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Akshay Kumar

Akshay Kumar

Putting the facts straight, Nishith Saxena, Founder & Director, Cruise Professionals, shares his perspectives on the much-talked response from cruise lines to the COVID-19 crisis as well as outlook for the industry.

Like other segments of travel and tourism, cruise lines have also been hit badly due to COVID-19. These financial losses may take some time to recover. However, the consumer confidence has not diluted. The graded approach using which cruise lines are opening up their voyages is aimed to manage the supply demand equation.

Why did cruise lines continue to sail despite the spread of coronavirus? Why was there a sluggish response from cruise lines considering the health and safety of passengers?

Thanks a lot for allowing me to share what transpired in the days following the Coronavirus spread in the initial stages. The perception is totally unfounded and grossly unfair to state that cruise ships continued to sail despite the spread of Coronavirus. Imagine more than a hundred cruise ships full of passengers and crew totaling to 4000 plus each, sailing in various oceans in the Atlantic or Norway or Caribbean or South Pacific. Upon hearing the news of Corona Virus spread, almost all cruise lines increased focus on health and safety of passengers and the crew by adopting stringent hygiene and sanitation protocol onboard till the ships arrived at the pre-determined port of disembarkation.

Till Mid-February 2020, there was limited information available about the nature of this virus, but when WHO declared Covid19 as a pandemic, most countries acted in a “Self-Preservation” mode and cruise ships were not allowed to disembark passengers at many ports internationally. At that time, cruise lines were fighting many battles simultaneously but not all of this is in public domain.

Behind the scene, all cruise lines were consulting the health authorities which were providing guidance and medical advice to ships and cruise line management across the globe. Thankfully the ship’s crew and passengers understood this situation better than some of the media who did not report the matter with the correct perspective and continued to sensationalise the individual incidents, which was not the correct depiction of the facts.

Cruise lines take health and safety of the passengers and crew as their first and foremost priority. This is not just a slogan, but an ethos followed very strictly in the cruise industry. What someone may perceive as a sluggish response may be a very thorough and careful handling of a sensitive situation – when the enemy is unknown, we can’t throw caution to the winds.

If the approach of cruise line in handling Covid19 cases onboard a few vessels was not correct, then we would have seen thousands more fatalities on many ships. Since the ship is a contained zone and people’s movement can be regulated, control over the situation was achieved quicker than most would like to believe. The ship incidents were unfortunate, not intended and the response was not sluggish.

What sort of impact are you seeing on the brand as well as on the industry due to the above scenario?

If the impact on the industry or the brand is to be measured by future bookings, then it may surprise all of us. We have seen media reports of some cruise lines getting nearly 200 per cent plus growth in the bookings when their schedule was announced. While it cannot be denied that similar to all travel businesses, cruise lines have suffered heavy losses due to voluntary suspension of their fleet operations – these financial losses may take some time to recover, but the consumer confidence has not diluted. The graded approach using which cruise lines are opening up their voyages is aimed to manage the supply demand equation. Going by the experience and inside knowledge of the industry, I know that cruise lines’ have some of the sharpest minds when it comes to pricing and yield management.

One of the biggest stake holders – our consumers have always demonstrated great maturity and supported cruise lines initiatives. They understand how businesses work as many of these passengers have their own establishments. They possess a better understanding of such disruptions and do not relate isolated incidents to specific brands. In fact, cruise passengers and crew would continue to remain our biggest brand ambassadors and we do not foresee any brand erosion in the mid or long term.

Cruise sector will majorly be under scanner post COVID-19. What sort of SOPs are being adopted to instill confidence among passengers for future sailings?

No industry is irresponsible to operate their businesses without taking necessary precautions and cause any kind of harm to its crew or clients – may it be airlines, cruise lines, hotels, rail services, attractions or coaches. We should not single out any one industry as each of these are inter-dependent. Specifically, for cruises, we are in the business of making people happier and creating memories at sea. The SOP’s to prevent Covid19 or any other communicable infection have been finalized in consultation with health authorities after multiple testing of the processes and would be implemented at all levels: pre-embarkation, at the time of embarkation, during the cruise, at a port of call and also at the time of disembarkation. These include, but are not limited to, increased sanitation of all public spaces, thermal screening, limited self-serve buffets, increase in room sanitation, touch-less entry & exits etc. Communication for the same to build consumer confidence would be released appropriately for different brands. To put it simply, cruise lines are in control of the situation.

Have the cruise liners which you represent announced any sailings? what is the timeline when you plan to restart business?

We’re in business and never stopped responding to queries and assisting our trade fraternity – operating from homes under the lockdown, each member of the team has been working hard for the last 10 weeks with cruise lines HO’s to manage bookings and cancellations, issuing refunds and Future Cruise Certificates and assisting passengers in re-planning their future cruise. We are glad to share that a few cruise lines we handle have introduced some very attractive rebooking and fresh booking offers with very low deposits - these would be shared through normal marketing communication shortly. Considering the flights connectivity and opening of borders and ports, each of the premium and experiential cruise brands we represent would have their own strategy with regards to opening voyages for sale and the marketing communication for same would be forthcoming shortly.

Will the pandemic affect the cruise liners’ further expansion plans, in terms of vessels and routes?

The future expansion plans, deployment and ship build programs are looked into constantly by the top management and it would not be appropriate for me to comment. What we have witnessed in our long association with the cruise industry is that this business permeates supply chain in multiple communities and multiple countries, it’s passengers and crew are sourced from across the world. A healthy cruise industry is a mirror of a happy and prosperous society – therefore cruise industry would bounce back quicker than most people expect. The future plans would be shared as & when appropriate, right now the focus is to get back to where we belong – the oceans.

What will be your marketing strategy post covid-19 issue to woo passengers?

Such disruptions compel us to think of new and innovative ways to conduct business and marketing strategy would evolve accordingly. One certainty we foresee is the hybrid of B2B and B2C distribution as brands would invest heavily in rebuilding markets after a gap of more than 6 months. Digital would become an integral part of the marketing budgets and the strength of distribution at low cost would determine the health of businesses going forward. I feel that we must stop focusing too much on “Covid19 Free” environment in all marketing communication for various travel products as more we talk about Covid19, the longer it would remain embedded in our consumer’s mind. The whole idea of moving from Lockdown to Unlock is to get to the normal cycle of life. Like all bad memories, this would fade away with time. 

The Indian hospitality industry, over the last couple of years have witnessed a healthy increase in the Average Room Rate (ARRs), after a period of stagnancy. Demand outpaced supply in various major cities across India and further there were significant hospitality development happening in the Tier II and III cities. Everything came to a standstill with the Covid-19 pandemic. Every sector has been hit badly with travel and hospitality being the first one to suffer. Despite the impact, hotels managed to get a small amount of business from alternative arrangements. Hotels turned into quarantine centres, isolation wards, office cabins, and many more.

Speaking about the impact of the pandemic, Rattan Keswani, Deputy Managing Director, Lemon Tree Hotels, said, “The pandemic has had a substantial impact on the travel and hospitality industry. With a national lockdown in place for over 50 days, movement and travel has been minimal leading to a reduced demand for rooms. The need for social distancing, in order to flatten the curve, adds to the complexity of travel even for those are doing so on account of an emergency. Lemon Tree has managed to bring in business even during an extended lockdown by looking at new segments of business (e.g. quarantine) and creating a product/service mix to cater to each segment (e.g. Business continuity teams, transit; self-isolation).”

Every hotel is now looking and focusing to tap the domestic market, which is expected to revive the industry. As a head start, the organized hotel chains, especially mid-market hotels already thrive on the buoyant domestic market and enjoys brand loyalty.

“There is always light at end of the tunnel and after seeing a recovering trend from the domestic market in China, we are confident that the hospitality industry in our region will bounce back soon. On the upside, a gradual recovery in the business prospects may be anticipated ahead of July-August. Our success in Indian tourism at Accor is largely constructed upon our massive domestic demand which gives us an edge over others in the business. As the sector resumes to develop contingency plans to alleviate the fallout of the crisis, we aim to deploy marketing campaigns encouraging customers to experience India until frontiers open,” Kerrie Hannaford, Vice President Commercial, Accor – India & South Asia, said.   

Today, hygiene and safety are the utmost priority for every hotel chain and for the travellers. Hotels with visible hygiene and sanitisation will surely instill confidence in the minds of travellers. With all these arrangements in place, industry feels that the ARRs won’t be much impacted post covid-19 once demands builds up in the next few months.

Sudeep Jain, Managing Director, SWA, InterContinental Hotels Group said, “The tourism sector in the country is primarily driven by the domestic market and we expect domestic tourism to recover first. Therefore, I believe that mid to long term prospects for the sector in India are still strong and when it’s safe to travel again, guests staying at our hotels will expect the same brand experience as before and will be willing to pay for it. Our focus will continue to be on delivering a safe, healthy, and clean stay to our guests and give them the confidence to return to our hotels and visit our various properties across the country.”

Echoing similar opinion Keswani added, “Hotels will naturally go after business aggressively and the approach would be to fill rooms at price that are competitive (for the customer) and fair (for brands). As demand builds over a few months, ARR will stabilize and slowly build back to earlier levels.”

Also, post the covid-19 crisis and once there will be relaxations, mid-market hotels will be the fastest to recover considering their operational expense. Experts from the industry believed that the luxury segment will be the worst hit with a longer impact.

Sarbendra Sarkar, Founder & Managing Director, Cygnett Hotels Group, said, “This pandemic has adversely affected our entire industry at large. We believe that not only the luxury segment, but all others are brutally hit by this widespread. The mid-range hotels generally work on the business market and with the current situation, it will take time for them to revive. However, the mid-range segment will be the first one to revive as their operational expenses are lesser than the luxury segment.”

Weekend destinations, self-drive, destinations which are not majorly thronged by travellers will be the see early recovery. “Our focus initially will be to promote domestic travel, weekend getaways and staycations. Our guests will be able to see safety measures at every step- right from the time of booking till they check-out. The safety and well-being of our guests is our top priority thus during this period we have implemented new cancellation and modification policies to give our guests increased flexibility. For our ALL Members we have extended benefits of status, expiration of their earned points and advantage for Roll-over Status Nights/Points. To welcome the customers back, we at Accor have married creativity with innovation to entice them and assure a seamless experience Authentic travel has a lot of opportunities and the way people travel in the post COVID phase is likely to change,” Hannaford added.

Majority of the international as well as homegrown brands have a robust inventory pipeline in India market. The lockdown regulations have also brought construction to a standstill. This standstill topped up with lack of adequate labours in major cities, and depleting cash reserves will overall slowdown the pace of construction.

“In some cases, there could be temporary delays in construction. It will also depend on the stage of the project. Projects very early in the development cycle or very late in the cycle are expected to continue at their normal pace.  As the situation stabilises in markets across the globe and local restrictions are eased first, domestic tourism is expected to be the first to recover. This appears to be positive news for us in India as the tourism sector in the country is primarily driven by the domestic market. Therefore, we expect the demand to pick up in the mid to long term and the need for more quality hotels that have standards which will instill confidence in guests,” Jain opined.

Post lockdown, the travellers behaviour will witness a sea-change. The game-changer will be health and safety now, with price war having less or no effect on the consumer.

Speaking about the challenges in revival, Sarkar said, “The revival will be full of challenges and any company would have to put more than 100 per cent efforts to sail through these harsh waters. There will be a paradigm shift in the travel parameters and customer behaviors. Business shall try to regain the trust of their existing clientele and reinforce their brand loyalty. This could be achieved by giving them special benefits and communication. Also, it’s time to attract the local target audience as a result of international travel pandemonium. Travelers will seek to explore new destinations within the country. Most of our marketing efforts will be digital. As hoteliers, it is our responsibility to provide the best of the environment to our guests. We will leave no stone unturned to provide a paramount hygiene environment.”

Globally, it has been an accepted fact today that covid-19 is here to stay. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Governments across the globe have majorly focused on striking a balance between lives and livelihood. Tourism and hospitality industry have been the worst hit segments and will be one of the last ones to revive. With majority of the governments giving a green signal to restart tourism cautiously, domestic tourism will be the fuel to keep the industry running.

Experts are of the opinion that regional tourism will act as a starting point for the international travel. Neighbouring destinations are now looking at bilateral travel and devising ways to enhance regional tourism. India being the main stakeholder of the SAARC Region, developing strong relations in the tourism front across the region is the need of the hour.

To further brainstorm and discuss the opportunities to strengthen tourism ties within the SAARC region SATTE Bangladesh and T3 organised an e-conference recently titled, ‘COVID -19: Regional/Short-haul Tourism is the only Way Forward’. Moderated by Murari Mohan Jha, Editor, T3, the e-conference witnessed eminent speakers from across the fraternity including; Suman Billa, Director, Technical Cooperation & Silk Road Development, UNWTO; Subhash Goyal, Honorary Secretary, FAITH; Madubhani Perera, Actg Managing Director, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau; Deepak Raj Joshi, Former CEO, Nepal Tourism Board;  Jabed Ahmed, Chief Executive Officer, Bangladesh Tourism Board (BTB); HM Hakim Ali, President, Bangladesh Int. Hotel Association- (BIHA) and Rezaul Ekram, President, Bangladesh Inbound Tour Operators Association

Fostering regional connect

SAARC region has been very closely knit and have various ties with respect to trade and commerce. Tourism is one segment which needs more of G2G talks and the present scenario is an opportunity to develop this relation.

“The principle across the world is that domestic will lead. At the second level, regional travel will surely happen. It’s important how SAARC can structure this. We need to make alternate arrangements to make sure hotel and tourism industry is supported. Also, the Governments confidence level is low. If you are not to be quarantined, you need to step into the country with an antibody test with a certificate. The second option is with a vaccine certificate, whenever it’s out. Globally, we see development of travel bubbles or safe travel zones as an interim arrangement made to restart travel before vaccines are introduced. These are done by countries which are very successful in handling the pandemic like Baltic countries (Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia), second is the Trans-Tasmania (Australia, New Zealand), UK and France are in a state of active discussions, also Greece is looking at an arrangement with Cyprus and some other countries. In the interim, it will be the regional arrangements that will go forward,” Billa said.

Speaking about the challenges which needs to be countered, Billa added, “SAARC Countries have a huge challenge of perception in terms of safety and hygiene. We may not rank very high, we need to work on this. We need to restore consumer confidence. There also needs to be health protocol by the Health Ministry apart from Tourism Ministry. Governments need to sit and discuss how to go forward. We need to establish testing and border control protocols so that risk gets mitigated. It will take some time to come with these SOPs in place. We can carve out zones initially before opening the entire country. It’s an opportunity for SAARC and can be led very strongly. If there is a strong protocol in place things can be seamless.”

There has been a lot of private connects in the region, but somehow Governments have never discussed tourism at greater lengths within the region.

“As other parts of the world, even in Nepal, travel and tourism is the worst hit which is eight per cent economy revenue generator. I see a potential of the region coming together, with such incredible offerings. India in 2019 received nearly 18 million ITAs including NRIs, Sri Lanka 2.3 million, Bangladesh near 1 million and Nepal with 1.2 million. So roughly when we talk about these four countries, we have received around 22.5 million international tourists. When we talk about outbound, these four countries send around 31 million travellers altogether. There is a huge market here for us. In private sector, there has been some collaborations over the years, but it is very low in Government level. From private perspective, we have to network more and jointly market these destinations. We need to communicate our strength and market more aggressively. From Government side, we need to work together for a seamless collaboration,” Joshi stated.  

One of the first countries in the region to open up inbound tourism is Sri Lanka. The destination has comparatively a smaller number of cases and has successfully contained the spread of covid-19. Sri Lanka is set to restart international tourism from August 1.

Divulging the plans and SOPs in place, Perera said, “Sri Lanka is very fortunate as we have controlled the situation to an extent with very few cases. The Covid-19 Combat Task Force headed by the President has decided that tourism will be open to the world from August 1. The committee is already working on the protocol to open the tourism sector. For the moment the decisions taken regarding inbound, travellers need to take a PCR test 72 hours before boarding the aircraft. Once the reach they will again be tested and put in a hotel for 24 hours. If they are positive, they will be sent to a quarantined hotel else they can enjoy the tour. Once again 5-6 days later the traveller will be tested. We will make sure that traveller is safe in the country. Travellers should minimum stay for five nights to enter will be the new protocol. We are also considering with five-year multiple entry visa with maximum six months stay which will encourage repeat clients.”

Bangladesh Tourism is now working on a plan to restart and revive tourism segment with a major focus on domestic and cross border tourism. The destination has suffered over US$1500 million alone from the tourism segment during the covid-19 pandemic.

“Tourism is an important economy driver for our region. The most prolonged impact across the globe will be in tourism which contributes up to 10 per cent of the global GDP. Nearly 1.18 million direct and 2.3 million indirect are working in this sector who are impacted in Bangladesh.  Recently, Bangladesh Tourism Board has experienced a loss of US$1500 million in tourism to Bangladesh. We have come up with an integrated plan to restart tourism. Tourism establishment and services should follow strictly the protocol released by the Government. Our immediate focus will be on the short haul and domestic tourism instead of the long haul. With less money in the pockets of the people they would want to travel, long haul seems difficult. In this backdrop, regional and cross border tourism could be our first choice to restart the business. I do call for a solidarity and a greater unity in our SAARC region,” Ahmed said.  

Private Perspective

Over the last couple of months, the tour operators and travel agents’ segment were looking for a few reliefs from the government. With a few relief measures in place, the private sector is now looking to build new relations within the region to give a major impetus to the cross-border and regional tourism.

“The entire Indian tourism industry has been completely impacted. For the hoteliers also there is a 95 per cent impact, the rest five per cent are near airport or used as quarantine centres. Recently, the domestic flights restarted with all protocols and precautions in place, only passengers who are fit to travel are allowed. We have now learnt to live with covid-19. FAITH has made representations to the Prime Minister and the Tourism Minister; the government is looking at providing some relief. A lot of countries have successfully contained the virus and have started living with the virus, we also need to adopt similar protocols. In India, we are working as one team with Ministry of Tourism. We can also think of collaboration in a lot of fronts. My recommendations to the tourism boards is that we must live with this virus. We can carry certificates till vaccines come that we are corona negative. All protocols by IATA and ICAO needs to be strictly followed,” Goyal said.

Bangladesh has been the number one source market for India as per the latest statistics. But industry experts from Bangladesh don’t see a similar reciprocal from their neighbours in terms of inbound traffic.

Ali said, “We have already advised all the owners to be prepared with all SOPs and be ready to open hotels. Unless Bangladesh is included in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka tour operator’s itineraries, there won’t be regional travel. Bangladeshi travellers are going across the region, but the reciprocal is very less. We are all ready to cater to regional markets, but we would want Bangladesh to be included in itineraries.”

Echoing similar opinion, Ekram added, “We should now stand together to fight and bring back tourism to the right place. We are in a geographical location with 25 per cent of the world population living, which means our tourism can bounce back. Our travellers will be eager to travel within the country and later in the region. We will start our domestic tourism first with SOPs in place. Cross Border tourism is very important as we have good connectivity with Nepal and India. We are the top inbound travellers in India, but we are not getting that big numbers from India. Cross border tourism will happen, in terms of regional travels we need to have bilateral itineraries. When SAARC started there was a special airfare for the region, which we need to reinforce to attract more travellers. The SAARC entry fee should be implemented by all nations. If possible, like ASEAN, we need a NTOs research cell where we can come out with data to revive.”

Responding to the scenario, Goyal added, “Bangladesh needs to do more roadshows in India for visibility as other regional tourism boards are very active. When tourism was down, we started various travel marts across the country. Similarly, Bangladesh is a beautiful destination but needs marketing. We have been going to Europe, America and other countries but we need to promote within the region. We need more buyer-seller meets in our region. We want to promote Bangladesh in a big way. SAARC tourism fares was there where all national carriers were giving 25 per cent discount, we need to introduce that. Visa fee for travellers within SAARC region should be very less. Also, we need to mull for a joint SAARC visa similar to Shengen region. We need to have a bilateral exchange of our currencies; this will help us making our money more effective.”

Role of SATTE

Over the years SATTE, South Asia’s largest travel and trade expo has played a major role in binding the tourism interests of the region. The exhibition has been a major platform for the entire region to collaborate and network. Regional Tourism Boards feel that SATTE needs to be the platform to foster regional relations.

Speaking about SATTE, Goyal said, “I am one of the founder members of SATTE, when I was the president of IATO, as we wanted inter-regional tourism in the South Asia region. Small tour operators could not attend big events across the globe, so this platform was created. SATTE has to now play the historical role to connect the entire region, it has over the years done a brilliant job. We need to have regional cooperation between South Asian Countries.”

This year, SATTE was set to debut in Bangladesh with SATTE Bangladesh in August, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, the exhibition has been pushed to the next year. “SATTE was looking to organize in Bangladesh but has been postponed for another date. We are looking forward for such an event to network and connect with our counterparts from across the region,” Ali opined.

Similarly, some experts feel that SATTE should be held across the region to boost tourism in those destinations. Joshi said, “Experts feel that Asia is a source of hope for travel to the world. We have to come closer. SATTE itself is a big platform which brings the entire region together and you are planning to come up with an event in Bangladesh. I would propose that you can also organize in Colombo or Katmandu to further strengthen the collaboration.”

Echoing similar opinion, Perera added, “When we consider regional travel, we need to make south Asia the most flexible region for travel. SATTE was long back held in Sri Lanka, we can once again revive that with help of SAARC region.”

Globally, with the strategy of living with covid-19, Governments are structuring their path for safe reopen. Majority of destinations across the globe have restarted tourism, at least domestic and are now looking to restart regional tourism. Australia Government has come up with a Three-step roadmap towards a COVIDSafe Australia, which includes the tourism and hospitality.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced the world to an unprecedented degree of change and forced the reevaluation of what we consider to be ‘normal’. Australia too has been impacted significantly with the lack of international tourists over the past few months. However, Australia is now one of the few countries to effectively flatten the curve recently resulting in a minimal number of reported cases. A factor of importance that travelers will be increasingly relying on and that will inform their decision to travel to a country. While the timelines for lifting international travel restrictions are yet to be confirmed, it is essential for us to realize that the industry will start the process of recovery quickly once travel resumes,” Nishant Kashikar, Country Manager, Tourism Australia, informs. 

In the initial phase, besides domestic tourism, Australia is looking at the ‘Trans-Tasman’ travel corridor, which will be a positive for the global outbound tourism.

“Tourism is a major contributor to Australia’s economy and as part of the Australian Government’s issuance of its Three-step Roadmap towards a COVIDSafe Australia the plan details a systematic approach for lifting travel restrictions. The easing of domestic travel restrictions is currently underway, allowing for intrastate and some interstate travel, which is where we anticipate the start of the recovery to commence. A ‘trans-Tasman’ travel corridor between Australia and New Zealand is also identified in the three-step plan. While the official details and timing of this ‘travel bubble’ have not yet been announced, it highlights a possible step forward towards reinstating inter-country travel,” he adds.

Over the years, India has emerged as one of the top markets for Australia. India currently occupies the sixth position following China, New Zealand, United States, United Kingdom and Singapore, with each tourist averaging an expenditure of approximately AU$ 5,000.

“Tourism Australia continues to focus on with industry partners and trade to prepare for when international travel resumes, and Australia can once again safely welcome travellers from India. India having consecutively remained a front running market for Australia’s tourism industry, recording double digit growth over the span of six years and surpassing the 2020 target arrival goal of 300,000 arrivals in 2017, has retained its title as the fastest growing tourism market, reiterating the vital need for and opportunity that rests within it,” he reveals.

Presently, long-haul tourism will be one of the last in any traveller’s bucket list. But, with SOPs and protocols in place topped up with an array of activities and attraction, Australia positions itself as one of the most ideal long-haul destination for the Indian travellers.

Speaking about the trend Kashikar, says, “Going forward, travellers will likely be hyperaware and unwilling to compromise on hygiene and sanitation standards, which will in turn influence their choice of airlines and accommodation based on the protocols enforced by these service providers. Once the lockdown is lifted, travelers are likely to seek solace in the lap of nature leading to a rise in demand for countryside, wildlife and/or outdoor adventure-based experiences. Self-drive trips will see an uptake as travellers will want to explore nature at their own pace and away from the crowds. This is also influenced by the fact that travellers will naturally want to gravitate towards experiences that are less crowded to maintain social distancing.”

Replying to a question over slow tourism, he says that slow tourism is definitely on the cards for travellers given that this will allow them the opportunity to navigate varied experiences over several weeks so that they also abide by safety protocols. “Tourists will also prefer this option given that it will provide them with an avenue to explore several aspects of a destination at once, after months of being confined to their homes. In fact, Australia is the ideal destination for long haul travel given the expansive array of curated and natural experiences available across the country for all kinds of travelers,” he adds.

Despite the proven record that Domestic Tourism has always emerged as the mainstay of tourism globally and in India, domestic market has never been focus of the government and industry in India. Be it 9/11, global economic slowdown, SARS & MERS or any other natural or manmade calamities, its domestic tourism that kept the momentum going for the tourism and hospitality industry. 

One of the strongest estimates and strategy for most of the destinations is to keep their plans in place to capitalize on the domestic tourism boom. It is proven time and again that domestic tourism is the growth driver of the Indian tourism but there has not been a focused strategy to realize the potential of this segment. Thousands of the exotic domestic destination in various nook and corner of India remains unheard among Indian travellers.

To further brainstorm and come up with key strategies for the industry to harness the potential of the domestic tourism, T3 partnered with Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India to organise an e-Conference recently titled ‘Domestic Tourism: An Opportunity Unexplored’. Moderated by Murari Mohan Jha, Editor, T3, the e-conference witnessed eminent speakers from across the fraternity including; Satyajit Rajan, Former DG, Ministry of Tourism, GOI and Addl. Chief Secretary (Labour & Skills), Govt. of Kerala; Rajiv K. Vij, CMD, Carzonrent (India); JK. Mohanty, Hony. Secretary, Hotel Association of India & CMD, Swosti Group; Arjun Dasgupta, Vice President, Aeropolitical Affairs and Alliances, GoAir and PP. Khanna, President, Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India sharing their mind to the audience.

Highlighting the potential of this segment, Rajan said: “The domestic tourism steps in whenever there is a problem. It takes care of the seasonality as inbound is a seasonal business and domestic gives a cushioning. Domestic tourism also scatters and deconcentrates tourism as these travellers go to interiors, rural, and unexplored destinations. Covid-19 is going to last, entire scenario will change over the next two years. Tourism will comeback most significantly in domestic sector. Our PM, has not given any major package for tourism sector, but in the last five years there have been a lot of concepts coming in. ‘Ek Bharat Shresht Bharat’ involved a lot of ministries to showcase culture, PM also launched ‘Bharat Parv’, where all states showcased themselves, even in 2017, ‘Paryatan Parv’ was launched and 3000 to 4000 events were organized across the country. Also, now in last two months, ‘Dekho Bharat’ webinar has been organized. Also, PM has announced that 15 destinations should visited by every Indian. I don’t recall any time in the history when the top man of the nation has spoken so significantly about domestic tourism.”

Over the last couple of years, Indian outbound has been one of the fastest growing compared to global growth. With high disposable income and aspiration to travel, millennials are leading the path for this outbound boom. The post lockdown is the perfect opportunity to tap this segment.

Speaking about the key factors to be looked upon by the Government, Mohanty said, “The India outbound overall spends around Rs. 165,000 crores when they travel. This is the right moment to retain this money within India as people have no alternative than domestic tourism. Today, the millennial generation have a lot of surplus money and have been held up due to lockdown. Once things open, they will surely look at domestic tourism. Each state in India has a huge tourism potential. States and Central government need to develop the required infrastructure which is lacking in India. Once this is done, we can retain the high spending Indian travellers which will generate more employment. The Hotel Association of India has been demanding for long term that hotels be given infrastructure status. Our neighbouring nations are totally surviving on tourism. We can only compete with these destinations once we have infrastructure.”

In the new normal world, consumer behaviour of travellers will witness a paradigm shift. Travellers will now prefer more of contactless travel with road transport being the most favourable initially.

“We have put in place a protocol that all our cars are getting sanitized across India. All cars have sanitation L-shaped shield created, where driver is isolated from the passengers. Masks are compulsory and passengers need to clean his hands with sanitizer. High touch points are cleaned after at least every trip. Our entire operation including payment is contactless. Self-drive hasn’t grown too much in India as people prefer to take their own car. This segment is focused on weekend travel and niche travels and all vehicles are available. The best comfort is when travellers take a self-drive and this is the time it takes off in India. It is time that the government which invests a lot of money in bringing foreign tourists to India, needs to invest that amount in focusing and promoting domestic tourism. One missing link, the entire growth story will crash. There are more partnerships required between the industry stakeholders to create this seamless and unique experience for travelers,” Viz stated while explaining the preparedness and protocols for road transport and car rentals.

One of the major steps which needs to be taken across the industry is forging right partnerships as even if one link is missing, the travellers experience may be disturbed. Also, with international destinations which have been successful in containing the covid-19 challenge are now looking to restart inbound travel. To harness the potential of domestic tourism, state tourisms and the stakeholders need to act fast, else it is an opportunity missed.

Speaking about the strategy, Dasgupta said, “In terms of domestic tourism, there is a huge scope and it is important that every cog in that wheel contributes to grow this segment. Every aspect needs to be integrated, we need to act fast and take this off the ground as quickly as possible. Many destinations internationally has already started embarking on getting tourists. For example, Phuket in Thailand is aggressively promoting how they are safe and are ready. In this period when people are worried about travel, we need to build confidence. Q2 is anyways a very sluggish period for travel in India, but Q3 is when there are a lot of festivals and school and college holidays, we see a lot of domestic and international holidays are undertaken. Domestic tourism will be very dependent on state tourism boards making initiative, hotel and tour operators partnering and airlines ensuring connectivity. Integration is the need of the hour and we must act fast. Central government should look at some package or stimulus for tourism.”

One of the major challenges in India is there is no proper study or records to monitor the domestic tourism. Every year, Ministry of Tourism comes up with an India Tourism Statistics which has a proper study on inbound, but unfortunately domestic tourism is still functioning on estimates.

Speaking about the recommendations to the Government, Khanna added, “We are number 3 in the world after US and China in terms of domestic tourism. Post covid-19, we have an opportunity to grow this numbers. Domestic tourism is a shock absorber across the globe. Today, we don’t have a proper study for domestic tourism. The Ministry of Tourism annually brings out a book called ‘India Tourism Statistics’ which has every statistic, but no official and comprehensive study is done for domestic tourism. Last year, when Khumb Mela was organised it was estimated that 12 crore travellers will be visiting, but later we got to know around 22 crore travellers visited. This is not a proper study, it is just estimated. We don’t know the carrying capacity of any destination in India, which is very important for sustainability. Adventure tourism is one segment where we already have social distancing and can be the first to start. Road travel will be the main mode of transport. People will look more into nature and rural tourism than any major hotels.” Khanna urged the Government to have a proper and authentic study done to ascertain the number of domestic tourists. “If we really want to grow our tourism, we need to have the statistics and other facts right with us. Unless we know the problems, we can not talk about the solutions. We request the Ministry to appoint an agency and get this right,” he said adding that the ADTOI is there to support this initiative of the Ministry.

To summarize, there needs to be action plan which needs to be implemented in the short term to tap the domestic market. “Apart from the government schemes, a few strategies should be immediately implemented. Firstly, multilingual helpline should be introduced in every state. Secondly, people travel for social reason. We should showcase festivals in a big way as this will bring the travellers and migrants closer. Next, we have not really measured domestic tourism efficiently, we should have a proper survey on domestic tourism. Two years ago, we gave a figure that 60 per cent of the domestic tourism was religious tourism which was a gut figure. But last year, there was a research which says only 25 per cent of domestic tourism is for religious purpose. Industry should put pressure on local governments to record domestic numbers,” Rajan suggested.

Yatra.com has introduced ‘Clean Pass’, an initiative by the company to ensure that safety measures are adopted by its partner hotels, cab and bus service providers. It is a promise made by the company to its customers for safe travel across all touch points during their journey.

The ‘Clean Pass’ for hotels includes multiple safety measures such as sanitisation of room and common areas, staff to wear masks and gloves, have Aarogya Setu app, regular temperature checks, room sanitisation in front of the guest during check-in and host of other benefits. For cabs and bus service providers, ‘Clean Pass’ ensures drivers wearing masks and having Aarogya Setu app, daily monitoring of driver’s temperature check, the vehicle being sanitised after every trip, sanitizer to be placed in the vehicle, driver to maintain zero physical contact with the passenger, seating arrangements made keeping social distancing in mind.

Commenting on this initiative Dhruv Shringi, Co-founder & CEO, Yatra.com, said, “As the world battles with the COVID-19 pandemic, we understand that safety during travel is the most important concern for any individual and for the industry to bounce back, gaining customer confidence will be pivotal. Keeping this in mind, we have introduced ‘Clean Pass’ initiative across our partner hotels, cab and bus service providers in India. Whenever the customer will see ‘Clean Pass’ badge on our website, they will be assured that the highest safety and sanitisation measures are in place and can proceed with the booking without any worries.”

There are about 11,120 hotels until now that have been registered with ‘Clean Pass’, including hotels such as ITC Fortune Hotels, Royal Orchid Hotels, Radisson Goa, Ramada Plaza Chennai, amongst others. The company has introduced the below mentioned set of checks under its ‘Clean Pass’ initiative.

Clean Pass for hotels:

1. Hotel Staff and Guest's body temperature monitored at hotel entry points. Refused entry if temperature is above 99.1 (F) degree Fahrenheit.

2. Rooms will have alcohol-based hand sanitizer and face mask for guest use.

3. Room sanitisation done in front of guests when checking in.

4. Hotel staff has Aarogya Setu app.

5. Every staff member wears face masks and gloves at all service times.

6. Hotel rooms / floors and public areas are cleaned with hospital grade disinfectants.

7. Hotel has In-Room Dining options available with minimal contact service and disposable/sanitized crockery & cutlery.

8. Hotel staff ensures to maintain social distancing at all times.

9. Every guest's travel records are maintained as per local and central Government of India guidelines.

10. While working with supplier and contractor’s hotel complies with health advisories and Government guidelines.

 

Clean Pass for Cabs:

1. Daily monitoring of Driver’s temperature

2. Driver to wear face mask, gloves and using sanitizer

3. Have Aarogya setu app

4. Car sanitization with every ride

5. No pick & drop service in the containment zone

6. AC only in fresh air mode, if needed

7. Maintaining zero physical contact

8. Only asymptomatic driver to be on duty.

 

Clean Pass for Bus:

1. Hand Sanitizers available in all buses

2. Seating arrangement made keeping social distancing

3. Mask and Gloves mandatory for drivers and assitant

4. Regular temperature checks of drivers and assitant

5. Aarogya Setu app is installed for drivers and assitant

6. All Buses to be sanitized after every trip with hospital grade disinfectants

7. Only asymptomatic driver to be on duty.

Globally, governments are now looking cautiously to put a phased reopening of the tourism industry in place, which emerged as the biggest casualty of COVID-19. It has been well over two months of lockdown in India resulting into a total absence of travel and tourism. In markets like India, the period from February to May is a significant time for travel with suitable climatic conditions, perfect time for adventure activities, summer vacations in educational institutions and a lot many reasons including festivals. However, this did not happen due to the pandemic.

Travellers have not been able to strike their bucket lists in the last three months, which surely has created a strong urge for tourism. Also, hotels, resorts, car rental companies, tourism boards and every stakeholders involved in tourism have clearly understood that the future game plan will be only to majorly focus on safety, physical distancing and visible hygiene, and are working to come up with very advanced level of cleanliness and contactless services. With these new protocols and SOPs in place, the major requirement of the day is to instill confidence in the minds of travellers. Once convinced, can this give rise to what is today termed as ‘Revenge Tourism or Rage Tourism’? Can Revenge Tourism be the road to recovery for a county like India which has a majority youth population today waiting for directives for an escapade?

As per a report by McKinsey & Company, titled ‘The way back: What the world can learn from China’s travel restart after COVID-19’, people still want to travel. Many are calling this “revenge travel”: bookings for cruises in the United States—arguably one of tourism’s hardest-hit sectors—remain strong for 2021. The report states, “The travel sectors of countries that lack large domestic markets will recover more slowly and may open up first to travelers from nearby countries. We think that travel will return in other countries much as it has in China. The young will go first. Travel will involve nearby destinations. Economy travel will recover more quickly. And outdoor and nature-related destinations will be more popular than congested cities.”

Revenge tourism: A reality?

Over the last few years, the world has witnessed a trend of revenge spending (which refers to an overindulgence in retail therapy by consumers who have missed shopping) several times. This behaviour has never ever been witnessed in the tourism industry, which is now creating the curiosity within the travel fraternity. Experts believe that there is a pent-up demand created for travel during the lockdown period.

Speaking about the new consumer behaviour, Miguel Munoz, Chief Resorts Officer, Mahindra Holidays and Resorts India, informs: “Tourism is expected to grow gradually as we move into the ‘new normal’ from a nationwide lockdown that kept families indoors. After this experience, everyone would need time to relax and rejuvenate themselves which is why families are already working on a wish-list of where they would like to travel. In fact, this could almost be thought of as ‘Revenge Tourism’ which refers to an overindulgence in travel therapy. This desire for leisure holidays to seek serenity will spike in India, as people emerge from quarantine.”

There will be a demand for travel but at the same time, hygiene and safety will be of paramount importance in every traveller’s mind. To begin with, travellers will be looking at vacations which are at drivable distances and which are away from the major cities.

“After the lockdown, the Indian holiday goer is eager to venture out of home to enjoy the nature and vistas of the outdoors. We are most likely to see revenge spending happening post the lockdown, however, there would be a new perspective in shortlisting the locations. Most of the travellers in India would opt pocket-friendly drive-through destinations/resorts within a 4-5-hour radius. Sanitation, hygiene and social distance will be important factors to consider for people planning holidays. The fundamental need for people to travel hasn’t disappeared. The moment these restrictions are eased or lifted; you will see that the necessary travel will come back,” Ramesh Ramanathan, CMD, Sterling Holiday Resorts, says.

Also, the once hot favourite destinations for leisure travel will no longer be a major crowd puller in the post COVID-19 era. Some experts feel that revenge tourism will happen, but it won’t be immediate.

“Post lockdown, people will be cautious about the destinations they will be travelling to. It's safe to say that we might see some revenge tourism happening in India but not immediately. Destinations, which were once the crowd-puller, may not get too many leisure tourists. However, we do expect to see a demand in the market for staycations at places which are a short drive away. The domestic market will pick up faster than the international market as the local travellers will be looking for a safe weekend getaway,” Satyen Jain, CEO, Pride Group of Hotels, says.

Weekend woos

At the initial phase, domestic tourism especially local tourism will be the entrée. Travellers will look for more open spaces, nature, wildlife, and resorts which has vast spaces to ensure social distancing.

Jonathan Mills, Managing Director, RCI APAC & DAE Global, said, “We believe that tourism may look inwards and be more domestic directed. Traditional domestic travel destinations like Himachal, Ladakh, Goa, Uttarkhand, Andamans, even Pondicherry have remained largely inert to the virus. Which is surely a silver lining in another wise gloomy scenario. In the coming months nature will triumph. In all likelihood, nature and wildlife will be preferred over monuments and history. So, the hills, the sea resorts, wildlife reserves and slightly isolated locations will win overcrowded favourites. Road-trips will make a comeback. Families and youngsters are likely to opt for more of drive-outs, especially on long weekends and for short vacations. So, near-city travel is likely to see an uptick.”

Another major trend which is expected is staycations with home rentals, provided they maintain the highest standards of hygiene. Devendra Parulekar, Founder, SaffronStays, says, “As a customer, I’m always going to prefer smaller places where there are minimum chances of contact with other people. Small is beautiful in the future, provided the operator of the so-called small vacation rental is applying the correct sanitisation and hygiene practices into place. We believe that people would want to go to drivable holidays, so if there’s an option, people will take their cars out and go independently to a small boutique place if possible. We are also offering our homes for long-term stays. We recognise that if you’re anyway working from home, why should you not work from a lovely pool villa where you have the entire home to yourself. Several people would want to escape the traps of their daily household chores and want somebody else to pamper them. So, in that case they may hire a villa for a month at Alibaug and operate out of Alibaug.”

New Normal

Post lockdown, the way we used to function will be completely new, many procedures and SOPs will become obsolete, some experts have termed it as the ‘New Normal’. Every hotel and resort chain are now developing SOPs which will be unique to the brand and which will help to attain customer confidence.

Sharing his views about the new normal, Mills says, “After this pandemic, the whole hospitality industry will redesign itself. The major procedures that we will be focusing on is our Information Desk, we will help and guide our members with information about safety measures at our affiliate resorts, this will also help our partners. We will be keeping a strict check on the situation at least till 2021. We are also currently exploring possibilities of virtual tours through RCI TV so members can see how the resort looks and satisfy themselves before booking. At this moment the entire industry is envisioning the future and seeing how it can be better, safety and sanitization will play the biggest roles in future bookings.”

Hotels have come up with a standard safety initiative where sanitization will be the new core of operations. “We have launched initiatives to follow SOP across all our hotels to create a safe and hygienic environment for the guests. All the necessary equipment like alcohol-based sanitizer, temperature check via a thermal gun thermometer, hand gloves, and face masks will be used by Pride. Apart from that, we use all essential cleaning supplies such as a disposable duster and cloth, sprays and phenyl disinfectants will be utilized. We are ensuring that our teams are up to date with the new cleaning practices and hygiene standards as advised by the government. And we are also following it so that it becomes a way of life for them as we are starting our operations in the new normal,” Jain says.   

Contactless service is set to be the future in the hospitality and tourism industry. The role of technology as an enabler will be used at an even higher degree. “To ensure the highest standards of safety, contactless service is going to be the new normal not just in the travel and hospitality industry but, almost all the other sectors. Technology will act as the backbone for a range of contactless services including online check-in, AI-led customer support and monitoring, as well as app-based solutions for on-demand services. As we speak, Club Mahindra, is also working with various experts in healthcare, facility management and technology to implement these enhanced safety procedures and contactless services across our resorts,” Munoz says.

One of the biggest business on which a sizeable number of hotels thrive on is the MICE segment. Resorts and hotels are also coming up with MICE protocols and are gearing up to cater to this segment seamlessly.  “For MICE guests, the check in and check out process will be done with minimal paperwork. There are a range of venue options within the spacious resorts to split groups and activities along with ensuring social distancing between sessions in their large lawns and pre-function areas. As a part of the safety and hygiene protocol, restaurants table layout will be done as per social distancing norms. Multiple meal sessions with guest reservation will be organised to avoid crowding along with facilities of contactless takeaway and mini buffets. Sterling has designed a new set of games and activities, in the guests’ rooms and in designated locations within its resorts, conforming to the norms of social distancing, safety and hygiene, so that guests can enjoy these activities with their family in their respective rooms, and outdoors within the safety of the resort,” Ramanathan adds.

Challenges

There has been a lot of demand which the industry is witnessing, But with unknown factors to be considered, there are major challenges which needs to be addressed. The general perception now is that we need to live with covid-19.

Speaking about the challenges Parulekar says, “In the short term, we will get bookings, but people will not plan much in future as the zone may suddenly be declared a containment zone. Secondly, corporate sales will be deeply impacted. Also, we have committed that there will be a 24-hour gap between two bookings that will further restrict our ability to sell. In the long term, a lot of people who haven’t looked at private vacation homes as an option for accommodation will now start looking at them because hotels are public spaces and people are afraid of going to public spaces. So, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for leisure homes to come out and position themselves as safe homes and put all the processes in place.”

Another major challenge initially will be developing talent to maintain the hygiene standards and protocols. “The biggest and foremost challenge while reopening the business will be the implementation of the new standards, which will require developing a new set of skills around the management of cleaning, disinfection, and inspection. The firms will also need to create isolation rooms for employees who experience symptoms while at work,” Jain adds.

Players feel that the industry will start witnessing growth from the next fiscal year. Also, maintaining the utmost level of safety and hygiene will the core for business ahead. “Safety and Sanitisation will be vital going forward. Our Post Covid travel mind-set survey shows that 30 per cent members have expressed concerns about safety measures. If we can satisfy members with safety and hygiene features in all that the Travel Industry has to offer, we see that challenges will be minimum,” Mills says.

Echoing similar opinion, Ramamnathan adds, “In terms of recovery, we have already begun to witness some green shoots. People are coming forward and making bookings for July and some months ahead for September and October. This is a resilient industry and we have survived this trying time.Going forward, I foresee growth by Jan-February-March 2021.The next six months are going to be low in terms of demand, and slowly once the customer confidence picks up we expect to see a sense normalcy in the holiday business. Moreover, it will be challenging for small as well as bigger brands to put in efforts in maintaining highest levels of hygiene and sanitation while going contact-less and ensuring safety.”

The Ministry of Tourism held a Ministerial exchange ceremony last week to bid farewell to the outgoing Tourism Minister, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, and welcome his successor Minister MK Asaf Zamir. 

Minister Yariv Levin was appointed as Tourism Minister in 2015 and has made significant changes to the tourism landscape in Israel, which has yielded record breaking results.  During his tenure, Minister Levin has overseen a considerable increase to the inbound tourism industry thanks to innovative marketing and promotional campaigns, incentives to increase air connectivity from the world to Israel and by increasing overall marketing budgets. Ministry of Tourism has also invested in Israel’s tourism infrastructure including the Ramon International Airport, Dead Sea Promenade and allocated grants to encourage the establishment, expansion and conversion of hotels in various cities across the country.  The most prominent of all is the number of international tourists to arrive in Israel, which has increased from 3.1 million visitors in 2015 to 4.9 million in 2019, 58 per cent growth.

When addressing the gathering, former Tourism Minister Lavin said, “I say goodbye to the Ministry of Tourism today feeling great pain. Together we have made unprecedented breakthroughs through unimaginable investments, establishments of hotels, development of the digital field, and of course, the tremendous revolution we have made in the field of marketing that has brought Israel to a central place with unprecedented occupancy in hotels and hostels. I believe that the tourism industry is a sector with huge potential… there is no better way to understand a destination than through your own eyes, while experiencing the special and historical sites of Israel.”

Minister Zamir has taken on the role of Tourism Minister at an uneasy time for the tourism industry all over the world. “I dreamed of being the Minister of Tourism.  I will come to work to serve you and to get this industry back on track.  In spite of everything, I imagined and dreamed of, I am entering this industry in different times…  We need to rebuild the tourism industry, open the hotels as quickly as possible, the tourist attractions, and all the industries that supports tourism - restaurants, cafes and bars… as quickly as possible.  Encourage domestic tourism, open the sky and minimize damage so we can return to growth of the tourism industry.  When we conclude this important mission, we will fulfill tremendous potential of this country…  We have the ability to grow out of the crisis.” Minister Zamir said at the ceremony. 

Minister Zamir stated that he has asked Director General of Tourism, Amir Halevi, to remain in the office for the time being.  The Director General of the Ministry of Tourism, Amir Halevi, said, "I would like to say thank you to the outgoing Minister, Knesset Member Yariv Levin - for the leadership, professionalism, courage, wisdom and joint leadership through which we were able to bring the tourism industry to breakthroughs and record-breaking numbers of tourists each year. Incoming Tourism Minister Assaf Zamir, the first challenge you will face is to bring back the tourism traffic – in domestic tourism and certainly in inbound tourism... I wish for you to have significant years leading this office and that you will be able to make your mark in this industry… I am sure that together we will be able to withstand the great challenges we face".

Minister Zamir concluded his address by thanking his predecessor and encouraged the employees in the tourism industry.  “I would like to thank the outgoing Minister and all the office workers, with some of whom we have already met. There is an atmosphere in the office of genuine recruitment for the cause, genuine joy and I believe that there is no other way to overcome these times. Tourism is essential for the reconstruction and ignition of the Israeli economy."

The ceremony was attended by few key members while it was broadcasted live on YouTube via GPO.

Sharing similar culture, tradition, lifestyle and cuisine, India has always have had a strong relation with the Middle East countries. This relation has also been witnessed well at the tourism front. Over the last few years, majority of the Middle Eastern destinations have witnessed a significant growth in Indian arrivals resulting into India being one of the top three source markets for most of these destinations and these numbers will definitely rise northwards in the pre-covid era as the Govt data suggests that over 3.4 million Indians stays in UAE only.

Covid-19 pandemic has brought the entire globe to a standstill and tourism is no exception. In fact, tourism has been the worst hit, with little or no movement across the globe. As per the latest estimates, post the lockdown phase and after lifting of embargoes, outbound travel will remain silent for some period, and the timeline cannot be yet predicted due to unknown variables.

In the last decade, the appetite to travel for Indian travellers has increase multifold. With a huge millennial and youth population, the urge to travel post lockdown will be high for most of the Indian travellers. With long-haul and mid-haul travel under question, experts feel short-haul destinations can surely bounce back. Can Middle Eastern destinations harness this opportunity and tap the might of Indian outbound?  

Impact on tourism

Tourism is an integral part and one of the most important sectors for most of the Middle East’s economy. A huge percentage of the National GDPs have been contributed by the tourism and hospitality segment.

Speaking about the impact of COVID-19 on tourism, Khalid Jassim Al Midfa, Chairman, Sharjah Commerce & Tourism Development Authority, said, “The magnitude of the impact of the virus is on a scale we have never seen before, the tourism industry in all parts of the world has suffered immediate reverses and the long-term impact is clearly a factor that will have repercussions for an undetermined length of time. Due to the emirate of Sharjah’s close connections to the Indian market and intertwined interests, the impact of the virus and restrictions on travel between India and Sharjah is particularly noticeable.”

Most of the destinations witnessed a positive start to the year with the initial two months showcasing a growth, before the pandemic. Israel has witnessed a degrowth of 30 per cent in 2020 due to the persisting covid-19 obstacle.

Sammy Yahia, Director, Israel Ministry of Tourism – India and Philippines said, “This year had been a positive start for the Israel tourism industry.  Israel had already seen an overall increase of four per cent in tourist arrivals in the months of January and February credited to the Israel Ministry of Tourism’s global advertising campaigns.  However, with the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic, there has been a 30 per cent (approximately 321,000 travellers) decline in international tourist arrivals to Israel in 2020 (January through March 2020).  From India, the decline is approximately 4,000 visitors over the same period.  The financial impact from this change has also been significant.  Israel’s tourism industry has been impacted by approximately US$ 500 million per month in direct revenue from incoming tourists.”

Digital and marketing strategy

Despite the standstill, tourism boards are utilizing this lull period to promote their destinations though digital means. Also, majority of the destinations are aggressively re-strategizing their marketing activities to go out in a full-fledged way.

“As a destination, we are turning to creative campaigns and virtual platforms to maintain a connection with the visitors to ensure them to stay inspired to visit Abu Dhabi soon and stay on top of their minds. Our recent virtual platform #StayCurious gives audiences a taste of the emirate’s unique ambiance and hospitality through an interactive 360-degree experience from the comfort of their own homes. People might not be able to travel right now but their minds can. They can still dream, explore, learn, connect and most definitely they can still be curious to visit us soon,” Bejan Dinshaw, Country Manager - India, DCT Abu Dhabi, said.

Speaking about digital initiatives, Al Midfa added, “We maintain a strong online presence for the emirate, launching a number of campaigns such as the #visitSharjahSOON campaign which highlights our presence in a new way during these challenging times. The campaign underlines the themes of positivity and finding moments of serenity while encouraging people to enjoy this break from daily routine enforcing the idea of “stay home now” as a method of ensuring greater community safety and health preservation, allowing society to return to normal life with a sense of hope, vibrancy and achievement when the time comes.  Followers will be given hints and reminders of Sharjah’s destinations, bucket list ideas and inspirational travel suggestions, while reminding all that Sharjah’s stunning landscapes and engaging attractions wait peacefully to welcome visitors again SOON.”

Bahrain in 2016 developed an integrated strategy aimed at elevating the Kingdom’s tourism industry by attracting investors and providing a suitable environment to incubate tourism projects. The destination plans to go ahead with the same vision and a lot more focus on Indian weddings segment.

“Our marketing strategy at BTEA will remain unchanged as we continue to focus on developing unique tourism products and experiences that sets Bahrain apart from its competitors, focusing on driving in family tourism to increase the Tourism sector’s contribution to the national economy in line with the Kingdom’s 2030 Economic Vision,” Ali Follad, Tourism advisor, Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority (BTEA) said adding that we will also continue to work closely with our representative office in India to promote Bahrain as an ideal tourism destination for Indian weddings & corporate events through participating in events and exhibitions that provide us with the ideal platform to highlight the Kingdom’s tourism potential and promote its unique attractions. “During these events, we are also provided with the opportunity to meet, network and establish mutually beneficial relationships with representatives of the tourism industry, this further support our efforts in achieving our long-term strategy which focuses on the development of the local tourism sector and strengthening Bahrain’s position on the global tourism map,” Follad said.

Recovery strategy

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the path ahead has a lot of unseen challenges. Solutions need to be out of the box to tackle this issue. Destinations as per their estimates are drafting recovery strategies to bounce back strong.

“We see our recovery coming across three phases. The first, the pause phase, is where we are today and our immediate focus is on ensuring that the strong relief programme put in place by the Federal and Dubai government to support travel, tourism and all related sectors is swiftly executed. In the second phase, we will prepare to welcome limited travel from this autumn, as we gradually reopen sectors and markets. This prudent approach to reopening travel is a global question given many airports and air spaces remain closed, so we are working with all relevant bilateral organisations to have a coordinated approach to opening up. We’re confident that once we enter the final phase of full reopening and return of confidence in travel behaviours, Dubai will be ideally suited to deliver the exceptional customer experience in this ‘new normal’ of tourism,” a spokesperson from Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) Dubai said.

Bahrain is set to empower its private segment by organizing joint promotions and engage the travel trade across its markets. Follad added, “At the BTEA, we developed a crisis management action plan which includes developing a communication strategy and effective media engagement as well as building a trust-based coalition; keeping positive and continuous contact with tour operators and focusing on co-marketing and joint promotion with other tourism partners.”

Post COVID scenario

In the recent years, the Indian outbound has been a major highlight with significant increase in aspirational travellers segment who are venturing out to discover novel experiences. Middle Eastern destinations are confident that India will remain a major focus market post COVID crisis. Also, this will be an opportunity to increase their market share from India, as these destinations are easily accessible and already have excellent connectivity with India.

“India and Israel have enjoyed a good relationship across all sectors, including tourism. For the last few years, India has been, and still is, the second largest contributor in tourist arrivals to Israel from Asia, following China. With significant opportunities to increase tourism to Israel, we will be focusing on attracting international travellers to our destination.  The current situation has had a huge impact on global economies, and we hope it is resolved soon.  I am optimist that the travel industry will pick up momentum once everything returns to normal however, I believe that the industry will take time to revive, beginning with domestic sector and then building up international tourism,” Yahia opined.

As global tourism is back on track, short-haul destinations will be majorly benefitted after the domestic market. Abu Dhabi expects a spike from India market. “We foresee a spike in Indian arrivals. India is the leading overseas market for Abu Dhabi considering the country’s proximity to the emirate. I believe once this crisis subdues, closer to home will define travel for the near term. People will set their sight on short haul destinations; and long-haul destinations will take much more time to gain traction as people would prefer to stay close to the safety of home,” Dinshaw added.

Similar to the South East Asian destinations, Middle East will also get a chance to tap the weekend travel segment. DTCM spokesperson added, “India is the number one source market for Dubai, so it will continue to be a priority for us and a key focus in terms of visitation. Due to the proximity of India, it’s always been very popular in terms of short-haul or weekender trips.  Looking at global trends and responding collectively to the market changes, we already see there will be a lot less group travel and a lot more FIT who will book closer to their travel date.”

Echoing similar opinion Al Midfa said, “A spike in Indian visitors to Sharjah is very much expected when the time comes to travel again.  Sharjah has always benefitted from being a short-haul destination for India and this will become evident again once the threat of the COVID-19 has passed. Located at an approximate distance of 2,160 Km from India, Sharjah is just 3-4 hours away depending on the city you travel from. This means a visit to Sharjah from India can be undertaken in a weekend.”

Bahrain has recently emerged as a wedding destination for India market. Post COVID, the destination will once again look to aggressively attract this segment from India. “In the past few years, Bahrain has become the ideal destination for hosting weddings and celebrations, especially for the Indian Market. In 2019, we hosted four major Indian weddings, attracting more than 2,000 visitors and contributing US$ 5 million to the Kingdom's GDP, further promoting Bahrain as a prime wedding destination. Hence, once things go back to normal, we will participate in various regional and international events to promote Bahrain as an ideal destination for hosting weddings and celebrations, encouraging soon-to-wed couples to select Bahrain as their destination to celebrate their special occasions,” Follad said.

Future visa regime

Currently, one of the most discussed topics across the industry is future of visa regimes and changes post covid-19 crisis.

Speaking about the visa regime, Al Midfa said, “Pre-COVID, the travel and visa requirements for Indian visitors were that all Indians with Indian passports valid for more than six months could apply for a visa through a number of agents and channels and Indian Nationals, with a valid US Visa (minimum six months) could get a Visa on Arrival at the UAE Airport. Till passenger travel between countries was banned due to the pandemic, Air Arabia operated direct flights to Sharjah from 13 Indian cities. Of course, as things are now, the situation has changed entirely but we expect the flights and visa situation to resume as much as possible when the crisis is past, bearing in mind that the travel restrictions may remain in place in some form or other for some time. While this virus is accelerating all over the world, our focus is adapting and evolving with the rest of the globe, spreading the international message of safety.”  

Over the years, Israel has relaxed and simplified its visa offerings in India market. The destination is looking to further make visa availability seamless for Indian travellers. Yahia added, “Since opening the Israel Tourism Office in India, there are many visa reforms that have been introduced for travel to Israel including the opening of a Israel Visa Processing Center in Kolkata, relaxed visa documentation was brought in for applicants who have availed visas and completed travel to Schengen countries, US, Canada, Australia or Israel, one-year multiple entry visas for business travellers to Israel and changes in visa fees. Continuous efforts are being taken towards bringing more changes to make the process faster and easier for Indian travellers to visit Israel.”

Bahrain with a clear focus on attracting MICE and destination weddings are incentivizing and easing group visas which will be applicable even post COVID.

Follad concluded, “We have teams that provide support by easing the process of tourists acquiring visas in certain occasions such as wedding celebration or MICE events. Our team ensures the smooth flow of events and handles the event logistics including visas, immigration, and customs as well as obtaining permission to facilitate the entry of visitors attending the event.”

In a major step taken by the Government, domestic air travel is all set to commence operations starting May 25, 2020. The Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) has cautiously chalked a strategy to restart services with a new set of guidelines and SOPs which has been discussed with all the stakeholders.

Hardeep Singh Puri, Minister of State (I/C), Ministry of Civil Aviation said, “We need to have a balance between life and livelihood during this crisis situation. I think we have come to a time where we need to open domestic civil aviation. After we announced yesterday, we have put up the new SOPs on the Ministry’s website and have shared it with all stakeholders. A very comprehensive process has been undertaken which involved all our stakeholders including; airlines, airport authority, security, etc have all agreed. Starting Monday May 25, we will recommence domestic civil aviation in a calibrated manner.”

In terms of capacity, MoCA has announced that in metro cities including; Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata, flights will be allowed to operate one-third of their capacity. While in the metro to non-metro cities and vice-versa, where the weekly departures are more than 100, each flight can operate one-third of its capacity. For all other cities, airlines are free to operate on any route on one-third of its capacity. These restrictions do not apply for UDAN flights that operate under the regional connectivity scheme. He further said, “By calibrated manner we mean that we will operate to a limited extent of the required and approved capacity of summer schedule of 2020. Metro to Metro will be 33.33% of the approved summer schedule. For Metro to Non-Metro, where weekly departure is greater than 100, 33.33% of the summer schedule. Metro to Non-Metro, where weekly departures are below 100 weekly flights, operators can operate any route in the 1/3rd capacity. All other cities operators can operate any routes in the 1/3rd.”

Besides there have been a lot of uncertainty regarding the quarantine policy. The Minister has said that as of now there will be no quarantine post travel as it is domestic travel and we are taking enough preventive measures.

As the capacities have been reduced to a third, there will be a high demand with limited supply, thus creating a demand-pull inflation. There will be a skyrocketing of airfares due to this pent-up demand. To further regulate airfares, MoCA has introduced various band fare measure. The Ministry has divided the domestic aviation routes under seven bands; A] flight duration less than 40 mins, B] 40 mins to 60 mins, C] 60 mins to 90- mins, D] 90 mins to 120 mins, E] 120 mins to 150 mins, F] 150 mins to 180 mins, G] 180 mins to 210 mins. The ticket fare for each band will have a minimum and upper limit.

Speaking about the fare bands Pradeep Singh Kharola, Secretary-Civil Aviation, Government of India said, “We have categorized all routes into seven categories. As an example of the fare band, Delhi-Mumbai is the densest route in the country. In this case of Mumbai-Delhi route the lower fare is set at Rs. 3500 and highest is Rs. 10,000. To make it more efficient, we have a second rider that is 40 per cent of the seats must be sold under the mid-point of the band, which means will be less than Rs. 6700. This is a temporary formulation as there is a huge amount of pent up demand. This fare will be applicable till 11.59 pm on August 24.”

Puri added, “We have studied airfares structure and also looked at corresponding rail fares. We want air travel to be affordable and all citizens. We are the world’s third largest domestic civil aviation sector and we have to bounce back and gradually become the first. We are also conscious of the fact that airline is working on thin margins, so we have kept them in mind while drafting. This is not fare fixation in the normal time. We will have a limited flight in this period and there is a chance of high fare due to the tremendous demand. Once we exit from these three months period, we can return to status quo ante of the pre-covid scenario or as per market situations.”

Also, initially there have been a lot of discussions pertaining the empty middle seat for social distancing. In an earlier statement, International Air Transport Association (IATA), was not in favour of this move as it would drastically reduce the load factor and will change the dynamics of aviation. MoCA has reiterated that the middle seats won’t be kept empty.

Puri said, “If we keep the middle seat empty, still the social distancing requirement will not be met. Nowhere in the world this has been perceived as an important regulation. The system of not keeping middle seat empty has worked for us during the Vande Bharat mission as we have taken other preventive measures. But if we leave middle seat vacant the economics of the airlines and dynamics will change.”

To read the entire guidelines published by the Ministry of Civil Aviation click here.

 

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