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Shayan Mallick

Shayan Mallick

One of the major tourism destinations in India, Rajasthan has been strengthening its tourism offering and promotion in order to find new ways to stimulate both, the industry within the state as well as the market. 

The State Government has allocated Rs 1,000 crore for tourism in the Budget and the department is keen to utilize this budget properly to give a new trajectory to the state’s tourism industry. The government is redefining the accommodation and guest stay experience going beyond hotels and revitalizing the more experiential B&B offerings and the relatively new guest house scheme that’s a somewhat between B&B and a full-fledged hotel but nevertheless a sure shot recipe of experiential and immersive experiences bringing tourists closer to more authentic ways of Rajasthani lifestyle and food.

“We have got very good state budget of Rs 600 crore for infrastructure development and another Rs 400 crore for marketing. This is a huge budget and remarkable for us also. When you have a good budget, you can do many things on different fronts. Under the infrastructure budget, we have different types of work that we are going to undertake. These are related to renovation, new developments, construction of missing road links and last mile connectivity and upgradation of tourist facilities at the monuments and other such sites and pilgrimage centres. These are areas where we are planning to spend the money,” informed Pawan Kumar Jain, Joint Director, Department of Tourism, Government of Rajasthan, while interacting on the sidelines of the recently concluded SATTE last month.

As for the Rs 400 crore marketing budget, Jain informed that his department is doing an all-round marketing campaign, including TV, radio, print as well as outdoor media. Rajasthan Tourism is also doing social media campaigns and media buying, among others, to reach out to large number of people across the country. 

Additionally, the state tourism department has launched many other schemes, in the state, all aimed at facilitating tourism in the state. One such scheme is Heritage Certification Scheme. “Under the scheme, we give heritage certificate to heritage properties. It is given only to those properties which were constructed before 1950. The State Government gives such properties bar license at a subsidized rate. So, suppose the annual fee is of Rs. X amount, then such properties have to pay X/2 as the bar license fee. Besides, they get many other benefits also like some parts of the property can be used as commercial parts also and they are converted free of cost,” informed Jain.

The other scheme is the Guest House Scheme, under which one can operate anywhere from six to twenty lettable rooms as Guest House in ones’ residential house. These houses are required to be located on at least 30 feet wide road. Under the scheme, the Guest House owners are allowed to operate a professionally run restaurant also, but only for the in-house guests. Besides, they can also run a shop in the premises. “More than 22 properties have already registered under the scheme across the state, especially at tourism hotspots like Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur, among others. We want to reach more than 50 properties by the end of this year under the scheme and I am sure we can accomplish this target,” said Jain. 

The State’s B&B Scheme is no less exciting, Jain said. Under the scheme, one to five lettable rooms can be rented to guests or tourists. But what is different about the scheme viz-a-viz B&B schemes declared by other states is that the Rajasthan allows such facilities on the basis of self-declaration. “Suppose I want my residence to be opened as a B&B establishment, then I have to declare that I will run it as B&B and I will stay in the premises and based on this we issue the certificate. So, we have made it more simplified.” 

Today more than 800 B&B facilities are already registered with state government from across Rajasthan. The Rajasthan Department of Tourism provides them with publicity, promotion and business access support, among others. 

Desaru Coast, a world class international integrated destination resort located in the South-East of Malaysia, was recently making news for shelling out as much as over Rs 12 million incentives package to woo the Indian travellers. 

Roslina Arbak, Managing Director & Chief Executive Officer, Desaru Development Holdings One Sdn Bhd, puts it, Desaru is keen to dig deep in the Indian market at position itself as the preferred holiday destinations for the Indian travellers. 

“The importance of the Indian market is undeniable for us at Desaru Coast. This is our fourth time presenting at SATTE and this year, we come as a fully operational destination resort with all six world-class resorts and attractions and connectivity infrastructure – the Desaru Coast Ferry Terminal, completed. Our priority now is to re-engage and reintroduce our destination to our Indian partners. We are here to demonstrate Desaru Coast’s diverse offerings, infrastructure and readiness to welcome more Indian travellers to our destination, Arbak said. 

Desaru Coasts boasts of four international brand hotels, Hard Rock, Westin, Anantara and the ultra-luxurious One&Only. It has two Golf Courses with a total of 45 holes and we are going to be a paradise for the Golfers. Besides, Desaru is home to a fantastic Adventure Water Park and that is Asia’s largest Wave Pool! And also, by virtue of its location, the integrated destination resort spans on a 17-kilometer beach front and boasts of a number of eco-tourism activities that it has curated for its guests.

“Desaru Coast is a perfect getaway for an extended holiday for guests coming into Singapore or to even Kuala Lumpur. It is a good four days –three nights stay with enough activities across the whole spectrum of the market segments. We provide guests with end-to-end experiences where there is something for everyone, whether you are coming to Desaru as a family or whether you are coming as a young couple or coming with three generations of a family. There is something for everyone at different levels and different types of accommodation offerings,” Arbak said.

Explaining more the Rs 12 million incentives package, Arbak said: “Our incentives cuts across all segments; leisure travellers, MICE groups of all sizes as well as the Indian wedding segment,” she said and added that Desaru Coast is introducing its popular luxury stay packages at affordable prices starting at approximately Rs 6,600 per person for the leisure market. The total incentive offered to the leisure market amounts to Rs 5 million. 

For the MICE segment, under its signature MICE Reinvented, the destination will be offering incentives valued up to Rs 2.1 million for events and groups. For every group booking, Desaru Coast is offering an incentive of Rs 1100 per person for the Gala Dinner. Additionally, the destination will provide complimentary pocket show activities and cultural shows for the gala dinner. 

To attract Indian weddings, a Rs 4.4 million incentive will be presented to the first five weddings booked at the destination, which translates to approximately INR880,000 per wedding. Incentives can be redeemed for in areas of connectivity, themed receptions and wedding photography package among others.

The destination is a mere three and half hours’ drive from Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. Alternately, Desaru is also easily accessible via Singapore. Via road it takes under two hours to reach Desaru from Singapore and soon it will also boast of under two-hour ferry connectivity from Singapore. The ferry service is expected to begin in the second half of the year.

“Connectivity wise we are actually in the perfect place and location, just over three hours from Kuala Lumpur and under two hours from Singapore. And if the visitors are coming via Singapore by ferry, it is an added experience and not to forget that it connects directly to Desaru as the ferry terminal is located within the resort,” added Arbak. 

“Why we call it an integrated resort is that even though we have different operators, but at the end of the day we own the destination. So, we have formed a destination concierge where we can coordinate a package for both, experiences within the destination (Desaru Coast) as well as outside the destination. So, some of the experiences like eco-tourism activities, it goes beyond our Desaru Coast area. So, we can take guests outside of Desaru Coast and we package it all in,” she added. 

SATTE 2021 was the first major international tourism event that was organised last year in March, since the countries worldwide started imposing lockdowns starting February 2020. Despite fewer exhibitors, the event garnered tremendous response from buyers from across India, and some international too, who, despite the air travel and other restrictions, still managed to attend the event. 

The aisles were teaming with buyers, and exhibitors were swearing by their enthusiasm and eagerness to ink new deals and contracts. SATTE 2022, if anything, was at least twice as vociferous. The show recorded more than 120 per cent growth over the previous edition despite a very challenging national and international travel landscape in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic reaching very close to the pre-pandemic size and scale. 

The 29th edition was a massive statement on India and the South Asia region’s potential for domestic, regional and global tourism, underpinning UNWTO’s data showing the region as one of the fastest growing tourism markets as well as source market for destinations across the globe. For the domestic tourism in India, exhibitors from every corner of India, from Kashmir to Kerala and India’s western most states of Gujarat and Rajasthan to the country’s North East, were in attendance along with their regions’ leading DMCs, hotels and other suppliers to showcase their products, offerings and destinations to buyers. 

Internationally, some 300 international suppliers and 25 countries were in attendance from every single continent, from as far as The Americas to Oceania and Africa, vying for a slice of India and the region’s outbound potential. Azerbaijan that debuted in the Indian market in the late 2018, made its destination launch at SATTE 2019 and swears by expo’s potential to drive incremental traffic. Not only India is the fastest growing source market for Azerbaijan today but is also among its top producing markets, a feat achieved in a space of just about two to three years. 

This year it was Saudi Arabia, shrouded in mystery and antiquity and some ambitious new developments aimed at transforming country’s future economic landscape, the country organised its first major destination launch in India at SATTE this year. The land of Mecca and Medina, two of the holiest sites of Islam, Saudi Arabia was the premier partner of the event this year. 

While inaugurating SATTE 2022, Chief Guest of the event, Shripad Yesso Naik, Minister of State for Tourism, Govt. of India, said, “Travel and tourism is among one of the world’s largest economic sector creating export and prosperity around the world, and SATTE, South Asia Travel & Tourism Exchange, offers a comprehensive platform to domestic and international buyers and professionals from across the travel, tourism and hospitality industry along with the national (NTOs) and state (STBs) tourism boards. For over two decades, SATTE is recognized as one of the leading travel and tourism exhibitions in the country which conducts business, share knowledge, exchange ideas in order to arrive at solutions.” 

The Minister also pointed that SATTE is well supported by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, national and international tourism boards, Indian and international travel and tourism associations and stakeholders of the industry. 

While exuding confidence in the event, he further said, “This year it is the 29th edition of SATTE. The show has participation of 25 foreign and 25+ states along with private sector players from aviation, cruise, theme parks, attractions, etc. A travel mart of this magnitude is happening in India after a gap of two years. I am happy to see such a large participation of foreign tourism boards, international and domestic travel and tourism stakeholders, state tourism delegates, they are all present here today. I hope the event will facilitate a number of business deals in the value chain of travel and tourism industry.”

Earlier, while welcoming the delegates at SATTE 2022, Yogesh Mudras, Managing Director, Informa Markets – India, said, “Informa Market in India has been an integral part of travel and tourism trade for more than two decades now with SATTE entering its 29th edition. As the travel sector is beginning to see the momentum with the opening of international flights, SATTE 2022 will be a major platform for discussion and dialogues for the revival of national and international travel industry. SATTE has always worked towards developing a roadmap for the lucrative future of this industry.”

“We are extremely pleased to host around 30,000 attendees who are expected to attend this edition of SATTE. We have 1000 plus exhibitors on the floor, so it’s a full-fledged edition of SATTE back again after the gap of a year. There are 25 states tourism boards as well as 25 international destinations (NTOs) who are participating this year. Altogether we have over 300 international participants at the show this year,” Mudras informed.   

Attending his first major tourism expo since assuming tourism portfolio, M. Mathiventhan, Minister for Tourism, Govt. of Tamil Nadu, pointed that it is thanks to the mass vaccination programme that now tourism industry is out of Covid mayhem. “With Covid-19 pandemic receding people are rushing back to the tourism spots. Needless to say, that our country, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, is filled with diversity and tourism. Each state has distinct culture, tradition, food, topography and many other diversities,” he said, while also adding “We see Tamil Nadu now well poised for a giant leap in the sector. When it comes to our state, Tamil Nadu, led by our Honourable Chief Minister M K Stalin, is taking many measures to promote tourism.” 

The Minister particularly pointed out state’s first of its kind ‘Tourism Destination Development Scheme’ that he said is a milestone scheme that will help the state identify and develop whole new set of destinations to give fillip to the state’s tourism sector and also boost employment. He further said that there are several other new programmes in tourism aimed at uplifting state’s tourism sector. “Tamil Nadu is also coming up with new Tourism Policy that will seek to provide industry status to the tourism sector. New guidelines are being formulated in order to develop Caravan Tourism, Eco-camping sites and such activities. The state is also organizing its private sector in tourism bringing all the agents and operators under a single umbrella and providing them with the required registrations and accreditions,” informed Mathiventhan.

Paying glowing tributes to SATTE for bringing together such a huge gathering of international tourism fraternity for three-days of business meetings and networking in the sweltering May heat and in the new post-pandemic normal, Rupinder Brar, Additional Director General (Tourism), Govt. of India, also highlighted India’s massive movement of vaccination that has given tremendous confidence to travel and tourism industry and every other sector and has made events like SATTE with such large gathering possible. She said, “What we want to say in a very loud voice to the world is that we are ready to welcome you, the trade is all set to welcome you” while also adding that “Please don’t just visit India in virtual space, instead travel to India.”

Brar urged the delegates and attendees to talk about India and its growing tourism stories to people in order to whet their appetite for the wanderlust. She said, “You have 114 airports within India to plan your travels to and the number of destinations that we can talk about is endless. ‘Dekho Apna Desh’ is the experience which is unending. So, when I say ‘Dekho Apna Desh’ to see my country, it not only refers to us as Indians, but it’s an experience, it’s a process that is for anyone and everyone coming into India.” 

She also explained that while tourists are welcome to explore and visit the country, India at the same time is a much-evolved experience that global travellers should seek, whether in terms of wellness, culture and heritage, adventure, rural or eco-tourism experiences or whether one is textiles or music lover, the list is endless, and therefore should be accordingly encouraged to explore these myriad facets of the country.

Congratulating Informa Market in India on the successful organization of the 29th edition of SATTE, Jyoti Mayal, Vice Chairperson of FAITH said, “SATTE is famous in the travel fraternity as South Asia’s leading travel show and has carved a niche of itself in its 29 years of journey. I have been a part of this journey and I have grown with it. It has become a premier show to network and conduct tourism business in the region.” “SATTE being a platform to connect entire Asia, I wish to convey that we at FAITH along with all our ten partner associations are working tirelessly to promote and encash global and regional tourism opportunities which indeed is the need of the hour, to strengthen multilateral, bilateral relations and enhance trade and tourism and make travellers experience entire Asia and the globe,” she further added.

Furthermore, highlighting the role of tourism and the role that premier events like SATTE play in the socio-economic development of a country or region, Mayal said, “Tourism has a very steady growth. It is over 6 per cent CAGR over the last 50 years and the main source of foreign exchange earnings for one-third of the developing countries. Tourism employment opportunities have outperformed other major industries. Importantly, women account for 54 per cent of the employment in the sector compared to 39 per cent to the global economy.”  

With the revival of travel and tourism top of the agenda, also speaking on the occasion, Rajiv Mehra, Hony. Secretary, FAITH said, “The contribution of tourism to employment, foreign exchange earnings and to the GDP is known to all. The pandemic brought this vibrant sector to a sudden halt. Now with sky opened and over 192 crore vaccinated, the Incredible India is all set to welcome tourists from across the world.” 

Speaking further, Mehra drew attention to bring back the eVisa facilities for all the countries as earlier and also to extend the five-lakh free tourist Visa scheme to future date in order for the industry and the country to take advantage of the scheme. Mehra also drew attention to the opportunities and challenges in the Buddhist sector that encompasses a vast territory, from Bengal and Bihar in the East to all the way to Ladakh, the Northern most territory of India. He also took the opportunity to ask for Infrastructure status for the tourism industry in order for the industry to attract greater investment. Mehra also offered key recommendations concerning marketing and promotion of the country in the overseas source markets that included suggestions related to overseas road shows, website improvements, tax rationalization on ATF, among others.

Industry veteran Subhash Goyal, Member, National Advisory Council, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, while recalling SATTE from the days when it was first conceived, said, “SATTE is not any ordinary exhibition. It was conceived as a platform for the Indian tourism industry to bring the buyers and sellers from all over the world together. And I am happy today that SATTE is a dream come true, that over a thousand exhibitors are participating in this year’s SATTE. As somebody who has attended all the SATTE, I think this edition is already a grand success. What I want to say is take full advantage of SATTE, network and meet as many people as possible as this is one of the first events after a long time and so well attended.” 

Masks, sanitisers, social distancing, greater safety and hygiene, not to forget, the vaccinations, are the new normal. As destinations across the world open to travel and tourism and start afresh their destination marketing and recoup the lost business, how should India Tourism, inbound or domestic, chart its course is going to be interesting.

 

The recently concluded SATTE organised an engaging session of the topic ‘India Tourism: The Road Ahead’ to develop some ideas on the need of the hour, tourism revival and road it needs to walk to regain its share of travel and tourism and further build from there. The session was moderated by Aashish Gupta, CEO of FAITH. Speakers in the panel included Rupinder Brar, ADG, Ministry of Tourism (MoT), Government of India; Rajiv Mehra, President of Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO); Sudhir Patil, Founder & Director, Veena World; Robert Oblogogiani, Executive Vice President of AviaReps and Karnesh Sharma, Director – Tourism & Culture Affairs, Punjab Heritage & Tourism Promotion.   

  

Initiating the session on ‘India Tourism: Road ahead, Gupta remarked that India’s tourism industry has had the toughest survival in the past two years. “If any industry has been hugely impacted, it has been travel & tourism industry. If in any industry, employment has immensely impacted it has been travel and tourism industry. If any industry’s revenues were impacted badly, it has been travel and tourism industry, but now is time for all of us to bounce back,” said Gupta.

 

“I think this is time to relook at where we are and how we can move forward from here,” said Gupta. He noted that tourism contributes a significant share to India’s GDP. Tourism is the only industry which creates employment across the country. Tourism is the only sector which generates foreign exchange. Tourism is the only sector which creates infrastructure. It is only sector that creates international goodwill.

 

Inbound Scenario 

 

So, the question is how we as a country are placed to address the issues of tourism in post-Covid era. And are we in a condition today to not only capture what we had but also build on what we had in the pre-covid era. Let’s start with two key verticals that India Tourism has: inbound vertical and domestic vertical. In the year 2019, Indian received 11million inbound tourists. It also includes people visiting friends and families here. If we look at on the percentage basis, India has 1% share in international tourist market in pre-Covid period.

 

How soon and how ready is India to regain its 1 % share of international tourist market? Gupta asked this question to Rupinder Brar, ADG, the Ministry of Tourism, who was present as a panellist. Answering Gupta’s question, Brar said, “If we look at where we are right now, surrounded by thousands of people, that sends a strong message to the world that we are ready, we are ready to welcome tourists.” She added that Visa has been fully opened in middle of March. Regular International flights have already started. We worked closely with the industry to ensure that the whole industry is fully vaccinated on priority basis. That sends a sound message that whoever is attending a tourist at airport or elsewhere is fully vaccinated. 

 

She mentioned that the MoT has closely been working with the industry for preparing many more itineraries to widen India’s offerings to the world. “This is where I see a lot of changes happening. People are moving away from standard things that were previously offered; especially in the post-Covid times, we need to take tourists to open places, green places, wellness places, etc. In terms of these attractions, India has lots to offer to tourists. Brar referred to India’s achievement in improving connectivity in recent years. She said that this would come very handy now when the world is bouncing back, and tourism is reopening. “For those who may not be aware, India has 140 airports, 20 of them have capacity for international take-off and landing. The country has second largest network of roads after the US. 36 km roads are constructed every single day,” said Brar. “From industry perspective, I see lots of innovations, lots of user technologies coming in, all by our private sector, which will take India a long way,” she said. Brar admitted that in the last two years it has been extremely tough journey in for everyone involved in travel and tourism industry.

 

Speaking on the occasion, Rajeev Mehra, President, IATO said, the MoT, the Government of India and IATO have been working very closely with each other for the last two years, on various issues. Starting from the Covid period to now, the MoT has been very helpful.

 

“As far as inbound tourism is concerned, we are all set for that. I expect October onwards 30 to 40 % business of what we had in the pre-Covid times coming to India. At the same we have lots of problems in hand. One of the problems is that cost of tour packages for India post Covid-19 has grown up by 25 to 30 per cent because of increase in fuel prices, transport cost and hotel rates have gone up. Domestic flights in India are costly,” said Mehra.

 

He added, “What we expect from the government of India is that it should bring Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) under GST so that cost of ATF comes down. We have been requesting the Tourism Minister and the PM that promotion of India in overseas market has to start now.” According to Mehra, “We are not promoting our country the way our neighbours are promoting themselves in overseas markets. We are not participating in overseas roadshows, except for ATM Dubai which took place recently. It is very important that the Ministry of Tourism, the Government of India along with private operators should promote the country overseas and let the world know that we are still there, and we mean business.”

 

Mehra feels that roadshows need to be done urgently. They should have been done already, but it is better late than never. “We must start now. We request the government to start these things immediately.” According to Mehra, there is need to promote tourism in right spirit so that dream of the honourable Prime minister is fulfilled.

 

Gupta commented that it is really a worrying time. Prices are very high. And India is becoming an expensive destination. Another worry is the inflation which is driving up the cost. He also echoed Mehra on pushing for visibility in the international source markets as any more delay can cost India in terms of slow and prolonged recovery of its market share.

 

Domestic Tourism

 

As a sub-continental country, India’s diversity in terms of destinations, people, language, culture and food, landscape and topography are second to none. And the fact that it’s a huge country, both in terms of size and population, makes domestic tourism a potential engine of growth and development in the country. While the topic, domestic tourism, came up for discussion on the occasion, Gupta pointed that pre-Covid the number of domestic tourist visits in Indian is around 2.3 billion which is almost one-and-half visits per person making India the second highest market for domestic visits. But when compared with the US and China, the number of visits per person was almost six for US citizens and almost four for the Chinese domestic visits. While number of domestic tourists in India is high, the value and average expenditure by tourist is low, he pointed.

 

Speaking about domestic tourism, Sudhir Patil, Founder & Director, Veena World, said, “Everyone is saying that domestic tourism is very high, it is booming but there are issues as well.” At the outset, Patil said that our Prime Minister is the Ambassador of our domestic tourism. Wherever he goes to, there is immediate increase in demand from there.”

 

Coming to issues that India’s domestic tourism is facing, Patil said that low service standard is a concern in domestic tourism. Because of this, according to Patil, for an Indian tourist, visiting a domestic destination has high opportunity cost and that is killing domestic tourism. It is important to improve service standards for domestic tourism, Patil said. He added that while promoting domestic tourism, it is important that India should also avoid doing over marketing of its certain destinations because such places will not be able to sustain the overload of too much tourism and everyone in the industry will collapse. Currently, it is important to focus on tourism that is sustainable.

 

“Onus should be on all travel service providers that they do not take undue advantage of situation. They should give value for money to their customers,” said Patil. He further said, “Many incoming flights are empty. I am outbound operator. I want more inventories in airlines but that is not possible due to lack of inbound traffic. For more inventories there is need of synergy between outbound and inbound tourism.”

 

While admitting that the trade and industry need to be pro-active, aggressive and show innovation, he also drew attention that the Center and State need to do better hand holding for the promotion of destinations in the domestic tourism market space. He said that India Tourism needs to work with the State Tourism bodies in a proper synchronised way for promotion which is unique and region specific. 

 

Commenting on the right synergy between the Centre and State Governments, Karnesh Sharma, Director – Tourism & Culture Affairs, Punjab Heritage & Tourism Promotion, pointed that two entities, Centre and State, greatly complement each other’s efforts in the development of tourism through infrastructure creation and marketing and promotion of the destination through various events and mediums. Sharma also pointed that there are many destinations in the states that are often off the tourism radar but have high tourism potential and can be developed through Centre and States funding and help diversify a state’s tourism offerings. To drive home his point, he mentioned that there are many high potential destinations in Punjab, both known and lesser known that can be developed through Centre’s help. “There are so many places in Punjab where one can visit but we have to develop and promote them. Adjoining Gurdaspur, there is a place called Kalanur where Akbar’s coronation was done. Similarly, there are sites in Kapurthala, Rupnagar district and others. There are so many places to develop, promote and visit but we have to make our presence felt,” he added.

 

Sharma also informed about the new initiatives of the State Governments towards developing Punjab’s tourism profile, especially for the domestic market that he pointed that has become key driver of tourism as well as economy in the post-Covid normal. He also assured of all the help and support from his department for any industry efforts towards promoting tourism in Punjab.

 

Take Home

 

Malaysia announced the opening of its border on April 1st earlier this year after imposing a little over two years of strict restrictions on international travel. In just about a fortnight, the Malaysia Tourism  was in India conducting a six-city road show to build confidence amongst the trade and travellers, sending a message on safety and its Covid preparedness, to re-engage with the trade on new product updates and education, and importantly, to also tell that it understand that the pandemic was devastating for the trade and industry and hence is willing to hand hold the trade with joints collaborative marketing initiatives and incentives.

 

On the other hand, some of the leading players in the Malaysian tourism industry, like for example the integrated Resort destination Desaru Coast, have also put on the table some attractive ‘incentives’ scheme to make it even more attractive for the Indian outbound tourism trade, especially the likes of MICE operators and wedding planners, to promote Malaysia in the Indian market. There is a lot we can learn here.

 

Similarly, given India’s strategic and inherent advantages, domestic tourism is tremendous opportunity. However, there are issues that needs to be addressed and challenges that need to be ironed out in order to exploit the potential opportunities that the sector offers in India. The sector, say industry experts, continues to grapple with poor service standards, safety and hygiene issues, low level investment in marketing and promotion and lack of funding for many promising and potential sites.

 

Commenting on the industry best practices, Robert Oblogogiani, Executive Vice President of AviaReps, a leading international General Sales Agent (GSA) of Airlines and a tourism marketing and representation company, said, “We as a destination need to understand how to sell, position and present our destination in nowadays reality, in the new normal. I hear very often that we are going back to normal. It is not going back to normal. This is going to be the reality. We need to understand that we have found a new world.”

 

Furthermore, he added that given its diversity, India is a unique country and so it cannot just copy a promotional strategy from anyone, but it can learn and imbibe good practices in destination marketing and promotion. He suggested that the country should work on short-, medium- and long-term clear objectives and persist with well-crafted strategies for the source market developments. “India should be brave enough to take some very-very fresh approach, very brave approach, change the strategy, bringing in some extraordinary professionals in order to lay out right modals, in the right place and at the right time to position and sell India,” he added.

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.  

 

Digital Ecosystem  

 

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.”  

 

Digital March  

 

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.  

 

New Opportunity  

 

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.”  

 

Tourism Recovery  

 

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.      

Narayan Prasad, Minister of Tourism, Government of Bihar, shares his vision for tourism in the state in an exclusive conversation for T3

 

Bihar Tourism is in the midst of massive infra boost, from cabin ropeways and skywalks to hotels, convention center, and more. Bihar Tourism Minister sheds some light in an exclusive chat

 

Probably the most challenging of his assignments in his decades of political career, Narayan Prasad came to the saddle as Bihar’s Minister of Tourism in late 2020 in the middle of a raging Coronavirus pandemic that has devastated travel and tourism and other industries alike all over the world. He was tasked with the revival of the sector that had suffered the most. Soon after, the devastating second wave that struck the country around March 2021 and continued until August 2021 brought any hope of revival to a standstill. 

 

However, the Minister has big plans for Bihar Tourism. The pandemic gave him opportunity to closely study and identify the gaps in tourism infrastructure in the state and there has been a spate of infra boost to Bihar Tourism under his stewardship. “I took over as Minister of Tourism of Bihar just before the devastating second wave. Things were under lockdowns, and we could barely function, but I used the time to reflect and closely study all the tourism sites in Bihar, their state of upkeep, opportunity and potential, scope of upgradation, and how they can contribute in employment and job creation. And then we set out to do just that, fill the infrastructure gap. And I am proud to say that we have accomplished much, but at the same time there are so much more to do, and we are doing just that,” says a passionate Narayan Prasad, Minister of Tourism, Government of Bihar, in his exclusive conversation for T3. 

 

As home to some of the most coveted tourist sites, Rajgir has huge potential for Bihar. How’s Bihar Tourism exploiting this opportunity? 

 

Rajgir has important Buddhist sites as the area was visited by Lord Buddha during his lifetime. It also has remnants of the powerful Mauryan Empire strewn all over the area. Rajgir has been a major tourist center of Bihar for a long time. But the Rajgir of today has witnessed several new additions that has significantly enhanced its tourism attractiveness. Earlier there was single-chair ropeway that took tourists to World Peace Pagoda atop Ratnagiri Hills. Now we have also added state-of-the-art eight-seater cabin ropeway last year with an investment of 19 crore. There are 18 cabins in the ropeway.   

 

Besides, we have, with support from Forest and Environment departments, also started a Wildlife (Zoo) Safari and Nature Safari in the surrounding forest area that has inmates like Tiger, Lion, Leopard, Bear and Deers, among others. We have also added one of the country’s first glass bridge skywalks in Rajgir or order to facilitate Nature Safari for tourists from India and abroad. The skywalk also offers air cycling and other such sports to adventure enthusiasts looking for thrilling experiences. We are developing Rajgir as a world-class eco-tourism and adventure hotspot.   

 

The de facto tourism capital of Bihar and home to one of the two UNESCO World Heritage sites in the state, Gaya is the Mecca of Buddhism. What are you doing to enhance Gaya-Bodh Gaya’s tourist appeal? 

 

The state government has huge plans to enhance visitors experience in Gaya-Bodh Gaya area and some of them are reaching fruition as we speak. On connectivity front Gaya already has a functional airport but that needs to be upgraded. We are already involved with matter in order for Gaya airport to expand and upgrade and offer world-class look and feel and experience. Furthermore, we now have a world-class convention center with auditorium, separate dining area, VVIP lounge, multiple halls, park and dedicated parking area in Bodh Gaya, developed at a cost 145 crore, that was commissioned last month on Bihar Diwas. Along with the convention center we are also building 110 room five-star hotel that is being developed at a cost of 136 crore with different categories of room. Once ready, it will house high level visiting national and international dignitaries as well as tourists. 

 

What about other such destinations with Buddhist attraction for tourists in the state? 

 

There are some major developments at Vaishali and Kesariya, some of the other prominent Buddhist destinations in Bihar, also. Vaishali is associated with Lord Buddha’s visits and stay as well as his last sermon and such events from his life. We are bringing light and sound show there and Rs 4 crore has already been allocated for the same. In Kesariya, another important Buddhist site in the state, we have developed hotel accommodation and the last mile connectivity for the convenience of Buddhist pilgrims and tourists. 

 

Pilgrimage tourism presents a huge potential. What are you doing to develop this vertical? 

 

We are doing a lot to develop pilgrimage tourism. One of the government’s ambitious projects is to bring Ganga water to the Falgu river that flows through Gaya and this will soon be a reality. Gaya is visited by millions of Hindus from across the country during Pitripiksha Mela for the salvation of the souls of their departed loved ones and this will have a huge impact on pilgrimage tourism there. Besides, the famous centuries old Vishnupath Mandir in Gaya is also poised for comprehensive all-round development. The Falgu river will also have a big Buddha statue in due course. Besides we are also trying to identify ancient sites and temples in the nearby areas that we want to develop, and projects have been sanctioned too. 

Also, Patna is home to one of the holiest shrines, Takht Shri Patna Sahib, in Sikhhism. We have already built a hall to accommodate Sikh pilgrims at a cost of 165 crore, and now we have sanctioned 13 crore for a light and sound show at the shrine and are also developing pathways there. Besides, other tourism aspects of Patna is also being developed.

Goa is making a major push to wean itself out from relying only on sea, sun, and sand to diversifying to an entire gamut of tourism offerings. The last couple of years have been a nightmare for the entire tourism industry. Goa being the industry leader and tourism contributing to state’s economy in much larger proportion than other states or the national average, was amongst the worst affected. Nonetheless, Goa Tourism, informs Nikhil Desai, Managing Director, Goa Tourism Development Corporation (GTDC), made the most of the time by going back to the drawing board to reevaluate its plans and strategies to rewrite the state’s tourism future and is confident that Goa tourism offerings would be far more diverse and engaging than what it used to be.

“It’s now going to be a 365-degree approach as far as Goa is concerned. We are aware that we cannot hedge our risk and put entire eggs in one basket as far as sea, sand and sun is concerned. We want to showcase the best side of Goa and Goa has a multifaceted side to it. Just that over the last three-four decades as Goa’s tourism industry boomed the focus was more on sun, sea and sand. But that is going to be a changed thing as we are going to be very clearly focused on heritage, adventure and all the other branches of tourism and we want to actively promote them. And why not, we are a very small state, just 3700 square kilometers, but we have got everything under the sun to offer to the tourists,” Desai said while speaking at a webinar recently organised jointly by PATA and BBC.

According to Desai, “A lot of time (during the pandemic) went into planning processes. Several issues had to be addressed. The formation of new Goa Tourism Board under the Chairmanship of the Chief Minister was achieved. We also had the tourism policy and the master plan that was laid out and it has very clear direction for the state of Goa that is that we are going to get towards being a sustainable, responsible and an accessible tourism destination. Now this is the statement that Goa has already embarked upon.”

“Towards that end the planning has already started in the right earnest towards achieving these objectives, in terms of better infrastructure, in terms of better safety and security in the state, in terms of making it affordable and value for money and also introducing a lot of activities in the field of heritage tourism, hinterland tourism, adventure tourism, wellness, wedding, MICE etc.”

Goa Tourism has already taken some definite step in the direction. Desai informed that Prime Minister Modi has already dedicated a new heritage tourism product, For Aguada Jail Museum, to the Goa tourism industry in December 2021 on the eve of Goa’s 60th year of liberation from the Portuguese rule. “I am sure that it will become one of the best product offerings. It was developed by financial assistance from Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, under the Swadesh Darshan Scheme,” he informed.

He also informed that to enhance state’s MICE attractiveness, there is a new 1400 pax capacity Convention Center that is being set up and is expected to be readied by the end of the current year. The convention center is expected to give new fillip to state’s effort to boost MICE tourism segment in Goa. Furthermore, the state is also in the process of setting up a Nature Animation Park in South Goa which will be oriented towards nature-based tourism as well as heritage walking corridor which will showcase its heritage, history and culture to the visiting tourists.

Goa has recently lifted all the pandemic related restrictions except for the new normal protocols like wearing masks, social distancing etc. and as a result has begun to see a surge in tourist arrivals, particularly from the domestic market that, Desai said, is quite upbeat for Goa and tourists are fast returning to the state.

Referring to the ongoing Russia – Ukraine war, he acknowledged that the emerging geopolitics has thrown new challenges and has upset state’s inbound tourism revival plan taking a toll on charter business for Goa for the remainder of the charter season. “Charter season is looking very bleak for whatever is the remainder of the season, but I am sure all of these will be behind us and with active support and encouragement and the constant support that we receive from Ministry of Tourism, Goa will definitely bounce back as far as international tourism is concerned too,” he stressed.

Inbound has some grim milestone to its credit now. Foreign Tourist Arrivals (FTAs) to India fell by 75 per cent in 2020 and by 87 per cent in 2021 in comparison to pre-Covid arrivals of 2019. The first couple of months this year have barely brought any cheer to an industry that has not only weathered the Covid storm in the last couple of years with tenacity, resilience and hope but also with bankruptcy, premises shutdowns, layoffs and what not. Month of January, which would usually record one of the highest arrivals, received just over 200,000 FTAs as against pre-Covid January 2020 when FTAs was recorded at over 1.1 million. 

Although uncertainties remain, from Covid as well as the emerging geopolitics that has brought Russia and Ukraine at war, Government’s decision to open the Indian skies to scheduled international air travel from March 27, 2022, will significantly change the current scenario of international arrivals into India.   

There is unanimity across the board that it is high time India opened to foreign tourists and did whatever it takes to engineer a resilient tourism recovery. And not only that. It is also time to kick-start a new era of India’s tourism development and marketing that is not only in sync with the ambitious tourism targets proposed in the new draft tourism policy but also play a catalyst role in building US $ 10 Trillion economy by 2030 for the country, as is being proposed. 

Pandemic ready? 

Where do we go from here? After two years of pandemic related disruption there are signs that the pandemic is now reaching towards the endemic stage. Continuing vaccinations has greatly contributed to the hope and confidence. Almost five billion people, 65 per cent of the global population, have received at least one dose with more than half of world population fully vaccinated. And it’s continuing. Millions of doses are being administered globally every day. 

“Covid is done and dusted. I think that governments and people have come to a stage where there is acceptance of the presence of the virus and the fact that we will have to co-exist with it. We can’t keep on bouncing back and forth between lockdowns and freedoms. People are exhausted and the world has to return to some sense of normalcy,” says Rajeev Kohli, Joint Managing Director of Creative Travel. 

Besides, with over two years of living in the pandemic, the industry is absolutely ready to cater to guest with adequate safety with some arguing that the adoption of stringent protocols and hygiene standards across businesses in travel and hospitality industry provides guests and travellers greater safety compared to most of the other industries. 

According to K.B. Kachru, Chairman Emeritus & Principal Advisor, South Asia, Radisson Hotel Group, “The hospitality industry has displayed great resilience and optimism to overcome unprecedented challenges brought by the COVID-19 outbreak. Hotels are now prepared to host their guests once again by transforming the hospitality landscape to meet with the ever-changing consumer trends and expectations. Hotels are investing in enhancing their preparedness through advanced technological solutions, refined skill set, and a safety focused approach to meet the current need of the customer.” 

“It looks like the Covid-19 pandemic is reaching its end, however there is a new report that has predicted a surge in Covid-19 cases by June. So the uncertainties remain and we cannot totally drop our guards. But that said, international flights will start from March 27 and with that I think tourism will start soon. We can look forward to reasonably good season starting November provided there is no resurgence in pandemic or lockdowns etc.,” adds EM Najeeb, Sr. Vice President, IATO.   

IATO President, Rajiv Mehra, points to the need to sensitise overseas trade and travellers on India’s Covid preparedness or what he calls as “To start on a Reputation Management note.” “We need to tell the world that 180 Crore (1.8 billion) doses have been administered and nearly 100 crore (1 billion) people have been vaccinated. SOPs on health, hygiene and safety have already been imbibed by the stakeholders of tourism in India and States have embraced seamless connectivity. The Perception of India needs to change. The Ministry of Tourism or MEA may like to appoint a strong PR Company in some key source markets for this purpose.” 

Turnaround 

While there are challenges ahead to recover India’s pre-Covid inbound market, at the same time there are strong opinion about bringing in a fundamental shift in developing overseas tourism source markets so that India’s future inbound numbers are in accordance with what the ambitious tourism targets that have been proposed in the new draft National Tourism Policy, key being almost doubling International Tourist Arrivals and receipt to 33 million and US $ 56 billion which were 17.91 million and US $ 30 billion respectively in 2019.    

Mehra says, “Incredible India 3.0 is needed. Region specific strategy / positioning is needed that will highlight places over faces. Marketing and promotional strategies on international road shows, FAM trips for Foreign Tour Operators and engagement of international media needs to be redesigned. Other countries have offered financial support that is also released within the time frame by the successful tourism destination. Thus, we need to have a comprehensive scheme to grant financial support to foreign tour operators for promotion and marketing in whatever region they wish to promote their tours. Besides, the five-lakh free tourist Visa needs to be extended till 31st March 2024 and so is eVisa facility for all international visitors along with reduction in entrance fees at moments for two years, equivalent to the SAARC countries.” 

“It is possible to achieve our targets. We have a very pro-active tourism policy. The government has given thrust to infrastructure development at tourism locations in order to develop world-class destinations. If this happens then the competition will not be between states, instead the destination would be competing. If the thrust is on building destinations with world-class connectivities and facilities, we can achieve whatever we want to provide we have capacity to bring in tourists internationally with the flight operations. India has an enviable and tremendous diversity of products. I don’t think there is such variety of experiences anywhere else in the world,” Najeeb says while further adding that there is need to ramp up road, rail and air connectivity as well as other related infrastructures like ports and others. 

Pressing home the immediate steps that is required, Kohli says, “First, work on a new brand proposition for India. We need to re-ignite the imagination in the consumers. We need to excite travellers. Second, we need to get our pricing in order. Indian hotels are increasing their prices rather than helping recovery. This worries me. India has a lot of competition. We need to be smart on how we come back. Third, support the private sector in their marketing efforts. We need some government help in doing sales & marketing. These are three short term things to work on.”  

 

Furthermore, Mehra stresses the need for the Government to empathize with the industry first stating that the implementation comes later. “Rationalisation of GST and understanding that TCS makes us uncompetitive is an imperative,” Mehra says. “Tourism needs to be recognized as an industry. We need industry status, because that is the root of every single problem and infrastructure status, so that one can avail section 35 AD of income tax act that is 100 per cent deduction towards capital investment. This will attract big investors,” he added. He also drew attention to the need to adopt sustainable tourism practices, women empowerment through the force multiplier of tourism and responsible tourism practices. “Slow tourism, Staycations & Bleisure will be in vogue and Technology will drive the industry,” Mehra added. 

With a war raging within the European frontiers, India’s biggest tourism source market, and the challenge of rebuilding India’s inbound tourism, source market diversification is, says Najeeb, a greater need than ever before. “We need to shift our focus to new source markets also, increase our connectivity with those destinations and promote India in those new markets. For example, internationally Middle East is an important tourism source market, and we have advantages like proximity and good connectivity with the Middle Eastern countries. Why can’t we look at the Middle East market? Same is the case with the Far Eastern countries. There are very attractive tourism source markets, but not for us. We need to have a lot many source markets and also well connected with India and numbers will follow,” he says. 

IATO Sr. Vice President also pointed that India’s inbound marketing strategies will also need to evolve. “Leveraging internet and digital platforms are of course important. But strategies need to be adapted depending upon competition, market needs and demands and, importantly, in accordance with the inputs and consultation from the tourism trade,” he added. 

Kachru says that the industry may utilize the next couple of years to get back to where it was pre-COVID as multiple variables affect the trajectory of this recovery. “This makes it even more important to acknowledge the silver lining and seize the opportunities that COVID-19 provides: to create more resilient operations; deeper, digital guest relationships, and a refined set of strategic priorities aligned with today’s traveler,” he said while further adding, “We believe hospitality will be a sunrise industry in India, and the next few years will see a significant number of new destinations emerging, especially in tier III, IV, V cities and leisure markets. We see an exponential demand for high quality lodging accommodation in India, driven by the vast infrastructural development planned across the country and young, discerning travelers looking for unique experiences.”  

Challenges 

There no point debating what the pandemic did to the inbound travel to tourism industry in India or worldwide. Some of the grim milestones like declines of 75 per cent and 87 per cent in inbound tourist arrivals in 2020 and 2021 respectively over 2019 foreign tourist arrival number are ugly reminders. Kohli says, “The memory of the horror in India last April is still lingering. We need some serious positive re-enforcement in the media. We will also be challenged by other destinations who are fighting for the attention of the same consumer. We cannot rest on our past laurels. It’s a whole new game out there now.” 

According to Najeeb image management, hassle-free travel experience, safety quality of services and healthcare assurances are some of the immediate challenges. “We need to put this all together. And if we do that, any number of tourists that we want to bring in in our country will not be an issue at all,” he says. 

Echoing similar sentiments, the IATO President also pointed that unless domestic tourism flourishes, international tourism cannot come as safety and infrastructure will be addressed well with ongoing domestic tourism and these two aspects will combine well in attracting foreign tourists. Furthermore, he said that one of the immediate challenges will be the lack of funds in the hands of the tour operators for marketing and promotion as business was shut for two years. One-time financial grant, loans with lower interest rate with a minimum two-year moratorium would be needed. 

Mehra insists that there is pent up demand from across the globe because of the pandemic and restrictions on international travel, therefore it is important to move in quickly to encash on this latent demand. “The demand on hygiene, health and safety will be paramount and the tourism industry has to proactively gear up and meet the SOP challenge effectively and efficiently. For the traditional and emerging source markets we must ensure that there is a no quarantine policy for fully vaccinated travelers so that when tourists go back to their country post India tour they do not face the problem. At the same time, we need to ensure seamless movement within India and one pandemic related travel SOPs for all the states.”

Connectivity and tourism go hand in hand. It is proven that a stronger connectivity network fuels the tourism growth of the county. India, which had been facing constraints to connect to its tourism destinations and hinterland, has adopted a multimodal approach to bridge this gap.  Connectivity is the key to unlocking many new tourism opportunities hitherto underdeveloped. The recently concluded 36th Annual convention IATO brought together stakeholders from railways, airlines, sea and river to discuss the potential and contribution of these sectors in tourism growth.

 

During the discussion, the spotlight was put on the nascent sea cruise and river cruise along with the opportunities through the railways and air travel. Moderated by Ashish Gupta, Consulting CEO, FAITH, the panelists were Rajiv Jalota, Chairman, Mumbai Port Trust; Sanjay Kumar, Chief Strategy & Revenue Officer, IndiGo Airlines; Rajiv Jain, AGM (Tourism), Indian Railway Catering & Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), and Raj Singh, Founder, Antara Luxury River Cruises

 

Gupta asked that how can these sectors work with IATO and its members for the growth of inbound tourism at an industry level to have better partnership and more products, not only to create the arrivals but also from long term perspective? What followed was some critical sectoral insights and ways on how these sunrise sectors can leverage inbound trade for mutual growth.

 

Tapping domestic market 

 

In India’s tourism eco-system, cruising could undoubtedly emerge as the leading sub-sectors. This is evident in the growth that the sector witnessed prior to the pandemic. “In fact, in cruise per se, India was leading when covid hit us. Year 2019-20 was the peak year for cruise tourism for us. Indian Port Association had instituted a study that had projected India to reach 2.2 lakh cruise passengers by 2019-20 but it grew to 4.67 Lakhs passengers in 451 cruise calls, including over 107 international cruise calls before the pandemic brought all kind of travel to a halt,” Jalota said. 

 

Although there are signs of revival, but international cruise liners aren’t coming in hordes any time soon. However, domestic market has shown immense promise. Domestic cruise started from September from Mumbai, covering Mumbai-Goa, Mumbai-Diu, Mumbai-Cochin, Mumbai-Lakshadweep and in the harbors. “Up till now (From September 2021 to mid-December 2021) almost 40 cruise calls have happened with 80,000 passengers using those services,” informed Jalota. 

 

The above-mentioned study also projects India to reach over 40 lakh cruise passengers by around 2042 growing at over 12% CAGR. The mid-term growth was predicted at 27 lakh driven by domestic cruise market at an estimated 20 lakh passengers with the other 7 lakh being international. Jalota further said that if the industry wants to tap the market, then now is the time and invited IATO with ideas and partnership on expediting the growth and development of the cruise sector. 

 

Go Charter

 

 Aviation penetration in terms of passengers in India is estimated at 0.126. Whereas China at 0.34 and US at 2.7 are far ahead. “India continues to be an under penetrated market and we believe that in the next 10 years country would need 2000 planes. There is massive growth opportunity, not only from metro markets but also from tier II and tier III markets, like Kanpur, Bareilly, Gwalior and others which is changing the travel pattern,” points Kumar. 

 

Pandemic had a massive impact on the aviation industry on the whole. As the normalcy gradually returns, air traffic is also climbing back to the pre-covid level. “People are finding safety in air travel as mode of transport. International travel may take some time because of regulations and restrictions but right now the focus is going to be domestic travel, whether business or leisure, to help us meet our objective and increase our market share,” Kumar added. 

 

He also pointed that post-pandemic there are emerging opportunities for all within the travel and tourism eco-system. Kumar drew attention to charters, mostly domestic but also to neighbouring Singapore, UAE, Maldives, as well as domestic holiday charters have shown promising growth in the last few months. He also pointed to religious tourism destinations where industry can work with the airlines on creating attractive packages. 

 

There is huge potential in the Indian market if we put our minds together and think of strategies and marketing, Kumar said while concluding.    

 

Commission @ 2-7% 

 

India boasts of one of the largest railway networks connecting almost every corner of the country. And so is IRCTC that has, since its inception a little over two decades ago, expanded its offering from railway tickets, catering services and tourism packages to today also offering various tourism circuit trains, like Buddhist and Ramayana circuits, buses’ and flight tickets. 

 

Today, one can charter from a single coach to an entire train for travel itineraries. Tour operators can also hire specialized salons with its own onboard kitchen, dining room and two bedrooms. IRCTC is continuing to evolve and expand its offerings in order to facilitate travel and tourism, especially in the domestic market space. 

 

It is also open to tie-ups with tour operators for selling packages. “IATO and its members can also partner with us. The packages that we sell, we do not only rely on the direct sales team that we have in-house. We sell it online and through our in-house team. We have been working with and are open to agencies. We have travel agency commission that ranges from 2 to 7 per cent depending on the product. It’s a simple process and the agent can come onboard within a week or so,” Jain said.    

 

IRCTC plans about 100 trains a year and its more about religious tourism in line with Ministry’s policy on Bharat Darshan and Pilgrimage special trains. “We are very much open to DMC kind of concepts, as well as tying with budget hotels and homestays, "Jain added.

 

River Cruise

 

There are 110 rivers which have been designated as national waterways in India. Many of them are navigable and can handle river cruise. India does have a few vessels on the Ganges and Brahmaputra, but that’s about all of what we have in the name of River cruise in the country. Rivers like Chambal, Jhelum, Narmada or those in Goa are just a few examples. River cruise has been immensely popular and commercially successful in Europe and similar success stories can be replicated in India as well. 

 

River cruise, says Singh, has immense growth potential, both as a sector and also in terms of growth for the trade and creating gainful employment all along the hinterlands of the country. He however insists that each river has its own character, and the ships have to be made keeping in mind the individuality of those rivers the ships will sail on. Experiences like the unexplored hinterlands, pristine countryside, taste of India’s rural landscape and the culture, cuisine and heritage en route can be its biggest draw. 

 

Drawing attention to lack of visibility of River cruise in India, Singh made a passionate plea asking IATO and members to spread word on River cruising in India that he said has little awareness. He recounted the exciting experience across UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, North-East along the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Bhitarkanika, Sunderbans, cross-border Indo-Bangladesh River cruise experience and more, while lamenting that the product needs visibility in the overseas markets.

Reimbursement of 2019-20 Services Exports from India Scheme (SEIS) scrip was probably the single largest issue raised most during the pandemic by country’s inbound trade as well as others in the tourism industry, like hotels, who benefited from the scheme. It took the government over a year to finally give the nod on the SEIS reimbursement, albeit at a reduced 5% (It was 7% in 2018-19) rate. Along with the inbound tourism industry stakeholders and their representative body Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO), Service Exports Promotion Council (SEPC) also played a key role in highlighting inbound tourism industry’s plight because of the pandemic. However, to the industry’s chagrin, nod for the reimbursement of SEIS for the financial year 2019-20 also came with the news that government doesn’t plan to continue the SEIS scheme any further.  

Despite being the single most powerful sector due to its sheer multitude of economic impact within the ‘services’ industries, India’s inbound tourism has for long struggled against the more competitive destinations in the country’s neighbourhood owing to significantly higher taxation regime. Operators in India pay 12% to 18% tax on hotels and 5% on the total package cost without input credit, putting them at a considerable disadvantage against countries in the neighbouring South-East Asia where GST mostly ranges around 5% to 7%. Tour operators have always claimed that the SEIS have factored in their product costing and margins and helped them maintain some price parity vis-a-viz competition. Additionally, it also spurred them to undertake aggressive marketing and promotional tours to their existing as well as potential new source markets.             

With SEIS gone, industry is not so sure how to approach an intensely competitive global tourism marketplace. The recently concluded 36th Annual IATO Convention organised a session with SEPC officials that sought to convince tour operators that SEPC has relevance beyond SEIS. Tour operators have to be an SEPC member to claim SEIS scheme.

 

SEPC is an industry led body set up by Ministry of Commerce & Industry. The trade body promotes and facilitate efforts of services exporters, across sectors, acts as an interface between services industry and policy makers and advises government on trade policies.

Government’s Stand 

Speaking at a SEPC Conclave recently, Minister of Commerce & Industry (MoCI), Piyush Goyal made it clear that the services industry must learn to look past SEIS and fend for itself.

“There is a strong thought process in his mind that SEIS should be discontinued, and he has already announced that he is not going to give SEIS for 2021 and 2022. That’s a big jolt for every exporter because whenever we do any export of services these incentives which is going to come from the government is always considered as part of my cost or profit. Now if that is discontinued, there is a disincentive in the sense that my cost would be higher to the buyer or to the stakeholders. That in turn would discourage the stakeholders of the service receivers or the service importers,” says Sunil H. Talati, Chairman, SEPC.

DRESS

The Duty Remission on Export of Services Scheme (DRESS) scheme emerged as the government’s mandate to SEPC to come up with an alternative to SEIS on the basis of RoDTEP, how much it would benefit the MSMEs, the sectors’ multiplier effects in terms of employment generation as well as the capping of the incentives. SEPC engaged Ernst & Young (E&Y) to help develop an alternative incentive scheme that can replicate SEIS in terms of the benefits that services exporters were getting and also look at the concerns which the Ministry had, like, whether SEIS is directly linked to export promotion? Or, if the quantum of SEIS vary, does it really impact export of services?

“DRESS was a scheme where we pointed out that, like RoDTAP, whatever tax are being embedded, and we did a calculation for all the major services which SEPC had given us the mandate to, the value for tour operator services was coming somewhere around 12% to 13% that was being embedded. The other cost which we calculated was in terms of taxes on fuels and other embedded cost like electricity taxes and other taxes,” says, Bipin Sapra, Partner, E&Y. 

“What we gave as a recommendation was that if we normalize it over various services, the incentives will come out between four to six or seven per cent and you fix a percentage on the basis of that and you can incentivize the MSMEs by giving them a higher per cent, and the smallest of them an even higher per cent. There should be no capping. Because these services have already been identified as services which will have an impact on the general economy. So, DRESS incentive scheme should have a percentage linked to the tax cost which is getting embedded into the services and that is what we have recommended that on the basis of that the Government should come out with a scheme,” Sapra further added. 

Tailwinds  

The last few years before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, travel and tourism has consistently contributed a share 14% to 15% in India’s Services exports. Government wants the services exports to reach US $1 trillion, the country to become a US $ 10 trillion GDP by 2030 and services share in the country’s GDP to increase from 55% to 59%. Supporting the tourism sector with right incentives and policy will not only go a long way in achieving these targets but also create huge socio-economic growth through job creation, infrastructure development and stimulating other sectors through tourism’s backward and forward linkages. 

Underlying the importance of SEIS or some form of strong incentives mechanism to be put in place, Immediate Past President of IATO and CGC (Central Governing Council) member in SEPC, Pronab Sarkar, said, “Government is asking to increase the exports and help India become a US $5 trillion economy and then US $10 trillion economy. Whereas in tourism we are only getting 11 million tourists and earning about US $ 29 billion in revenue. To increase this to 20 million tourists and US $ 60 billion in revenue within the next 3-4 years, it will not happen without the handholding of the government. If the incentives are not provided, how are we going to compete with the neighbouring countries? We have to beat the competition. We have to add value to our product. It important for the SEPC, DGFT, Ministry of Commerce and Finance Ministry, to look into it. Everyone knows that tourism is the engine of economic growth and helps create jobs in millions everywhere in the country.

With the WTO pointing India out on passing on exports benefits through schemes like SEIS which is not permissible as per the WTO agreement, the country has moved to schemes like PLI (Productivity Linked Incentives) so that all the manufacturing companies get incentivised in the identified sectors. 

Batting for tourism, Sapra says, “What is the differentials in terms of the disabilities with the competing or the neighbouring countries which is South-East Asia? The thing that differentiates there is that the tax burden which other countries have varies from 5% to 7%, while in India the tax burden is substantial. Furthermore, tour operator services get hit on a multiple level. A tour basically consists of a hotel booking, local transport, sightseeing and the profit margin. There are certain components of GST already embedded into that, like a five-star hotel is at 18%. Over and above, when a tour operator sells a package, he charges 5%. So, there is a tax structure of 12% to 14% which is getting embedded into the tour operator services which is being exported. It doesn’t happen in other countries.” 

At the same time, the principal of exports says to export the goods and services without the taxes being levied. “Instead, this should be taken care of by GST scheme but unfortunately the way the GST scheme is formulated, a lot of taxes get embedded in goods and services, and this is very prominent in case of tour operating services,” Sapra adds.

Road ahead 

The critical challenge lies in the definition pertaining to tourism services exports which is not the same as in goods services exports which benefits with no taxes levied on the output side while for any input tax, there is refund. Another important aspect highlighted was that it is the tour operators who are the ones bringing out the business and others like hotels, transporters and others are providers of services and therefore cannot be treated at par with tour operators.  

The contours and fine prints of new Foreign Trade Policy will be known in less than a couple of months. SEPC has requested all stakeholders, including IATO, to also make a very strong representation. SEPC, informed Talati, has received a strong presentation by the hotel industry addressed to the Finance Minister and the second point in this presentation is with regard to incentives. 

“We have already made a presentation that just as RoDTEP is given to manufacturer by changing the incentives scheme, we presented them with the scheme of DRESS (Duty Remission of Export of Services Scheme). They are studying it but somehow it appears that they are not happy and are asking us to give different alternatives on which we are working. But the whole idea is that there should be representation not only from SEPC but also by IATO to the Finance Ministry, Ministry of Commerce and to the PMO. I would urge the President of IATO to make a very strong representation that incentives to service exporters just at any cost cannot be discontinued. It is not like we are banking upon the money that they are giving but it is the real incentive which in turn will increase the exports,” says Talati. 

According to Abhay Sinha, Director General, SEPC, while discussing DRESS Ministry of Commerce has also suggested SEPC come out with a few sector specific alternative scheme. Now it’s an opportunity. The FTP has already been extended. We have time. We can brainstorm and come out certain framework keeping in view the Government’s concerns as to why SEIS is being withdrawn. We will definitely be making a good representation if a credible alternative scheme is given to us.

Beyond SEIS

So what else besides SEIS? What does SEPC brings to members in the value chain of Services exports as the SEPC membership is key to avail various others support schemes that MoCI has for the Services exporters like tourism. Talati asks tour operators of all size to become SEPC members, urging, “Not only should the large, but the medium and small tour operators also become members of SEPC. The fee is very nominal, and you will get substantial benefits from the services that are being rendered.” 

“When we talk about incentives and handholding, getting the inbound tourist, SEPC has a major role to play in promotion, development and facilitating enabling environment. There are schemes for services exporters, through SEPC, that can help stakeholders promote their businesses and better access international market,” informs Sinha.  

Market Access Initiative Scheme helps services exporter access international market. Earlier there was another scheme called Market Development Assistant Scheme, but now the two have been merged together, informs Sinha. For various knowledge and confidence building exercise, MoCI, through SEPC, gives incentives of upto Rs.1 crore by means of subsidizing cost.    

Besides Ministry of Tourism, MoCI also provides various support schemes available for marketing and branding that tourism services exporters can take advantage of. “There are some very good templates already available in various other sectors like engineering, textiles, pharma etc. This can also be used by exporting community in travel and tourism sector and IATO can play a very crucial role there,” Sinha says while further adding that tourism exporters are also incentivized for participating in overseas exhibition by means of partial reimbursement of participation as well as travel cost.  

SEPC is also planning a new tourism RBSM (Reverse Buyer-Seller Meet) event. SEPC organises its annual flagship GES (Global Exhibition on Services) event aimed at promoting various services sectors, including tourism. The council is now planning to organise an event exclusively for travel and tourism services exports and will invite global agency buyers from around the world. Tourism services providers will not only benefit from subsidized participation but also the focused b2b meetings, whereas buyers will be hosted by MoCI through SEPC.  

MoCI has also earmarked upto Rs. 2 crore per company per annum in case a company needs to meet any regulatory compliances or registration in another country in order to conduct business, or in case Indian tour operators may be required to register in another country to sell their packages there. Pharma, textiles and some other services sector industries have used this scheme to great advantage.  

Ministry of Tourism have also come up with a scheme where they have involved SEPC to play the nodal role that could benefit inbound tour operators for up to Rs. 2 lakh even if the forex earning is, say, nil. 

Under the International Co-operation Scheme of Ministry of Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSME), SEPC is signing MoU with MSME that can help new tourism services exporters claim its membership fee of SEPC for the first year.

 

 

 

 

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