when a couple or a family looks for the perfect place to get hitched.
Dubai’s Ali Habib counts several USPs that the destination offers for hosting weddings. Primary is the ease of access as it is a short flight away from most Indian cities that extends its appeal even beyond weddings.
“Due to the geographical advantage, it is also a great choice for a honeymoon destination which only amplifies its appeal as a wedding destination. Another advantage Dubai is home to more than 200 nationalities, and with over 150 languages spoken throughout the city, it truly offers a seamless multicultural experience. Not to mention, the host of world-class event organisers and skilled logistic experts that are able to cater to any type of wedding – whether it’s an intimate bespoke ceremony or a large-scale celebration,’’ says Habib.
Thailand is another destination playing the proximity card. “Close proximity of Thailand to India, with direct flights to Bangkok and Phuket from various Indian cities and a visa on arrival for Indians is also a big advantage in planning a wedding in Thailand,” says Sirisumpan, adding that the country offers easy availability of good and reasonable service providers and suppliers for Indian weddings like henna artists, makeup artists as well as priests.
Wedded to India
The year 2022 has seen a special focus on the Indian outbound market by practically all the destinations as it is the one spot of optimism in Asia since the biggest market China is still closed and Japan and South Korea have only just begun taking baby steps towards reopening to the world after almost three years.
As India’s population is still growing and with the country set to overtake China as the largest country in the world, the number of weddings in India and hence the number of Indian destination weddings overseas can only increase for at least another three decades. A long enough period for any destination to say, “I Do”.