Perhaps it’s a case of life imitating bad art. In this year’s mirthless Hollywood comedy Couples Retreat: Return to Eden, eight Americans attempt to recharge their foundering marriages by undergoing counseling on a tropical island. At about the same time the movie was disappointing U.S. audiences, a handful of Indian travel agents began pushing “divorce tourism” — package deals designed to help clients salvage their vows while getting away from it all. Six months ago, Viresh Hirjee, chief executive of KV Tours & Travels in Mumbai, pioneered the field by sending customers on holiday with marriage counselors in tow. “We are trying our best to bring the couple together,” says Hirjee, but, he cautions, “We are not destiny changers.”
Though divorce rates in India are among the world’s lowest — only around one marriage in 100 fails, compared to every second marriage in the U.S. — breakups are increasingly common among urban couples, who are overwhelmed by pressures from family, work and other stressors, says Osama Suhail, an associate partner at New Delhi-based law firm ANZ Lawz. The trend has led to an outbreak of new online businesses. Four years ago, Suhail’s firm launched a website offering help on an assortment of marital issues from litigation and child custody to divorce and domestic violence. And at secondhaadi.com, which means “second marriage” in Hindi, divorcees can register online to meet other new singles for another chance at happiness.
Because divorce is considering shameful in India, traditional marriage counseling services are rare and secretive. Only a few tour operators openly promote divorce tourism, which is also an oddly surreptitious affair. Typically, a bickering couple is given an exotic paid-for holiday — destinations for the $1,500 to $2,500 packages are the Maldives, Spain and the Czech Republic — by a concerned parent or friend. Before leaving, the couple meets with the tour operator and his staff to settle the itinerary, unaware that one of the staff members is a counselor — who subsequently shadows them on their trip, assisting with travel details while discreetly soothing ruffled feathers and offering marital advice when needed.
This month, Hirjee is packing off a 30-year-old businessman from Hyderabad and his 27-year-old wife to Bangkok and Pattaya, Thailand. Hirjee has yet to break the news that one of his eight marriage counselors on staff will be their extra baggage for the six-day vacation. “The message will be subtle,” Hirjee says. “They will be told that somebody from our team will accompany you to help with transfers and other things. “We dont want to rock the boat by telling them much in advance and being too explicit. It’s a sensitive issue.”
For operators like Hirjee, divorce tourism is an opportunity to rack up some good karma and shake off a bad run for India’s travel industry. Just when business was recovering from the double whammy of the global recession and last year’s terror attacks at two prominent Mumbai hotels, a swine flu epidemic struck. Business for tour operators is down 30% from last year, according to Kamlesh Anand Amin, secretary for the Enterprising Travel Agents Association, an industry group.
But Indian tour operators are famously adaptable. They’ve offered trips tailored to medical tourism and religious excursions, and leveraged the international success of Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning film with a Slumdog Millionaire tour of Mumbai’s shanties. “We have to be innovative or else you reach a saturation point,” says Amin, who also runs Mumbai-based tour group Transway International.
Does sending couples off unwittingly with a therapist have real growth potential? Meera Mitra, a New Delhi-based sociologist and corporate trainer, says that divorce tourism is in sync with the Indian ethos. Many Indians consult horoscopes, godmen and astrologers before getting married. “This is just a new actor in the same space,” she says.
Not everybody, however, thinks divorce tourism is helpful. With a clientele of diplomats, police officers and rich businessmen, Karl Dantas of Bombay Travels says he won’t be cashing in on the trend. “Leveraging somebody’s misery,” he says, “is not my business.”