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Akshay Kumar

Akshay Kumar

Starting on a positive note, tourism gets green signal from major governments across the globe and in India as well. Under the phased resumption of businesses across the nation, travel and hospitality industry have got a thumbs up from the Government to partially restart business with a set of new guidelines. The entire industry is bullish on the domestic tourism which is expected to restart soon and will act as a cushioning for the unfortunate losses made during the lockdown period. Despite all these efforts from the government as well as the industry, will travel be the same, ever?

As per a recent report from ICRA, the Indian hotel industry is going through its worst performance phase ever following the economic slowdown, the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic in Q4 FY2020 and subsequent lockdowns. These led to significant decline in occupancy and average room rates (ARR) as also revenues, operating margins and credit metrics. The pan- India average occupancy during FY2020 declined sharply and the same is abysmally low in YTD FY2021. Occupancy in FY2020 was down to around 65 per cent from around 69 per cent in FY2019; and in 2M FY2020, it drastically declined at 8-12 per cent.

ICRA further states that the industry is expected to witness over 90 per cent revenue contraction during Q1 FY2021 leading to severe cash bleed. Going forward, FY2021 revenues and margins are expected to witness sharp decline and the industry will take over two years to reach pre-covid revenue levels.

Another major challenge which the industry may face in the time ahead is managing the operational costs. Hospitality business has always been synonymous with safety and hygiene in the past, yet the industry will now need to make it more visible to win customer confidence. To retrieve the business, industry should look at more innovative and sustainable models of doing business leaving the inevitable apart. The first segments to witness some demand will be the out of city hotels and the car rental business.

Instilling confidence

In the initial reopening phase the hotel and car rental businesses are in a Catch-22 situation, where on one hand the operational costs have gone up with increase in the new SOPs in place and the sanitization frequency, and on the other front need to welcome customers at a value which may be lesser than the pre-covid era.

Speaking about the operational costs increase, Rajiv K Vij, Chairman & Managing Director, Carzonrent India, states, “Safety and hygiene have become very critical and we look at this additional operational cost of 5 per cent to 10 per cent as an investment into our business as we believe this will help us acquire more customers and help us move faster on our growth journey ahead. The industry is going through significant stress in terms of perishable unutilised inventory. However, we have found our customers appreciative of the efforts that we have put in to offer completely sanitized cars, drivers using global standards of sanitization material and processes on a daily and every transaction basis, which give them confidence in using our cars. These customers are also willing to pay for same.”

The hotel chains as well see the increase in the operational costs as an investment to woo more guests. But the discounting strategy should be dealt with cautiously as this may have a long-lasting impact.

Zubin Saxena, Managing Director and Vice President Operations, South Asia, Radisson Hotel Group explains, “We believe there is a need to earn the trust of guests and assure them of their safety as the industry resumes operations. Brands are therefore coming up with various marketing offers to win the consumer back. While, these are critical steps towards business recovery, it is also important to be cautious of a discount-led strategy. Rate cuts in the longer term may lead to an adverse impact on market competition and erode brand equity. The industry will have to reestablish itself through innovative initiatives that can be alternate revenue drivers and focus on sustainable practices that will stabilise income in the long run.”

Another cost for the industry in the coming period will be the safety and hygiene protocol trainings. Some of the businesses will also require additional human resource to maintain the hygiene standards as per new SOPs. Akanksha Lamba, Senior Vice President Operations, The Postcard Hotel adds, “At the Postcard Hotel, we have always taken safety and hygiene extremely seriously. Our properties are small and intimate which means that our operations are contained and efficient. Moreover, each hotel is spread over significant open area, so social distancing is naturally inbuilt in the way our properties are designed. While of course there has been an additional cost from these, the overall operational cost hasn’t been significantly impacted because of our pre-existing detailed standards and the boutique nature of our properties.”

Tourism reimagined

The tourism and hospitality have been worst hit sector by the pandemic. Today, the consumers have a fear psychosis of travel and instilling confidence should be the main focus of the industry. One of the major features for any hospitality or car rental business would be to make their customers feel safe and secure.

Punish B Sharma, Vice President – Operations, The Fern Hotels & Resorts says, “All hoteliers are grappling with the changed scenario. The pandemic has brought modifications and adjustments in the way the hotels used to run earlier. At the Fern Hotels and Resorts, we have introduced Staygiene – A new normal. These are basically the set of guidelines which all our 80 plus hotels are following across the country. The idea is to make the guest feel that he is in safe hands as long as he is with us.”

The business will further witness certain short-term implementations and some permanent changes created. As a historic reference, the hospitality industry has tightened their security post 9/11 and this has continued till date. Similarly, hygiene and sanitization will now be the priority.

Seema Roy, Area Managing Director for South Asia, Middle East & Africa, Preferred Hotels & Resorts adds, “The industry’s approach to hygiene and sanitation practices will be forever changed in terms of visibility.  Back of house is the now the new front of house. What was once behind the scenes will now be proudly displayed on hotel websites. We can expect consumer travel trends to change, at least in the short to midterm future. After months in lockdown, people are thinking differently about travel and they are prioritizing quality over quantity.  As travelers tentatively make travel plans, they are choosing destinations close to home that don’t require air travel and provide natural landscapes for active breaks with family and friends. An appreciation for domestic travel will create significant demand, steering money back into local and national economies.”

Another major move to win the customers confidence will be to increase flexibility in the bookings and altering cancellation policies.

Sunil Gupta, MD & CEO, Avis India said, “Safety and hygiene will remain a priority, we will need to continue to reassure travellers and respond to any new demands and needs. As we are seeing currently, offering increased flexibility in bookings will also be required to help provide customers with confidence and trust in these uncertain times, and may be required looking forward. Car transport currently offers a private, safe and clean alternative to other modes of transport. The safest and cleanest means to travel, and there will be increased incidence of last-minute leisure bookings and people will tend to travel for shorter distances preferably in their own vehicles.”

Future of MICE and f&b

Social distancing has played a major spoilsport for the hospitality industry. Covid-19 pandemic has not only impacted the peak season but has also put a halt to the complete wedding and MICE business. Hence, hotels are now looking to maximize F&B revenue with innovation.

“We are seeing a slow yet consistent demand for small-scale corporate gatherings, social functions and weddings at our hotels. As the situation normalizes, we are looking with optimism to the recovery of the wedding market – including celebrations that were previously planned for international locations that will move to local settings. Hybrid events could surface as a new trend, and we are enthusiastic to offer innovative solutions to the changing market demand,” Saxena says adding that food and beverage is one of the most critical revenues drivers for us. “We have reinvented our offerings and enabled food deliveries as well as safe takeaways for our guests. Through these services, we are able to serve 20 signature dishes from our 94 operating hotels on a pan-India basis. We have also reimagined our concierge services and introduced ‘Take home a Chef’ which allows our guests to book from a range of professional F&B services like cookery lessons, catering for special occasions and expert guidance on preparing healthy meals at home. We are also looking at reinventing our outdoor catering services to leverage on the opportunities of this segment,” Saxena adds.

Industry experts feel that hotel may have to do away with the buffet concept, where social distancing is a major issue. Hotels need to look at more sustainable models for an efficient f&b business.

“Concern around the hygiene of buffets might be difficult to overcome in the short term without offering viable alternatives. Luxury hotel dining outlets will provide more table-side service in intimate, socially distanced restaurant spaces with guests more likely to choose a la carte dining and room service options. This shift in food and beverage offerings intersects with a more engaged pursuit of sustainable practices in the luxury hospitality sector, creating less food waste and increasing the use of locally sourced, organic produce,” Roy opines.

Hotels see the loss of MICE business as a temporary phase and believe that the business will be reinstated in the mid- to- long term. One of the major challenges for the hotels will be to churn out major profits from the banquets where they would have to operate with restricted capacities.

“MICE segment will be impacted from a short to medium term perspective. Once things fall in place, a new normal will set in. The functions surely will be less crowded, however as someone who comes from F& B background, I see an opportunity there as well. We will come out with some excellent banquet menus which will offer a lot of exclusive food items. The idea will be to raise the revenues by providing top class services keeping the best hygiene standards. The restaurant business is going to bleed badly. But the f & B business in the hotel is largely dependent on the occupancies. There are very few walk-ins anyway in any outlet,” Sharma says.

Way forward

The pandemic has created more scope for technological advancements. One of the most talked about change the industry is witnessing is the contactless service.

Speaking about the strategies for a viable business, Vij says, “The pandemic and consequent focus on health and hygiene has made “Contactless” services a very critical component of all businesses including travel and tourism. The industry provides services to the travellers and must not take the role of providing credit/ working capital to customers .While some parts of the travel /tourism industry have dealt with trade credit issues over the years, the cash flow challenges during the pandemic will force the other parts of the industry to also work on dealing with this issue for future. Heavy fixed costs in a business which has its own seasonality has kept many parts of travel /tourism/hospitality industry dependent on seasonal revenue. The industry must innovate and implement actions for rationalization of fixed costs including work from home option which works very well for many parts of the industry with even better productivity.”

Indian travel and hospitality industry must have a strategy to tap the domestic market and look at attracting the large chunk of outbound travellers into the domestic segment.

“It is our strong belief that things will improve soon and the high-end leisure market for smaller luxury hotels will be amongst the first to recover. The reason for this is simple- there are about 26 million Indians who usually travel outside India every year. At present, they do not have the option of international travel and will therefore start looking for holiday destinations within India,” says Lamba.

Echoing similar opinion Gupta adds, “We see an opportunity to reassure customers of the benefits of car rental during these uncertain times, and in the future as people will look to change the way they travel because of Covid-19. Domestic travel is expected to be on the rise as restrictions slowly ease. We have the most complete offer to satisfy our clients’ needs whether they need a car in the short or medium term or for longer period of times, including services such as our Secure Shuttle Service, self-drive or chauffeur driven services.”

Reinventing business is the way forward. Controlling costs and overheads without impacting the experience for guests will be a major target for businesses. The post covid-19 era will run majorly on the ‘who’s safer and more hygienic?’ model rather than ‘Who is ready to give a huge discount?’. Competition post resumption will be cutthroat, but businesses must ensure that they stick to the guidelines and SOPs for a successful reopening, else it may rather become the breeding grounds for the second wave as people are keen to travel and travel will happen soon.

“As we focus our efforts on restoring the business, it is essential to acknowledge that hospitality, as we know it, will not remain the same – at least not in the short- to medium-term. The revival of every industry is interdependent on various other trades and sectors. At Radisson Hotel Group, we have prepared a comprehensive revival plan that’s based on taking concrete steps towards the ‘new normal’, whilst also being flexible enough to respond to new developments,” Saxena concludes.

In a bid to revive the hospitality industry, the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Association of India (FHRAI) today shared their concerns with Piyush Goyal, Minister of Commerce & Industry and Railways, Government of India.

Highlighting the issues of the hotel industry, Gurbaxish Singh Kohli, Vice President, FHRAI said, “We feel there is a disconnect between the government and the hospitality segment. We have never been featured in any budgets or schemes and, we have been neglected in the recent financial package. Room nights and table bookings are the most perishable commodity, which the government needs to understand. Currently, our aim is to get working capital back. Right now, 50,000 rooms have been allocated for health force. 4000 member hotels have collaborated with state and central for quarantine facility. Restaurants have collaborated for food packets to be distributed to the needy. So, there is a need for government to look at this segment.”

Responding to the industry’s demand while appreciating the contribution of hospitality industry, Goyal said that the industry which is looking at revival strategy should look at MSME category and the five-star hotel players differently.  “If five-star hotels in our country cannot stand back on its feet it will be unfortunate for our country. In terms of single window clearance, I am with the industry and that is for sure the need of the hour. Transparent, online process for single window clearance should be the focus for the ministries. Instead of asking everything from the government, we as an industry should also brainstorm and come up with solutions. Except for five-star hotels, the entire industry will fall under the MSME category, where we have come up with a lot of measures. We need to first look at the wider goal and look at how to provide relief for the smaller players and then look at five-star hotels,” Goyal said.

Also, the hospitality industry should look at supporting the Atmanirbhar Abhiyan. The Minister said that five-star hotels have always been looking to import various commodities for their properties, which can very well be replaced by the local ones. Goyal said, “For five-star I would say look at Atmanirbhar Bharat. Why to import tiles, furniture’s, ACs, cars and other materials into India for your hotels. Aren’t these products available in India. Instead look at Indian brands and our own make. Government is ready to help the industry, but the industry should look at Atmanirbhar Bharat to revive the industry.”

Goyal said that the industry must come up with very specific and concrete steps which will be considered by the Government in the upcoming unlocking phases.  “We need to look at normalcy, but we also need to balance lives and livelihood. United States and many other countries have opened a lot of bars and cafes but post that the situation didn’t look any good. We will take up these issues with the relevant ministry and I will discuss with Prahlad Singh Patel for more engagement and specific plans for the industry,” he informed adding that there are very few restrictions applicable as of today by the Centre.

He further appreciated the role of the hospitality industry in the fight against the covid-19 pandemic. Over the last few months, the industry has helped the nation by providing rooms for quarantine facility and provided food for the needy. “I would like to appreciate the entire industry for supporting the government and nation in the covid-19 fight. The industry has played a key role in feeding the hungry of the nation. Also, hotels have helped us in terms of quarantine facility. We ensure that we will stand with the industry to come out with solutions. Separate MSMEs and larger institutions,” he added. 

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.

 

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