Why you should care
Because unmarried couples deserve privacy too.
It was after 11 pm, and Sumit Anand and his girlfriend needed a room for the night. But staff at the north Indian hotel peppered the couple with “bizarre questions,” recalls Anand. “Some were even concerned about the fact we belonged to different faiths.” The biggest sticking point, though, was that the tired couple weren’t married.
That incident, in Jim Corbett National Park in the northern state of Uttarakhand, was when Anand decided things needed to change. India has no law that prohibits consenting adults from booking a hotel room. But deep-seated conservatism and a taboo on premarital sex mean most Indian hotels, apart from high-end four- or five-star establishments, are reluctant to rent rooms to unmarried adults. Hotels generally insist couples either provide a marriage certificate or ID before letting them check in. Hotel management is also worried about police raids under archaic catchall public decency laws, say industry insiders.
A wave of hotel aggregators are emerging across India that provide affordable — a room can cost as little as $15 a night — and safe accommodations for young unmarried couples. These aggregators find and verify partner hotels that are willing to not only rent to unmarried couples but will also ensure they aren’t harassed. The websites are tapping into a growing need: On average, Indians are remaining unmarried a year longer than they were a decade ago. The trend, in turn, is offering a solution to other conservative societies where premarital sex isn’t illegal, yet remains taboo.
In 2016, Anand partnered with a friend, Karan Mago, to launch LuvStay, a hotel aggregator that lists couple-friendly rooms available for a few hours or a few days. In 2015, New Delhi–based Sanchit Sethi and Blaze Arizanov launched StayUncle, an aggregator initially formed to find hotels for travelers who wanted to book rooms for less than a day — most hotels in India charge for at least a day when you check in. Early on in the company’s existence, Sethi and Arizanov looked at their business in a new light. “In the initial months, 99 percent of the inquiries … were from unmarried couples looking for rooms — away from prying eyes. So, we decided to make our business for the 99 percent neglected people,” says Sethi. They’re now starting to also target LGBTQ couples.
In 2016, Oyo Rooms, a popular hotel aggregator, introduced a new feature: Unmarried couples are now able to access 60 percent of 70,000 rooms in 200 cities across India. Awesome Stays, FabHotels and Zo Rooms soon followed suit. Tripvillas, an aggregator, lists rooms in private homes that are available for unmarried couples to rent.
couples need a room, not judgment.
Stayuncle’s tag line
“Earlier, booking a room was frowned upon,” says Sayan Goswami, an Ahmedabad-based digital marketing professional who was once refused a room in the city. “Now, it is easier with the couple-friendly hotel aggregators.”
In some conservative countries — such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Somalia — premarital sex remains illegal. In September this year, Indonesia passed a law barring tourist couples from sharing a hotel room in Bali without a marriage certificate. Unmarried couples can be jailed for having sex.
In India, unmarried couples often go through harrowing experiences even though the country’s Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that premarital sex is legal. In August 2015, a 34-year-old waste management expert from Mumbai — who requested anonymity — had planned a getaway with his 30-year-old Pune-based fiancée in the beachside neighborhood of Madh Island. The couple hadn’t seen each other for a while and were excited to be reunited.
Mumbai police hauled the couple out of their hotel room and booked them under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act — a law that pertains to human trafficking. During that raid, at least 13 couples — all consenting adults — were picked up from hotels in Madh Island and Aksa Beach on charges of “indecent behavior in public.”
“We were also detained in the police stations, given lectures on morality, forced to call our parents and humiliated as though we had murdered someone,” says the waste management expert. “My girlfriend thought I had taken her to a seedy hotel.… Eventually we broke up.”
Some hotels do act as venues for trafficking or prostitution, and are likelier to be targeted in police raids. But those raids often end up with consenting, unmarried adults also being punished. That’s where the aggregators come in.
LuvStay spokesperson Rahul Taneja says every hotel the company recommends has to go through a vetting process. “We also conduct surprise visits and work with the hotel staff to ensure couples face no problem,” he says. Sethi of StayUncle says the firm “only lists hotels that match its vibe.”
Such precautions don’t always protect couples from police harassment, though. In June, an unmarried couple — both college students — were taken from an Oyo Rooms–affiliated hotel in Tamil Nadu state and briefly detained. In October, staff at a Jaipur hotel listed as “couple-friendly” refused to check in an unmarried couple after learning the man was Muslim and the woman Hindu.
Such incidents are why aggregators have begun coaching customers on their rights in case they face similar challenges. LuvStay emails clients with advice on how to date and how to persuade partners to plan a getaway as “it’s 100 percent legit.” StayUncle has a marketing campaign with the tag line “Couples need a room, not judgment.” The company also provides sexual hygiene kits in rooms.
So far, these hotel aggregators have catered to an estimated 600,000 couples, mostly Indian. International tourists are their next target market. Taneja mentions a couple who regularly use LuvStay when they meet — the man lives in Dubai and the woman in India. And aggregator founders believe what they’ve started in India could spark a trend that spreads to other conservative countries.
“One can only hope we get such good news from across the world,” says Goswami.