Digital transformation has been part of the business vocabulary for many years now. However, this is also true that the speed of this transformation or its any meaningful march towards reinventing digitally also never came under such spotlight as in the last two years of unprecedented disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, this transformation is no more organic or elusive. The speed of this transformation has gathered momentum never seen before, and the travel and tourism industry is right at the center of that revolution.
So much so, that not only the private sector but also the Government at the highest level are incorporating digitalization in all aspects and facets of India’s march towards developing country travel, tourism and hospitality sector. Nudged and pushed by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, will soon approve a new tourism policy, which will incorporate National Digital Tourism Mission as its key feature which was earlier not to be.
Referring to the PM Modi's call to focus on tradition, technology and tourism to bring transformation in the tourism sector, G. Kamala Vardhana Rao, Director General, Ministry of Tourism (MoT), GoI & Managing Director, ITDC Ltd. says the latest initiative was formulated based on the suggestion of PM Modi to create National Digital Tourism Mission on the pattern of National Health Mission. Rao says, "we are in a digital world where doctors are operating online, on computers. Let us give digital experience to those foreign tourists who are coming to India to enjoy its hospitality." Rao was speaking at FICCI’s 4th Digital Travel, Hospitality and Innovation Summit 2022 in New Delhi.
The way consumer interacts with organisations is going to change meaningfully and we have already begun to see signs of this happening. Over the last two years people have been doing pretty much everything online, from ordering grocery to home delivery of food to ecommerce to calling handyman to repair things in the house. “No one today can claim that they are not tech savvy. In tier II and tier III cities where we thought internet penetration was low, broadband penetration was low, all that has changed in the last two years. The cost of data in India is one of the cheapest. The cost of devices has crashed tremendously, and the cost of memory is less than eighth of what it was as recent as four years ago,” Dhruv Shringi, Co-Founder & CEO, Yatra Online Inc. Shringi is also Co-chairman, FICCI Travel, Tourism & Hospitality Committee & Chairman of FICCI Travel Technology & Digital Committee.
Concurring with Shringi, Rajesh Magow, Co-founder & Group CEO of MakeMyTrip, also pointed that internet’s reach and penetration is going beyond tier one to tier four cities. “In top ten cities, the internet penetration is about 65 per cent, whereas almost in next ninety cities this is already around 30 per cent. Going beyond, there are 400 odd cities where it is already around 24 per cent and growing. That is the level of penetration. The reach is huge, it’s phenomenal, and all of us are actually working towards making (websites) even the regional languages to change the booking experience. Thanks to the little smart devices that all of us are becoming so dependent on. It is like a new oxygen, especially for the youngsters,” he said.
There is this tremendous opportunity for travel and tourism industry through this fast-growing internet penetration that’s reaching across every nook and corners of India. “It’s very important for the travel industry to understand where the consumer is today. And the consumer is consuming pretty much everything online. If you look at the screen time, you will see that more than 30 per cent of your day is spent on devices. That’s the amount of time we are spending on devices. So, with that being the way the consumer is interacting with life, as a travel industry we can’t afford to be left behind. This is not just on the consumer side of the things; this is also on the enterprise side of things. Large corporations which are now waking up to the reality of work from home models and hybrid working environments. It’s moving across all facets of the industry. So, while the consumer is doing that (Evolving and adapting), I think as organisations we also need to learn to adapt.”
Backed by these tremendous tailwinds, there are some very definite digital strides that India’s travel, tourism, and hospitality industry players are taking as is country’s Tourism Ministry towards the rapid adoption of digital technology. Needless to say, the COVID - 19 pandemic has expedited this process. Disruptions in the food industry have greatly impacted our dining today, be it about going out to one’s favourite restaurants or ordering to eat from the comfort of home.
Promoting digital innovation is going to be key feature of India's new tourism policy which is expected to be finalized soon. MoT has already taken many digital initiatives in recent times to augment overall experiences of tourists, and there are many more in the pipeline.
Pointing to one such initiatives, Dekho Apna Desh, Magow, said, “Dekho Apna Desh campaign is doing a phenomenal job in creating awareness even in the middle of the pandemic. However, I think we can just double down on that, and we can make sort of efforts in improving the last mile connectivity to reach destinations. It could do wonders because the consumers are telling you that they want to explore more. There is a lot more demand that we think people want to go and discover many places.”
According to Rao, technology is also being introduced in other areas of travel and hospitality. "Now we have light and sound shows at many tourist attractions, all these shows are not possible without holograms. ASI has over 3500 monuments across the country. We have 40 UNESCO world heritage sites. If we can have hologram-based light and sound shows at every World Heritage Site, it would be great experience for tourists," said Rao.
Among a host of such initiatives, Rao also informed that as part of the government's efforts to bring digitalization in the sector, the MoT has started Saarthi portal during the pandemic, after discussion with stakeholders. Elaborating further on India’s digital march in developing travel, tourism and hospitality industry, Rao informed that the government is formulating its ‘Iconic Sites’ policy. These sites will be equipped with all digital facilities and offer great experiences to visitors. Highlighting the difference between digitalization in the industry and at attractions, Rao said that digitalization in travel industry is one thing and offering digital experience to travellers is quite different.
"If you visit Louvre Museum in Paris, France, right from ticketing, entry, to experience of viewing paintings, there are digital mediums. And that kind of digital experience, you can have in our country at sites like the War Memorial in Delhi. We need to think of bringing such experiences and innovation in the sector," added Rao while elaborate on offering unique digital experiences to tourist travellers.
Referring to a 2016 report of the World Economic Forum, Rao said, "In 2016 itself, the World Economic Forum understood the importance of digital technology in hospitality sector. In 2016, WEF mentioned that in the next 10 years from 2016 to 2024, US $ 305 billion-dollar value will be created with digital technology and a large number of jobs will be created by leveraging digital technology. Many new companies will be founded in the digital sector.” Citing the said report, Rao said that the entire benefit of digital technology is going to be more than US $ 700 billion.
Shringi pointed to evolving new opportunities for the travel trade. He said, “So while technology is there, it doesn’t mean that the role of travel counsellors has become redundant. What we have also seen the pandemic do is bring to the forefront what I would call ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara moment.’ Everyone has literally realized that you only live once, and consumers are increasingly looking for experiences. So, the role of the travel counsellors I feel today is evolving in terms of being able to advise people and guide them with these experiences and creating these unique moments. In addition to that, Covid creates its own challenges with travel. You have got different protocols followed by different countries, you have boosters shots requirements, you have certain vaccine being accepted and certain not being accepted by different countries, RT PCR requirements; all these challenges are there and that’s where travel counsellors actually come into play. This is truly the time for people to evolve from being transactional agents into advisors and counsellors of their customers.”
The MOT recently launched a portal called Utsav to facilitate online Pooja by Indians living abroad. These are potential new opportunities to be looked at with idea, once again, being attributed to interest shown by PM Modi. According to Rao, "Our honorable Tourism Minister recently inaugurated Utsav portal. This portal and app were launched on the guidance of honourable Prime Minister who, in a meeting with officials of the Ministry of Tourism, had asked if Indians sitting in the US, New Zealand or in any country can perform Pooja at pilgrimage centres like Tirupati or Varanasi or any other sites through a portal or app. Utsav portal and app makes this online Pooja a reality," said Rao. According to Rao, digital experiences for tourists should be offered not only at historical places but also at facilities like airports and railway stations in cities.
Technology combined with digitization of financial services and things like ‘Book Now Pay Later’ are expected to further revolutionise travel and bring in whole new set of travellers to the already growing travel industry. Magow says, “Phenomenal works are happening behind the scenes which is going to change the game in terms of bringing in excess of credit for the consumers. You have seen UPI as a game changer from the convenience of payment. I believe Book Now Pay Later could potentially bring in the new set of customers. It is just absolutely convenient. I think you are going to see a revolution and that is going to influence the demand from all sorts of city population.”
India has recently crossed the pre-Covid volume in terms of domestic air travel passengers. “There were about 409,000 people who travelled in India (On a single day) a few days back which is a new record. Cruise lines across the US are running full. Business travel is recovering at a rate that none of us had imagined. This is the reality of the situation. Man is a social animal and I think will remain one and travel is here to stay,” Shringi said.
According to Magow, “Time is changing and there is the bright future ahead. I think we need to forget about what has happened. I think it’s time for us to change the gears completely and think more about how to take off from here.”
The pandemic also put into spotlight the domestic tourism market as international borders remained sealed for the last two years. “We have just opened up to the international traffic. But what happened in between was Indian domestic market that turned out to be a massive savior for the industry. We all saw crowded pictures of Shimla, Manali, Rohtang Pass, Goa etc. during the time travel was eased amid the pandemic crisis. These pictures give you an indication of how much people in India wanted to travel during the lockdowns. And that’s how some new destinations – especially nearby and products like staycation, workstation etc. came to existence. People are just all out there, and I don’t think it is going to be different anymore,” Magow said. Magow pointed that leveraging technology and digitalization will go a long way is harvesting domestic tourism potential which is huge. “The three tailwinds that I see are infrastructure, digitization and new products,” he added.
Being ready for possible future shocks, volatility and disruptions have earned new meaning in the post-Covid era and so have agility through technology and digitalization. Shringi said, “One thing that the pandemic has taught us is that things can be volatile, and in a volatile environment as an organization we need to make sure that our cost structures are variables. We are not sitting on high-cost fixed-cost structures. We have seen a lot of company go through difficult phases because they were sitting on high-cost structures. Technology allows you to be able to move your cost structures from being a fixed one to a variable one. It allows you to scale up and down seamlessly. On more than one occasion in the last two years we saw situations where suddenly we will find that flights for the next three months are cancelled. The organisations which are doing tens of thousands of transactions a day suddenly find that next ninety days of transactions have got cancelled and we have hundreds of people out there trying to reach you. You can only scale up or down with that kind of speed is by using technology.”
Shringi also pointed to the need to undertake last mile infrastructure development as well as efforts and initiatives to put new and lesser-known destinations in the spotlight through smart use of technology and digital initiatives.
“We have got a consuming middle class that is very booming. Besides, there are also some other sections of the society, like the large working middle class population, who have a lot of disposable income at this point in time and are spending on travel, hospitality, dining, experiences, with a vengeance. To capitalise on all this, it is very important that the infrastructure, of class and caliber, which can attract the consumers multiple times than having to be overseas, needs to be there, especially at the last mile. The other thing is how do we go about promoting the lesser-known aspects and facets of India. For every, one Goa, there may be 20 other equally attractive destination which are not discovered as yet,” he pointed.
Tourism, indeed, is a massive opportunity ahead of us. “It is a sector where the consumption will drive growth. The question is how much of it do we capture within India and how much of it spills overseas,” questioned Shringi while concluding. Technological revolution in India’s burgeoning tourism sector and use of innovative digital methods and mediums can potentially answer this question and favourably too.