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International tourism: A new start

International travel is down by 80% in the first seven months of 2021 compared to 2019 and Asia and the Pacific continues to suffer the weakest results in the period January to July, with a 95 per cent drop in international arrivals compared to 2019. Many countries are yet to open their border amidst the uncertainties. Changing safety guidelines, regulations, fluctuations in number of cases and unavailability of air services amongst other reasons are further delaying the reopening of travel and tourism. With many variables, there is uncertainty in the air for the international tourism in 2021.

All said everything is not gloomy for the outbound and international travel. According to UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, an estimated 54 million tourists crossed international borders in July 2021, down 67 per cent from the same month in 2019, but the strongest results since April 2020. This compares to an estimated 34 million international arrivals recorded in July 2020, though well below the 164 million figures recorded in 2019. These figures are a new beginning for the tourism industry. Globally, destinations have started witnessing a rebound.

National Tourism Offices of countries have been trying their best but due to uncertainty are still struggling to develop confidence among travellers. There were and are hopes that vaccination will support in restart of tourism, but we do not see a clear picture and desired progress till now due to vaccine discrimination and flawed tourism bilateral between countries. Global associations/organization are issuing Travel Pass/ Safety Certificates. Countries are offering incentives, insurance, freebies to woo tourists but the result is far from the expectation.

This is the time when the world needs to be one and stakeholders need to push their respective governments for a speedy revival of the tourism industry which is undoubtedly one of the largest employment generators. Also, despite challenges, Tourism Boards across the globe have a mega opportunity to reposition their stature in the global market. Destinations with a handful of tourists are now on a level playing field with the frontrunners.

Speaking about the present scenario of international tourism, Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary-General, UNWTO, said, “There is clearly a strong demand for international tourism, and many destinations have started welcoming visitors back safely and responsibly. However, the true restart of tourism and the benefits it brings, remain on hold as inconsistent rules and regulations and uneven vaccination rates continue to affect confidence in travel.”

To further examinate and assess the strategies of destinations and to understand the way forward, T3 recently organised a conference session during SATTE GenX, titled ‘International Travel: Tackling Uncertainties!’.

The session, moderated by Carl Vaz, Chairman & CEO, Charson Advisory Services, witnessed eminent panelists including Thoyyib Mohamed, Managing Director, Visit Maldives; Dhananjay Regmi, CEO, Nepal Tourism Board; Jabed Ahmed, CEO, Bangladesh Tourism Board; Arvind Bundhun, Director, MTPA; Robert Obolgogiani, Executive Vice President Russia, CIS, Central & South Asia, AVIAREPS and Phil Dickinson, Global International Markets Development, Qatar National Tourism Council.

Pandemic impact

With over a million travellers pre-pandemic, Nepal has witnessed a steep decline in terms of inbound numbers similar to other destinations. The nation is further staring at many major hurdles in the post-covid world.

Speaking about the impact of the pandemic, Regmi stated, “In Nepal, the number of tourists has decreased by over 90 per cent. The overall revenue from the tourism industry has been extremely low, we have lost around Rs. 150 billion. On one side the economy has been dented and our next fear is the professional who lost jobs will look for other better opportunities. When things will be back to normal, we won’t have enough manpower to run the businesses that are operational at present. The tourism sector is important for Nepal, but not very vast. In terms of policy making, we should have more easier and efficient policies in the nation which can help us post pandemic.”

Another destination which shares border with India, Bangladesh has witnessed a major loss in terms of revenue from the tourism sector.

Ahmed, said, “The industry in Bangladesh is not very vast. Yet, we have lost around 20,000 crores Bangladeshi Taka. The situation is now improving a bit and domestic tourism has started to perform well. We are focusing on the development of domestic market to restore the tourism in Bangladesh. We have taken different initiatives like monitoring SOPs that we have formulated for tourists and the industry. Almost, two crore tourists travelled from October-February in Bangladesh. Our government has announced a huge stimulus package for the tourism industry. To restart international travel, we have signed travel bubble agreements, we have already started with India. If the covid situation improves, within one and half years we will pick up pace in the tourism industry with the support of all stakeholders.”

Destination preparedness

In a bid to reopen international tourism and welcome travellers once again, destinations are tirelessly strategising. Qatar is all set to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which is one of the grand events to pull inbound travellers.

Talking about the destination, Dickinson, said, “We had great plans in 2020 as we had embarked on our new tourism strategy ‘Vision 2030’. With the interest towards the buildup for the FIFA, there are a lot of structural changes going in Qatar. There are a lot of new hotels coming into Qatar. We are building new parks and attractions. As a tourism board, it is the legacy of the world cup that we make sure we can build on that legacy and drive more tourism visitations. The contribution of tourism to our GDP is quite small now, its four or five per cent. We do see tourism as a great revenue driver and as a plan of our strategy we want to get more visitations from our identified key source markets.”

One of the major approaches that the destinations should take in post pandemic, it is not a restart but a new start. Destinations can delve upon their forte and can reposition their destination with new elements to showcase.

Explaining the new approach, Obolgogiani, said, “The biggest challenge for all industry members is unpredictability. This is making it difficult to create a roadmap. This also gives us a chance to be more dynamic and to leverage this situation and find new ways of promotion of our countries. Today, we are in a stage where we are much more knowledgeable in where we are, we know some of the trends and the vaccination rate. Now, we have other set of challenges which are more political in nature, where some vaccines are not allowed in some countries. Today, the major challenge is that we don’t have any data on which we can rely on. We are building a new world in a way. This gives us an opportunity and a chance to compete and grow in the post-pandemic era. I don’t feel that international tourism will be restarting, it will be a new start. We all have a chance to reposition our destination and showcase things which we could never promote.”

One of the destinations which has tasted success during the pandemic is Maldives which heavily relies on the tourism sector. The destination is now further preparing for more inbound tourism by vaccinating its stakeholders.

Mohamed, It’s a good start for us, we must not look back and must look at what more can be done. From the start of the pandemic, we met with the industry stakeholders and we had a platform and we brainstormed about the recovery process. We opened borders on July 15, 2020. We heavily rely on tourism and cannot be closed for a very long time. We are blessed with geographically distanced islands and we could manage the pandemic well. For the pre-covid level we had 1.7 million travellers in 2019. After opening up borders, the arrivals are good and about 1086 tourism establishments are open which included 163 tourist resorts which are fully functional. Around 817,000 arrivals have been recorded this year. It’s very important that every country needs to be fully vaccinated. Over 99 per cent of the industry people have taken their first jabs and around 93 per cent are fully vaccinated, it gives a certain amount of assurance to the travellers who are visiting.”

Similarly, Mauritius, one of the most popular destinations amongst the Indian travellers, has taken a cautious approach in opening up but are now prepared to welcome inbound travellers in the key season.

Bundhun, added, “Today, sanitary and safety is the new luxury in travel. Mauritius has embarked on a vaccination rollout since January and as of today we have vaccinated almost 60 per cent of our population. We have decided to open the country in phases. Tourism is an extremely important sector for the economy of Mauritius. This month we will open up the country fully for vaccinated travellers subject to a negative PCR test and there will be a rapid antigen test on day zero and day five. The start is looking quite healthy based on the forecast. These three months we see ramping up from certain markets. We see that from our key markets we are quite confident, and we see certain appetite. At the same time, we don’t expect the same number of tourists we used to have.”   

Marketing strategy

Qatar, being one of the novel destinations in the tourism map, the awareness about the destination is still low. Dickinson, said, “We have planned some global campaigns, which will start in November just before the World Travel Market. We will go out with a mix of campaigns and will showcase what Qatar has to offer for each kind of travellers. India is one of our key source markets, as it is on our doorsteps and we have a huge Indian population living and working in Qatar. We are ramping up our activities with the trade. We are talking to all the key tour operators to do some collaborative marketing, hosting FAM trips in partnership with Qatar Airways. We are now spending some money to increase the level of awareness about Qatar which is our strategy.”

Most of the marketing during the pandemic has been on the digital platforms. Destinations have evolved with tech-driven solutions to connect with their key stakeholders.

Speaking about the marketing strategy for Mauritius, Bundhun, added, “The marketing strategy adopted is three-pronged. 65 per cent of our bookings in Mauritius are B2B oriented. Recently, we have seen an increase in the number of bookings from the OTAs, but Mauritius being a Euro-centric destination still relies on B2B. We have done joint marketing collaborations with the travel trade in key markets. Being a small island, we are heavily dependent on airlines, we are also targeting joint marketing campaign with airlines which will allow us to have access to their database. During this pandemic, we have noticed that people are consuming a lot on digital, so this is a very important platform for us, and we have engaged with our consumers on social media. After three months, we will look at B2C campaigns.”

Destination-Airline’s synergy

The pandemic has brought the destinations and the airlines even closer. Both these sectors should work together for the tourism sector to flourish once again.

Obolgogiani, stated, “The collaboration between tourism board, airlines and the missions are becoming even more critical during the post-covid times. Airlines are desperate to restart operations today. They are already experiencing limitations in the subsidies from the government. The business travel has been damaged a lot and it will be a big change in the new world and a lot of business meetings will go virtual. There will be more dependency on the leisure travel. We see trends in airlines, the legacy airlines are concentrating on hubs. If we don’t have airlift, its difficult to develop the destination. So, destinations should also support airlines to get numbers ticking.”

Nepal is set to open two new international airports to further tap the Buddhist clientele. Regmi, added: “We cannot resume international tourists without airlines. Post pandemic, a lot of airlines pulled out operations from Nepal. At the same time, we have seen a lot of new airlines entering the Nepal market, Singapore Airlines, Srilankan Airlines, etc. As we want to further develop Nepal as a Buddhist destination, we are coming up with two new airports. These airports will cater to the high-end travellers and will welcome charter flights. Looking at the global Buddhist people, a lot of new airlines will take interest in Nepal.”

Similarly, Bangladesh is opening up a new airport near Cox’s Bazaar, which is a favourites amongst the international travellers. Ahmed, said: “The aviation sector is the most important element in developing a destination. In Bangladesh we have three international airports. Now we are developing one airport near the Cox’s Bazaar. Travellers can directly reach this world class destination without landing at Dhaka.”

Maldives has been working with all major carriers from across the globe. The destination has been working on cross marketing and joint collaboration strategies with the airlines to further push the destination.

“We saw a big opportunity during this pandemic that is the new markets. We saw huge demands from long-haul markets such as US. The aviation industry plays a key role here. We are now working with most of the major airlines across the globe and we are doing chain marketing with them. We grow when they grow, we all need each other during this pandemic,” Mohamed added. 

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