How ‘election tourism’ took off in India

Travel
(CNN) — For most travelers, a trip to India might center around temples, forts, festivals and food.

But for one niche set of visitors, it’s all about “election tourism” right now.

Home to the world’s largest democracy — with up to 900 million votes being cast in the current parliamentary election — India is an ideal place to immerse yourself in politics, history and culture.
Throughout the elections, on till May 23, local villages, towns and cities are buzzing with energy and events. And that’s exactly what Akshar Travels hopes to highlight with its collection of political tours and experiences.
“When elections are happening, it’s like a festival over here. The people and all the political parties are holding events, rallies, parties and parades to promote their visions,” Manish Sharma, founder of Akshar Travels, tells CNN Travel.

“You can see that the energy and the participation is tremendous. It is in our blood, it’s our passion.”

Introducing ‘election tourism’

India's general parliamentary elections run from April 11 to May 19, with the results to be declared on May 23.

India’s general parliamentary elections run from April 11 to May 19, with the results to be declared on May 23.

SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Established 22 years ago, Akshar Travels originally focused on general services such as visas, tickets and tours.

But Sharma says he’s always on the lookout for ways to innovate and expand. That’s how he came to introduce what he calls “election tourism” to India back in 2012.

Inspired by a “poll tourism” concept that he experienced in Mexico in 2005, Sharma conducted a trial during the Gujarat State Assembly Election to test the waters.

“We saw some success, so we initiated another project on a more global scale during the 2014 parliamentary elections,” says Sharma, who estimates about 5,200 tourists booked tours that year.

“We found that there’s a lot of people who are interested in learning about India’s democratic process — not just the criteria and system, but the various experiences. It’s an opportunity to take part in India in a different way.”

This year, the company expects to welcome about 10,000 travelers on its six- to eight-day election tours. Each group is accompanied by a dedicated guide, which Akshar Travels has hand-picked and trained.

So far, Sharma says the majority of guests tend to be researchers, university students, special interest groups, history lovers, culture enthusiasts and journalists from all over the world — in particular, the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan.

“The elections are a large, complicated process — every state has different languages, cultures, traditions, rules and knowledge,” says Sharma.

“There is huge diversity in the system here in India. It really shows the dynamic culture of India and the power of the people.”

On the campaign trail

A man shows his ink-marked finger after casting his vote in the outskirts of Ajmer, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, on April 29.

A man shows his ink-marked finger after casting his vote in the outskirts of Ajmer, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, on April 29.

HIMANSHU SHARMA/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Covering major historic and political destinations across India, Akshar Travels offers more than a dozen different itineraries.

“We take our guests to visit local villages, meet with local people, and have dinner with political leaders so they have a chance to really understand how India’s democracy works,” says Sharma.

On the eight-day “Election Moves in Uttaranchal” trip in northern India, for instance, travelers can attend a political rally in Haridwar, visit the thunderous Kempty Falls, enjoy a jeep safari through Corbett National Park, as well as attend meetings and “luscious meals” with party officials in the picturesque Himalayan resort town of Nainital.

Meanwhile, the “Domestic Affairs of Uttar Pradesh” itinerary takes travelers through eastern India with stops in the city of Lucknow, known for its Mughal architecture and captivating culture; Ayodhya, famed for its caves and temples; and Varanasi, where political junkies can immerse themselves in the constituency of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Sharma says another popular tour is “Gandhi’s Gujarat,” where guests have a chance to trace the spiritual leader’s footsteps from his hometown of Porbandar to the state capital of Ahmedabad.

“We like to include a lot of cultural experiences and landmarks. This mixture helps travelers to understand the values, traditions and culture of India,” says Sharma. “In this way, even a small village can be connected to the world.”

When travelers have dinner with political leaders, for instance, Sharma says that it’s an opportunity to not only learn more about the group’s vision and mission, but also to sample signature local cuisines.

“Food is something that people often want to experience, so it goes hand in hand,” he adds.

With the 2019 elections winding down, Sharma has his eyes set on the 2024 parliamentary elections when he hopes to expand to an even larger pool of politically savvy travelers.

“The election can really show the power of the people,” says Sharma. “I love my country and I want to show travelers a different aspect of our unique heritage and culture.”

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