The covid-19 pandemic had decimated the global tourism sector in 2020, with the industry virtually coming to a standstill. Experts opined that tourism and hospitality will be the last ones to recover from the pandemic. As per UNWTO, international arrivals fell by one billion (74 per cent) in 2020 over 2019, ensuring that the overall estimated damage was over 11 times larger than in 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis.
But this said, towards the end of 2020 and early 2021, the travel and tourism industry witnessed a lot of positive signals with a few countries opening up borders for international tourists, with stringent safety policies in place. A few destinations also successfully tapped the India market post lockdown. Also, with vaccine rolling out the industry was totally geared up to restart business.
But beginning April 2021, the changing variants/mutants of covid-19 has again forced the Governments across the world to keep on fine tuning their SOPs/safety guidelines almost on weekly basis. Policy and decision makers do not have any idea, even now, about going forward on any issues. The most obvious impact of this surge of COVID-19 resulted into a total travel ban. The green shoots that were evident in December 2020 and January 2021, has faded again with arrival of new mutants. Travel bubbles between countries have been executed and now being halted. Vaccinated travellers, ease of travel, cross country movements, even cross-city movements were permitted and withdrawn now.
The second wave attack by COVID-19 in India has been resulting into 0.3 million to 0.4 million cases on a daily basis. India, as a country, has become the most vulnerable in the world. While international tourism is totally out-of-the-scene, domestic tourism that was witnessing revival faded away since March 2021. Countries after countries are withdrawing from air travel bubble agreement. Domestic air traffic in India has come down to half in April 2021 compared to March 2021. Countries that were welcoming Indian travellers and were planning to open doors have put a ban on Indian arrivals. Not only this, these countries have also issued travel advisories for their citizens against travelling to India.
The recently concluded SATTE 2021 tried to address the changing course of action on international travel regarding India through a session titled ‘International tourism: Tackling Pandemic Impact’. Panelists were quite optimistic about the revival of international tourism, but their hopes got totally dashed due to the exponential spread of Indian variant of COVID-19 strain in the country.
The session was moderated by Aashish Gupta, Founder of StrategyPluto & Consulting CEO, FAITH and witnessed an eminent panel including Thoyyib Mohamed, Managing Director, VisitMaldives; Dhananjay Regmi, Chief Executive Officer, Nepal Tourism Board; Rajiv Mehra, President, IATO; Milan Dostal, Commercial Economic Counsellor, Embassy of the Czech Republic; and Vachirachai Sirisumpan, Director, Tourism Authority of Thailand New Delhi Office.
In 2020, many international destinations, especially the ones which are majorly dependent on the tourism, opened borders for international tourism. One of the first destinations amongst them were Maldives that opened up its international borders on July 15, 2020.
Speaking about the initiatives, Mohamed stated, “We were one of the first destinations to open international borders last year. It was a bold move by the President of Maldives, at that time nobody knew what might happen to the tourism industry. But, with the stakeholders, frontline health workers, state authorities, we decided to open up the destination with all safety measures. We opened with one-island one resort properties and later we opened guest houses and other accommodations. We took complete advantage of the geographical isolation of how Maldives is scattered. Resorts are socially distanced in Maldives. We make sure that stringent checks are done, and protocols are in place.”
Every destination came up with its own customized set of protocols and SOPs which has been amended as per the scenario. Destinations came up with stringent regulations for their tourism and hospitality industry with the core focus being on safety and security.
Speaking about the SOPs in Nepal, Regmi added, “Just like other countries, Nepal has suffered a lot in terms of tourism. But we were one of the first to come up with safety protocols which are very activity specific. We came up with 11 safety protocols for adventure activities, trekking, rafting, lodges and hotels, etc.. We realized for the first time that we can sustain on our own domestic tourism. We promoted tourism within the country and requested people to travel domestically and that helped. All our tourism products and attractions are open and are getting local business.”
Similarly, Thailand opened its borders for international tourists last year, but with a quarantine policy. The destination was looking at long stay travellers ready to get quarantined for 14 days. The destination has been easing and revising its policy since then.
Elaborating on Thailand’s steps, Sirisumpan explained: “We are open for tourism, however there are some paperwork and insurance which travellers need to fulfill and also quarantine policy in place for anyone who is coming from an international destination. The quarantine policy is in place even for the local Thai Nationals if they return from an international destination. With vaccination happening across the globe, I see light at the end of the tunnel. The Ministry of Tourism, Thailand has said that there would be some easing in terms of measures every quarter. We will have some flexibility soon in terms of the policies.”
The Ministry of Tourism Government of India has been only focusing on the domestic tourism segment in 2020. India as a destination will be looking at inbound tourism, but the present situation in the country will further push this development.
Suggesting initiatives which India should take to restart inbound, Mehra said, “The Ministry of Tourism, Government of India is planning digital marketing activities internationally in our source markets, once the pandemic scenario is a little better. The biggest potential which we need to realise is travellers who were going on outbound trips will now be moving within India.”
He further said, “Indian hotels are all ready to welcome international travellers when flights resume. Even the tour operators in India are ready, we as IATO are giving WTTC stamp as we have been authorized. To maximise the tourism numbers once things open up, we have requested the Ministry of Tourism to share ‘Dekho Apna Desh’ campaign videos to all the Indian Embassies and regional offices abroad and should be dubbed in the country’s specific local language. Post COVID, shows like SATTE will help in spreading a word that we are ready for tourism.”
In terms of the latest trends, the European Union is looking to restart tourism within Europe. To further make the process seamless the European Union is looking to introduce Green Pass. Destinations like Czech Republic are confident that whenever travel happens, the Indian outbound will bounce back.
On the emerging scenario in Europe, Dostal said, “The situation is far from ideal as of now for the tourism sector. Tourism is one of the most important sectors for Czech Republic. India and Asia are one of the most important markets which has been growing for us at a good pace. As of now in the entire European Union there are very limited options to travel. We expect that there might be an improvement in the situation somewhere in the second half of this year. Initiatives like SATTE are extremely important where we can discuss about the future and contemplate the activities in order to step by step open the markets. European Union has planned to introduce Green Pass which will go through European Parliament. At the same time, being a Member of European Union look at the guidance of the European Commission to implement steps which will enable international travel.”
Maldives in its next phase is working to introduce vaccine tourism. The tagline for the new campaign will be, ‘Visit, Vaccine and Vacation’.
Explaining about the new campaign, Mohamed said, “From the beginning we wanted Maldives tourism to be leading in vaccination. More than half of our population have been vaccinated which includes our tourism staff as well. We want to move on to the next phase where we want to do a campaign on ‘Visit, Vaccine and Vacation’. Travellers can come and get the first dose and after few weeks take second dose and then leave, which we will provide. It is the first of its kind product and some of our partners here in Maldives are offering free quarantine if a traveller is detected positive. Everyone is gearing up now and changing their strategies towards this special time. With the help of health authorities and frontline staff we are now the leading destination.”
A lot of the destinations which had opened up for India market for all purposes, either closed doors or did announce further restrictions.
Maldives was the most popular international destination for Indians post the lockdown last year. From January 1, 2021 to March 24, 2021, a total of 269,504 tourists arrived in the Maldives. The top source market for the tourist arrival was India with 64,059 arrivals. In a recent statement, the Maldives has also put restriction on Indian travellers visiting the inhabited islands.
The statement mentioned, “The government of Maldives has recently announced temporary measures to control the spread of COVID-19 in relation to the rising COVID-19 cases in India. Indian travellers arriving in the Maldives are restricted from staying at guesthouses and hotels located in local inhabited islands. The restriction does not apply to resorts and liveaboards. The restriction also applies for tourists who have completed the prescribed dose(s) of a COVID-19 vaccine.”
Australia as a destination was not open for leisure tourism, however the Australian Government, imposed a ban on its own citizens from returning home, if they have spent time in India up to 14 days before flying back. A step further the Australian Government announced that they will prosecute the violators with a possibility of five years of jail term or a penalty of 66,000 Australian dollars.
Close to home, Sri Lanka had planned to open up tourism for India market under the travel bubble agreement. India is the top source market for Sri Lanka. Recently, The Director General Civil aviation in a letter to the CEO of the national carrier Srilankan Airlines stated, "In accordance with instructions received from health authorities of Sri Lanka due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation, it is hereby directed that passengers travelling from India will not be permitted to disembark in Sri Lanka with immediate effect.”
Similarly, Israel announced the reopening its borders to international travellers on May 23rd. However, visitors will have to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and will be expected to travel in groups. Divulging more specific details the destination announced that it will be open only for 14 countries, which does not include India.
Apart from these destinations USA and the UK along with several other countries have shut borders for travellers from India.
Nepal as a destination is looking to reposition its image in the India market. The destination which is popular for its spiritual tourism is showcasing various other aspects including nightlife, spas, and various other tourism offerings to the India market.
Regmi said, “India is our biggest market, on our borders between India and Nepal 35 crore people reside. We have changed our focus now and we will be looking at border tourism and we don’t need to wait for airlines to resume and one can drive to Nepal. We had a different image in the past with a focus on spiritual tourism. We have now completely changed, we have the best nightlife, casinos, spas, meditation centres, etc. also in terms of spiritual sites we are promoting a lot of unexplored sites now. We are now showcasing Nepal as a year-round destination and for all age groups.”
The major role for tourism boards in the current times has been to build confidence amongst travellers and the locals in the destination. Destinations are ensuring that all protocols and SOPs are strictly implemented and followed.
Sirisumpan, added, “The major role for all the tourism boards and tourism stakeholders is to build confidence amongst people. We need to promote to the tourists as well as the locals that tourism is safe to revive the industry. In Thailand we have launched Amazing Thailand Safety and Health Certification and have introduced SOPs which covers every aspect. Also, in Thailand travellers are every time looking for something new. So, we are now pushing more information on where one can go apart from popular destinations which are crowded. We have a lot of unexplored destinations in Thailand which are not crowded, and we are trying to promote these hidden gems. I believe transparency and communication of SOPs is the key to restart tourism.”
Also, with growing citizens getting completely vaccinated day by day, destinations need to customize their travel policies accordingly. Destinations should consider free travel for vaccinated travellers. “Despite of vaccination, countries are asking for RT-PCR Negative reports. It has to stop, there should be a clear mandate that once if a person is fully vaccinated, he can travel without any hassle. In India, a lot of lockdowns, night curfews are happening and there are different rules in different states for travel, which should not happen. We must follow all the rules and SOPs for personal safety and travel should happen as usual. There should be a uniformity in rules for interstate travel,” Mehra added.