Thailand Corners the Big Fat Indian Wedding Market

The Greeks can say what they like -- nobody does the big fat wedding the way Indians do. The Indian nuptials' long parade of rituals and feasts lasts several days and, even at its smallest, involves a few hundred guests and often just as many staff members.

Indians never spend so lavishly on anything as they do on weddings -- and they've never spent as much on weddings as they do today, two decades after the liberalization of the economy and the revolution in consumer consciousness that followed it. The Indian wedding industry is now worth more than $25 billion a year -- and it's growing at an estimated 20 percent a year. If marrying was the central activity of the Indian economy, we'd knock out China in a few years.

Marriage in India has always involved a kind of economic explosion in the life of the family. During the long decades of socialism after India became independent in 1947, the economy grew at a dismal rate every year; jobs were scarce, consumer goods were of poor quality and in short supply, and the first instinct of the middle class and poor was to save. But even then, families, whether urban or rural, could always be relied on to spend well in excess of their resources for weddings. This was as much for reasons of social prestige as out of a desire to include everybody in the family's networks of blood, friendship and business. (Also, there was the pressure of the old Indian marriage custom, which often has a dark side, of dowry.)

But now, two decades of India's sometimes incoherent experiment with capitalism have created so much new money that big weddings have to be bigger and better than every other wedding. (And there are always thousands of weddings -- on one particularly auspicious day in the Hindu calendar last November, there were more than 30,000 in the capital, New Delhi.) In a recent piece in the Hindustan Times, the writer Ira Trivedi reported on going to 32 weddings on the same night in Delhi:

The speed of economic growth in India, which is responsible for the creation of overnight fortunes, is also creating a conspicuous, yet almost desperate type of consumption at weddings. The average budget for an Indian wedding ceremony in the middle class is estimated to be US$ 34,000… The upper-middle and rich classes are estimated to spend upward of US$ 1 million… This doesn’t include cash and valuables given as part of a dowry.

Today, Indians travel far more frequently for business, study, employment and pleasure. After decades of being sequestered within their own country by bad economics and red tape, the country's middle and upper classes have come to appreciate the prospects and opportunities available in a globalized world. And as costs for weddings have increased at home, more affluent Indians are looking at other South Asian countries not as honeymoon destinations but as wedding venues.

Top of this list is Thailand, which is the world's favorite destination for foreign weddings and is only a four-hour flight from Delhi and Mumbai. To Indian families, it offers the twin advantages of a foreign jaunt in a beautiful locale as well as cheaper prices. As one Thai wedding site explains on a page called "Why Thailand?":

The value of the Thai currency (the baht) is similar to the Indian rupee, but the prices of hotels in Thailand are 30-60 percent cheaper overall when comparing similar categories. The quality of hotels is among the best in the world. Food and beverage are also 30-60 percent cheaper in general, and flights to Bangkok are only slightly more expensive than domestic flights in India and in some cases, just the same price. These means you get a "bigger bang" for your bucks in Thailand.

Thai business has been extremely enterprising in positioning the country as an attractive destination for Indian families of means. Many big Thai hotels now have web pages designed exclusively for Indian customers, and a host of wedding management companies in the country (including Indians based in Thailand) have set up websites. The Tourism Authority of Thailand, or TAT, offers many incentives and arguments to Indians for weddings (not the least of them is a book called "Fall in Love in India and Get Married in Thailand"). In a piece called "Thai The Knot" in the February  issue of the Thai Airlines inflight magazine Sawasdee, Chami Jotsalikorn writes:

TAT reports that the average spend for an Indian wedding in Thailand is 10 million baht (about $340,000), with an average of 200 to 500 guests. The average duration of each wedding is three to five nights, with approximately 600 rooms booked. It still costs two to three times more to host a wedding in India than in Thailand, says Satish Sehgal, president of the Thai-Indian Business Association. Indian wedding expenses include airfares, hotel accommodation, food, transportation, hired yachts and the actual wedding ceremony expenses for around 200 guests from overseas, plus priests and Indian chefs from India.

Yes, it seems Indians want to serve Indian food at a Thai wedding -- and fair enough, too, as so many Indian weddings at home today feature, after all, food that Indians think of as Chinese. (This, as the food writer Sourish Bhattacharyya wrote recently, should now be accepted as India's contribution to the globalization of Chinese cuisine.)

Once upon a time, well-off Indians married at home and perhaps put some money aside for what was perceived as a splurge on a honeymoon abroad. But as India enters the mainstream of globalization's currents, the big fat Indian wedding increasingly looks east for lower prices and more exotic pictures for the wedding album.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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