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Murari Mohan Jha

Murari Mohan Jha

Saudi Tourism Authority (STA)is on an incredible journey of transformation with tourism at the forefront and committed to building the world's biggest new destination. The Authority last month participated in SATTE 2022 as premium partner country to create awareness amongst the Indian travel trade. “The feeling is amazing. There is really a good vibe, energy and excitement about Saudi as a destination. We are also extremely thrilled to be working with the trade partners in India because we have prioritized India to be one of the key source markets for Saudi Arabia. So, we are keen to work with tour operators and agencies to let them know about Saudi and what we have to offer,” Alhasan Aldabbagh, Chief Markets Officer – APAC, Saudi Tourism Authority, said in an exclusive interview with T3. 

The Authority is working on creating right packages and experiences for the Indian travellers. “We aim to attract a significant number of inbound from India and to ensure that they have the most delightful experience when they come to Saudi Arabia,” he added. 

Replying to a question over positioning the Saudi Arabia in the India market as the destination is established as a pilgrimage, Aldabbagh agreed that Saudi has an image of religious destination due to the holy land of Mecca and Medina.  “Saudi is the location for the two holy sites and that will always be important. We have made it much easier now for any travel agent or tour operator to book trips to Saudi Arabia for Umrah. Earlier, it was a bit more limited, only for authorized agents. Now, it's a free market. The Umrah Plus package is now being promoted. It is a great way to visit the twin holy cities and experience other cities and parts of the Kingdom. We are now inviting people to extend their stay and explore different parts of Saudi.  Also, we have now put a lot of focus on the leisure travel specifically for India. We believe that Indian travellers are going to be targeted to come to Saudi as part of their Middle East plus experience. So, when they go to visit different GCC countries, they also spend a couple of days in Saudi Arabia,” he informed.

Also, there is a lot of Indians who travel to Europe. STA’s strategy is also to have the stop offer program to woo these Europe bond traffic to stop in Saudi on their way. “We're also targeting students. There are about 750,000 Indian students who are living abroad. We also want them to come and visit Saudi on the way to their resident countries,” he said. 

This requires a very vibrant air connectivity between the two countries. “Today, as part of the bilateral agreement between India and Saudi, there is 56,000 seats out of which 28,000 seats has already been utilized by airlines such as Saudi airlines, Air India and indigo. We are working on increasing the number of slots and in conversations with Indian airlines to increase those number of flights in the next coming few weeks,” he added. 

Saudi is coming up with some mega tourism projects such as The Red Sea Project, Neom, Amaala and Qiddiya with an eye to become amongst the top global destination. “We are investing more than any other destination in the world and developing the infrastructure in the entire ecosystem for tourism. In the next eight years until 2030, we're investing over US$ 800 billion, and this shows the level of commitment and ambition that we have to grow our tourism sector in Saudi today. AlUla, a living museum of preserved tombs, sandstone outcrops, and monuments, is already operational,” he said adding that each one of them offers a different value proposition to attract different consumer or traveler segments.

While developing these projects, Saudi is keeping the sustainability and green as the focus. “Sustainability is not only important but is absolutely necessary to be a major competitor on the global stage. So, all these new projects that are coming up takes sustainability as a key aspect in their design, master planning and development. The plan is to be carbon by 2030 and it seems project is planning also on to have regenerative sustainability to give back to the ecosystem.

Responding to a question over the demand keeping these mega projects in mind, Aldabbagh said that there is enough demand from the international market. “We are we are positioning Saudi to be a leader. We have a different value proposition. Our offering is very diverse.  Therefore, we are confident about our ability to achieve these targets,” he said confidently. 

Talking more on India, he said that India is a key source market as the country has a thriving outbound market with numbers touching around 27 million. “We are planning to get 20% of this by 2030. This just shows the level of commitment that we have for India. We are in the final stages to create a much more seamless process to obtain visas in India,” he informed. 

 

With right strategy and right products, Dubai is firing on all cylinders to tap the potential of the growing might of the Indian outbound 

Dubai has been aiming to increase the number of Indian arrivals with accelerated pace. Dubai welcomed 910, 000 Indians in 2021, making India the number one source market. This is the result of the carefully crafted strategy and decisive measures taken by the Dubai's Department of Economy and Tourism to counter and manage the impact of the pandemic.

During January – March 2022, Dubai welcomed 3.97 million international overnight visitors, up from 1.27 million visitors during the corresponding period last year, reflecting a massive 214% YoY growth. And the growth reaffirmed Dubai’s position as the most sought-after destination in the global travel and tourism market. Dubai also ranked No.1 globally in hotel performance with 82 per cent occupancy in Q1 2022.

Bullish over the response from the India, Dubai has developed a multi-pronged strategy to further boost the arrivals from India. “We know that the potential is much bigger in India. We want to keep the numbers growing as Dubai has been continuously adding more and more to its landscapes and attractions. Its a family-oriented destination. Dubai is a very safe destination. English and Hindi are widely spoken in Dubai. I feel whoever comes to Dubai feel at home and those who still considers Europe as their primary destination, we want to change that mindset and perception,” Issam Kazim, CEO, Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing, said during a media interaction on the sideline of the recently concluded Arabian Travel Mart 2022.

Talking about the new strategy post Covid, Kazim said that Dubai launched its strategy from the global perspective. “Our plans and strategies are still relevant today. We talked to our partners, and we could always repeat the same strategy to increase our numbers. Dubai is not 1–2-day destination; we want to increase the average length of stay. We want to increase the spends, not by becoming more expensive, but by offering much more to people to do and experience in Dubai. Today, 25 per cent of visitors that come to Dubai are repeats and by repeats it does not mean 24 months. It is within 12 months. The fact that we have 1/3rd of the world's population within a four-hour radius and India contributes to that quite a bit,” the CEO added.

Replying to a question over the air connectivity, Kazim said that Dubai has an open sky policy. “We are looking at every potential market as an opportunity. We work with Emirates and flydubai. The Chairman of Emirates and our airports are the same person. He is not protecting Emirates. He kept the competition open so that Dubai can benefit. We don't want to limit ourselves. If Emirates and flydubai are not able to increase their numbers for whatever reasons, we are willing to go and initiate a dialogue with local carriers and convince them. And Dubai Airports, whether it is DXB or DWC are willing to have that dialogue and facilitate more carriers coming into the city as well,” he informed.

He informed that Emirates’ flights from India is on an average 90% full. “But, we only get maybe 30% of that to Dubai and this is not good. We are working on to get some more Indian visitors to visit Dubai as a stopover,” he said adding that Dubai Tourism is working closely with airlines and hotels to tap this beyond Dubai traffic as well.

On the marketing and promotions, Kazim said that Dubai Tourism is working very closely with its private and public partners and ensure that they have all the relevant information. “I think that's the unique position that Dubai is in. Because out of necessity, we did not have oil and gas and natural resources to rely on but travel trade became our biggest bread earners. That’s why we work as a team with the private sector, and we feedback to them. They listen to us, they adapt the change and come back to us. When it comes to promotion, we work very closely with a defined target,” he said and added that we're working a lot more digital today to become a lot more targeted with our messaging, pushing the right message to the right audience at the right time with the right product at the right price so all of those things are quite important. Then, of course, the trade would understand the needs of their own database, clientele,” he informed.  

He further said that Dubai Tourism tells the private players about the campaigns and segments that we're looking at, we are interested and where they are in terms of interest. Accordingly, those partners will put all of their offers into the system and take it forward with our support.

Talking on the segments, the CEO said the leisure is big right now, almost 80 per cent but 20 per cent is still business. “MICE is a big segment for us. Meetings and incentives are a big opportunity for us to capitalize on. Conferences and exhibitions are historically doing well. But that doesn't mean that we will rest on our laurels by any means. We still want to expand because their still exist right opportunities,” he said.

On seat entitlements being saturated between India and Dubai since last few years, Kazim said that it will impact the potential as the demand is right there. However, the concerned authorities are looking into this and will present the case to find a solution.

On Dubai Expo 2020, the CEO said that 192countries participated in the Expo that was visited by 24 million visitors. “During the preopening of the expo, we had expectations and if I compare that to what we achieved I would say that if it wasn't a pandemic, I can only imagine how much bigger and better could it be. we still had 192 countries that participated. We had 24 million visitors for the Expo 2020. Dubai opened up post pandemic with the RTPCR testing being so easily available processing. We have more than 97% of our population vaccinated. And this augurs very well for us,” he added.

Murari Mohan Jha from Dubai

(The trip was sponsored by Dubai Tourism)

It takes close to 45 days to obtain a UK tourist visa and other Schengen countries are not far behind in terms of delays in processing visas. These were the complaints emerging from various tour operators and travel associations that have appeared in the media. This has put the plans of a vast majority of Indians, who wished to travel for a European holiday, in jeopardy. 

This summer was expected to be a profitable year for a large number of tour operators who have emerged from the downturn of the pandemic induced weak travel demand of the last two years. Their hopes of turning their fortunes around rest on the uptick of Indians travelling overseas, however, this year looks like a dampener for most of them who sell Europe. 

Embassies complain of a lack of staff, whereas the VFS makes the case that they are only a processing entity that does non-judgmental work and has no say on when the visas will be issued. Overall, this has impacted the holiday plans of Indians travelling to Europe, to escape the harsh Indian summer. 

However, for those intending to travel to Europe all is not lost. There are a few countries in Europe such as Turkey, Norway, Sweden and Croatia among others who either allow visa-on-arrival or speedier visa clearance in order to attract tourists. 

Many European embassies claim that they are short-staffed and do not have the personnel to process visas. This is at a time when a vast majority of countries, are opening their doors to tourism to counter the lack of opportunities in other sectors and to tide over inflation that’s burning a hole in everyone’s pockets. 

Another challenge that tourists face is that while the visa processing time takes its time, their passports are in the custody of the embassies which makes it even more difficult for them to opt for another destination. It’s time the government intervenes and highlights this issue with the respective countries as it’s unfair on Indians whose passports are withheld by the foreign embassies. There needs to be a mechanism to address this pain point in the visa process. If the processing time takes beyond the threshold limit of the number of days, the applicant should be given the option of withdrawing his/her application and saved the hassle of waiting endlessly. 

This has been a perineal problem, and this was widespread even before the pandemic. 

The only short-term solution is for tour operators to advise potential travellers to shift their choice of destination and thereby save the traveller’s holiday. 

Hopefully, lessons of this year will help embassies to work out their plan for the next season and reduce the hassle for the traveler and the tour operator who is more often than blamed by the traveler. 

 

Pride Group of Hotels is expanding on an asset-light model and also planning for room expansion at our units in Nagpur and Pune. S P Jain, Managing Director, Pride Hotels, shares the performance and expansion plan of his group : 

The Pride Group of Hotels that currently boasts of 4,400 keys generates 40% of its revenue from F&B, MICE, and Weddings. The hotel chain expects a turnover in the range of Rs 225 -250 crore in 2022 -2023.  

How has the performance been for Pride Group of Hotels in Fiscal 2021 and what is the expectation from 2022 in terms of average occupancy, ARRs and RevPar?

The Pride Group of Hotels has performed much better in 2021-2022 in comparison to 2020-2021. We have almost doubled our turnover. The ADR and occupancy have gone up from 43% to 65% for the current year 2022-2023. We expect to perform again with similar growth in 2021-2022 and do a turnover of INR 225- 250 crore.

What is your current operational profile and future expansion plan? Which cities are on the radar for the expansion? What is the focus: business or leisure? Which segments: mid-market or upscale is you focus?

The Pride group presently has a presence in around 44 great locations and boasts of over 4,400 keys. The group will expand its portfolio to 50 hotels by 2022. Once the new openings are complete Pride Hotels will have 50 properties and over 5000 keys offering unique guest experiences across various geographical regions on a Pan India basis. The new portfolio includes resorts and hotels in the cities of Nainital, Jim Corbett, Bharatpur, Jabalpur, Daman, Rishikesh, Aatapi, Surendranagar, Dwaraka, Bhavnagar, Bharuch, Alkapuri, Manjusar, Agra, Somnath, Dehradun, Chandigarh, Neemrana, Rajkot, Bhopal, Aurangabad, and Haldwani. The Pride Resort in Aatapi is an amusement park plus a resort located in between Vadodara and Kewadia (famous for the Statue of Unity, the world’s tallest monument). Most of these upcoming properties will be located in popular tourism & pilgrimage circuits primarily in tier 2 and tier 3 cities.

Where do you see Pride Group of Hotels by 2027?

Our vision is to establish Pride Hotels as the best Indian Hospitality Chain. We have currently set a target of 50 hotels by 2022 and 100 hotels by 2030.

How would you like to fund the expansion?

We are expanding on an asset-light model and have a plan to open 50 hotels by the year ending of 2022. We also planning for room expansion at our units in Nagpur and Pune, which will be financed by internal accrual.

How are you improving your service offerings?

The Pride group has already set a high standard of good service to the guest, and we are using various software to comply with the guest requirements within the time limit. We are regularly training our staff members to improve standard service to our guests.

What is the contribution of F&B, MICE and weddings segment in your overall business?

Pride Hotels exemplifies a luxurious brand with its banquet and conference facilities, reinforcing itself as the one-stop destination for MICE. We our pan India presence we generate 40% revenue from F&B, MICE, and Weddings.

What new safety measures you have adopted to instill confidence among travellers keeping the pandemic in mind?

We want our guests to feel safe when they walk through the doors of our hotels. All our staff is fully vaccinated. In order to make it possible we need to be transparent with them on the further steps, we’ve taken in the areas of cleanliness and hygiene.  We rolled out the Pride Safety Assurance initiative with enhanced technological measures like contactless check-in & check-out services, a contactless billing facility, a touchless dispensing center for the sanitizers, and a mobile-friendly dining menu. Other measures that have been taken are the usage of biodegradable trays for the in-room dining, marking the floors in the lobby area for people so they always maintain social distancing, and all the key touch-points areas in the hotel are sanitized every half an hour. To provide our guests with an enhanced safe and hygienic environment we have deployed technology at every aspect of our services.

What is your marketing and promotional plan? How important is digital marketing for you?

We believe in an equal balance of online and offline media. This includes digital too. We’re in 2022 and digital marketing can’t be ignored. We’ve tried and ensured reaching our audience through the platform. Pandemic has given us the experience of keeping our media plans agile and flexible.

What kind of CSR activities you undertook during the pandemic?

During the unprecedented time of the pandemic, Pride Hotels has contributed to various initiatives. The foodservice team of the Pride Group of Hotels prepared meals for the Doctors, Nurses, Service experts, Police officers, medical practitioners, Hospital support staff, and Civil service personnel who are leading from the front. We supported the Government of India by offering our rooms at various properties for hospital use. We also hosted medical staff throughout the pandemic at major locations besides sponsoring a vaccination camp in Mumbai.

Covid-19 has brought about a paradigm shift in the way destinations are marketed and promoted. There has been a huge emphasis on digital tools to convey the message and this has led to innovations in how destinations are marketed. Countries across the world suffered due to various reasons.

The second wave of last year which took a heavy toll on human lives also impacted India as a destination and influenced the thought process of people keen on travelling to India either on work or holiday.

As we enter a new phase of our normal lives, it is important to take a closer look at how we promote our destination. We have a set of capable officers in the Tourism Ministry who are driving our engagement with global tour operators and travel agents to drive numbers into India.

If perception is a key element, we need to highlight our vast potential in terms of tourism infrastructure. People should feel comfortable that when travelling to India they can access to global standard facilities, including medical, even in smaller towns as the Covid-19 crisis is not behind us and we need to be careful.

We need to have a targeted outreach plan in our key markets, which are the low hanging fruits. These will help us generate confidence amongst the larger sections of overseas visitors about India as they have many other choices.

Second, we need to have a dedicated marketing and publicity agency that can steward our campaign and redesign our communication as we compete with the rest of the world for the tourism dollar.

This is also the time for the domestic tourism industry to focus on growing the numbers. Though they have had a good run in the last year, it has been skewed towards the large chains that operate in India. They are the beneficiaries and this pie has to grow so that even the smaller players stand to benefit. Local hotels, resorts and wayside amenities have all felt the brunt of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns. It is time that the government focuses on reviving them. 

Tourism employs over 10 per cent of our total workforce and the government should focus on them. Tour operators and travel agents working in the domestic market should see an increase in employment as the sector revives after two years. Foreign tourists are key to the growth of the Indian tourism industry. While the last two years saw a surge in domestic tourism, it was because outbound was largely closed due to flight restrictions. This will change as Indians will have more options to choose from and their first preference will always be an international holiday.

The government and the private sector will have to play a big role in positioning India as a much sought-after destination not only for foreign tourists but also for Indians.

As the 29th Edition of SATTE 2022 opens this month, there is a sense of optimism amongst the travel trade fraternity. Over 20 destinations have so far confirmed their participation and many more foreign attractions and Destinations Management Companies have registered for the event that’s scheduled from May 18th to 20th.

SATTE, arguably the oldest travel trade exhibition in South Asia, has recorded the rise and growth of the Indian outbound industry over the years. It’s a date that’s marked in the calendar of any destination or attraction that’s keen on targeting the Indian outbound market and this year it is no different.

This year, as we convene for the mart, there will be anticipation amongst the trade partners who travelled from various destinations to understand the changing dynamics of the Indian outbound market. The Covid-19 pandemic has taught everyone to be digitally savvy and conduct business virtually. However, the excitement of meeting in person has not been lost on everyone, looking at the number of registrations that SATTE 2022 has received.

International tourism boards are eager to reconnect with their Indian partners and agents as they forge new alliances and partnerships.

Covid-19 is not behind us. It’s lurking in the shadows and can rear its head if we throw caution to the winds. This will also influence decision making amongst the travellers who now wait for the last minute to finalise their bookings.

India is a fertile ground for the global tourism boards who see the country as a market with immense potential. The younger generation of Indian travellers are highly savvy and tour operators need to mirror their aspirations.

It’s no longer about the destination but about immersive experiences. It’s about the food, culture, people and the growing bonds that they forge as people find new meaning in their travel experiences.

The skies have been opened up and every day there are reports of airlines connecting India to the global network and this will help to make travel affordable and accessible.

The old cookie-cutter approach will not work anymore. It’s about reinvention and reimagining. This is where SATTE stands out. It will host a number of seminars and discussions during the three-day event which will provide food for thought for the large number of delegates who will watch the proceedings closely to understand trends and opportunities in the outbound travel space.

Finally, for global destinations, tourism is the key to the revival of their economy and governments the world over are laying out the red carpet for inbound tourists. Many destinations’ economies depend on tourism and any disruption has a cascading impact on their economies. Closer home, Sri Lanka and Nepal are examples of how dependence on tourism has impacted their economies.

And as we gear up for SATTE 2022, let’s be confident that this is a new chapter in our journey to become the leading outbound market for destinations around the world.

Cygnett Hotels & Resorts which currently operates 18 hotels with 1000 keys is going ahead with its expansion plan. The company currently has 10 new hotels with 1008 keys at various stages of development across south, north and west India and expects to add a few more during the year with their multi-brand strategy and management & franchise plus model. 

“Over the next 5 years, we want to be present in all the top tier 2 and 3 cities to cater to all segments of travellers and have close to 7000+ rooms, residences, and villas. Also, we are expanding to cities like Puri and Vrindavan to cater to the growing pilgrimage travel,” Sarbendra Sarkar, Founder & MD, Cygnett Hotels & Resorts, said.

Explaining on the funding of the expansion, Sarkar said that most of the investments are going in technology, marketing and acquiring the best management talent in the market. “Our goal is to make Cygnett hotels a technology driven hotel brand in the country, and I think it’s important we make good investments in new technologies and get the best people to manage our hotels. Given the growing competition in the market, both people and technology will be the key differentiator for us,” he added.  

Taking about the current scenario of the hotel industry, Sarkar said that the year 2020 was a tough year for the hotel industry due to the pandemic. However, things turned around for better in 2021, especially in the second half of the year, as covid cases went down, and mobility restrictions were eased, he added.

“We expect 2022 to be a much better year in terms of performance. We expect ARRs to be in the range of Rs 3000 - 4000 across the group this year and the RevPAR to grow around 15-20% over the 2021 level,” Sarkar informed.

Cygnett Hotels has a diverse portfolio of hotels from economy, midscale to upscale properties and will continue to strengthen these segments based on demand. The chain wants to position itself as a tech savvy brand and is investing in a lot of new technologies not just to deliver a great experience to guests but also to support their franchisee hotels. “We want to be known as a smart hotel brand offering a comfortable and safe stay to the value conscious domestic traveller,” he said. 

For Cygnett Hotels, MICE is an important and growing segment as many of the group’s hotels, especially in destinations like Nainital, Lucknow and Jaipur, is getting more than 50% of the business from MICE. “Beyond MICE, weddings are also a growing part of our business with several hotels now attributing more than 50% of business to the segment. Our new product “Wedding Bells” by Cygnett will cater to this segment specifically,” he reveals.

Over the past 2 years, Cygnett Hotels continued to fine tune their safety standards to ensure a safe and comfortable stay for customers. The chain has adopted a very holistic approach to safety like contactless services like self-check-in/out and zero touch policy, QR coded menu for ordering, and realigning the space for MICE and overall wellbeing of the employees.

According to Sarkar, OTAs currently account for around 35 per cent of overall bookings while travel agents contribute around 20 per cent - especially for hotels in some of the leisure destinations. “We expect OTAs to continue to grow but we are also making our own website, booking engine stronger for our guests to book directly. We are deploying a next generation CRS / booking engine and expect more people to book directly with us via mobile app as well,” he said.

Tanes Petsuwan, Deputy Governor for International Market (Asia & South Pacific), Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) talks about their readiness and expectations from the India market

TAT has set a challenging yet achievable target of 500,000 Indian visitors for this year. This is based on the assumption that travel between India and Thailand will soon be back to the pre-COVID era. Thailand hopes to see a large number of Indian tourists during this summer holiday between May - June 2022. Excerpts from interview:

India has been one of the most important markets for Thailand registering year-on-year growth in the range of 25 to 30%. How is TAT positioning itself in India post pandemic?

The Indian market has always been very important for Thailand even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the fastest growing market for the year 2019 with Thailand welcoming nearly 2 million Indian travellers, reflecting a growth of 25%. Based on many surveys and as per our partners, Thailand is one of the top destinations that many Indians are looking forward to visiting as their first outbound destination post pandemic.

Since the restrictions have been gradually lifted from March 2022, TAT’s Offices in India both in New Delhi and Mumbai have started many marketing and promotional activities to showcase Thailand as a preferred and safe destination to visit. We have already had FAM trips to Thailand for agents, media, bloggers, influencers, wedding planners and golf organisers, as well as organised road shows and product update briefings in tier I & II cities.

Thailand will continue to position itself as one of the Indian’s all-time favourite destinations with easy accessibility and valuable tourism experiences that can cater to all travel desires. For the Indian market, we will focus on creating awareness and offering new tourism packages to promote Thailand as a responsible and sustainable tourism destination.

What is your expectation from the India market this year?

Our expectation from the Indian market continues to remain high. We saw a sharp increase of Indian arrivals to Thailand in April 2022, after the resumption of international scheduled flights. Moreover, from 1 May 2022, Thailand eased the entry measures to lift the pre-departure and on-arrival testing for fully vaccinated travellers. Unvaccinated travellers can avoid quarantine by providing proof of a negative PT-PCR Test result 72 hours before their departure. Therefore, we do hope to see a large number of Indian tourists during this summer holiday between May - June 2022, and we expect to welcome more Indian tourists as well as incentive groups and wedding groups by the end of this year.

With a strong positioning of Thailand in India, by when do you expect Indian arrivals to come back to the 2019 level?

We have regularly been receiving inquiries from both travel agents and travellers on travel to Thailand.  The early indications now are very positive. People have not travelled internationally for over two years and are eager to travel with huge pent-up demand for travel. Thailand has always been Indians’ favourite destination. We are confident that with the COVID situation subsiding and things returning to normal, the number of Indians travelling to Thailand should certainly surpass the 2019 figures as early as 2023.

Can you elaborate on the ‘Visit Thailand Year 2022: Amazing New Chapters” campaign?

To reboot Thai tourism, the Royal Thai Government announced the year 2022 as a new chapter for Thailand, as we celebrate the “Visit Thailand Year 2022”. Throughout the year, we will invite travellers from around the world to experience the “Amazing New Chapters” of Thailand. As such our key messages will highlight the abundance of tourism products and services in Thailand that will fulfil all desires of travelers.

This new marketing activity will emphasise Thailand’s strengths in biological diversity and cultural richness under the “Amazing New Chapters” concept. This will reiterate the good image of the Kingdom as a top tourist destination with all health and safety measures in place as the world exits the COVID-19 era. We are also focusing on putting responsible tourism into practice with all related bodies: travellers, communities, entrepreneurs, and suppliers, as well as promoting wellness tourism, and creative and cultural tourism. TAT will attempt to implement and integrate the Bio-Circular-Green Economy Model in all tourism segments, such as, health and wellness tourism, responsible tourism, and gastronomy tourism.

Our direction is to focus on travellers’ experiences. TAT will focus on using “storytelling” marketing in order to enrich tourist’s tourism experience and self-value.

You had been positioning Thailand as a golf and wedding destination in India. What new elements are you going to add to woo more Indians?

Post pandemic, we expect many travellers to visit us to indulge in health and wellness activities. The past two years have brought a new perspective, and many now seek to use their travel experiences to rejuvenate their body, mind, and even soul. This is going to lead to people travelling exclusively for health and wellness. We have world-class facilities to support these activities. Spas, massage and wellness centres/activities along with alternate therapies and the touch of Thai will now make Thailand a health and wellness destination. Responsible and sustainable tourism is another sector which we will promote to cater to the growing trend of conscious travellers.

How important is B2B going to be for TAT in the changed scenario post-COVID?

We shall continue to focus a lot on B2B activities, as they remain important for us, especially in the India market, where travel agents play an important part for travellers and many tourist segmentations. Travel agents have and will always be an important part of Thailand’s tourism. However, B2C activities can also not be ignored, and there is an increase in the trend that many tourists travel as FITs or self-organising groups when travelling. A healthy mix of both shall continue, especially now when the traveller is quite concerned about the formalities, procedures, and safety standards and wants a lot more details and information. Many have changed the travel and tourism industry during this pandemic, and it is good to reconnect with each other.

Singapore Tourism Board (STB) has been working closely with stakeholders to plan and prepare for the recovery. These measures include retaining key capabilities, reimagining experiences, and forging strategic partnership to drive demand amongst others. To retain key capabilities, STB’s support measures

over the past two years have focused on saving jobs and reducing costs for businesses and these efforts have helped tourism businesses retain manpower and capabilities, Keith Tan, Chief Executive Officer, Singapore Tourism Board, said in an e-mail interaction with T3. Also, Tourism businesses have invested time to come up with innovative experiences that are sure to delight visitors to Singapore. 

“We collaborated with key partners such as Changi Airport Group, Singapore Airlines and Agoda. Along with them, we will continue the ‘Welcome Back to Singapore’ global co-brand campaign to instil confidence and drive bookings. Through our partnership with Agoda, we will tap into its technology and travel expertise to reach out to potential travellers in the region,” Tan added. 

Singapore opened to quarantine-free travel to all fully vaccinated visitors on 1 April 2022, with no testing required.  “We launched SingapoReimagine – our international recovery campaign. For the India market, we aim to take this campaign to tier 2 and 3 markets by offering personalised experiences to our audience through virtual and on ground activations,” the CEO informed. 

The Board has accelerated their digital activation more aggressively during the pandemic. Singapore is reimagining a new standard of travel and has developed the Tourism Information and Services Hub to support businesses in their tech transformation. Some of the key digital initiatives the STB has undertaken recently are Unique Digital Identity, Contactless and Seamless Experience and Hybrid Experiences/Events etc. 

“We are actively looking for possible tourism use cases in Extended Reality (XR), an umbrella which encompasses all immersive technologies that blend digital content with the real world. These technologies can bring places, people and stories to life for visitors in an immersive way, from pre- to post-arrival,” Tan revealed. 

While taking new initiatives to negate the impact of the pandemic, STB is also focused on driving the sustainable business growth. STB is constantly incorporating sustainability elements into their tourism offerings to achieve the vision of becoming a City in Nature. The Board is developing a destination sustainability strategy and roadmap for the tourism sector in accordance with the Singapore Green Plan 2030. 

“We launched the Hotel Sustainability Roadmap, the world’s first collective effort by a city’s hotels. In line with the Singapore Green Plan 2030, the Hotel Sustainability Roadmap sets out clear targets and strategies for hotels to adopt in their sustainability journey. This industry-led roadmap enables Singapore’s hotels to contribute to sustainable development goals and capture new opportunities presented by the Green Economy,” Tan stated. 

Singapore’s tourism sector is well-prepared for instilling the confidence among travellers. As of April 2022, more than 1,600 tourism-related premises are certified SG Clean, their staff are familiar with COVID-19 protocols and technology is being deployed across many experiences to reduce contact and enhance hygiene. Tourism businesses have also spent the past two years rolling out many innovative and authentic experiences to appeal to locals, he added. 

Replying to a question on strategy to bring back the arrivals to 2019 level, Tan said: " The recovery of business and leisure travel is largely dependent on the evolving health situation and the emergence of new variants like Omicron. As such, we expect it will take a few years for business and leisure travel to recover to pre-pandemic levels." 

He further added that as travellers become more accustomed to the new requirements and processes become more streamlined, we expect travel volume to pick up and for vaccinated travel to become the norm. “In the meantime, we remain committed to support and develop our industry through this volatile period, to put Singapore on a strong footing for future recovery,” he added. 

Talking about the joint promotional and marketing strategy with airlines, OTAs, tour operators and other stakeholders for India in the changed scenario, Tan said that the Board organized the Tourism Industry Conference (TIC) as a collaborative platform for the industry to discuss strategies and opportunities. “This year, we aim to direct collective efforts under the overarching theme - "Gearing Up for Tourism Recovery". In India we kick-started our SingaporeReimagine recovery campaign in March with the SG Weekend in Chennai which included art and food experiences. STB has collaborated with Singapore Airlines and attraction partners to launch an exclusive campaign “Enjoy Your Family Times Now in Singapore” to attract more Indian families during the summer holiday season,” he informed. 

On the unfolding scenario of business/corporate travel for Singapore, the CEO said that through the pandemic, Singapore has adopted strong protocols, embraced innovations and fostered creative partnerships to reinvent the MICE industry. “Incentive programs will continue to be important in this sector.  As many corporates have deferred their overseas incentive trips, we see a strong resurgence of such trips in the coming year.  We are actively engaging with stakeholders in India to bring group travels back to Singapore. Our incentive schemes – Business Events in Singapore [BEiS] offering funding support to large M&I groups for third party costs and INSPIRE offering smaller groups complimentary experiences – make Singapore a compelling option for M&I trips,” he added. 

Speaking on the India market, Tan said: “India is and will continue to be an important source market for Singapore as it reached the third-highest spot in 2019, before the pandemic. “It is a major market, not just for leisure and MICE travel but also for cruise tourism. We remain confident in the long-term prospects of Singapore's tourism sectors – both for leisure and MICE and business travel – as the fundamentals that make Singapore an attractive place for unique, high-quality travel and MICE experiences remain unchanged. We are focussed on tapping key markets to revive our efforts while deepening our relationships across new markets in tier 2 and 3 cities across India,” he concluded.

Rahul Rai, Executive Director, Unique Mercantile India, shares his views on the USP and growth of the Renest Hotels & Resorts. Excerpts from the interview: 

How has the performance been for you in 2021 and what are your expectations from 2022 in terms of average occupancy, ARRs and RevPar? 

The hotel industry has been struggling to manage its statutory and capital expenditure obligations since the pandemic began in March 2020. However, in comparison to 2020, the year 2021 was better for the sector due to the relaxation of the curbs. We have been growing in terms of business and as for the year 2022 is concerned, we expect a 15-20% increase in RevPAR. Things are progressively returning to normal. 

What is your current operational profile? 

Our USPs lie in offering a magical first-hand experience to our guests. From growing our own organic produce, recycling rainwater, establishing in-house bottling plants, vertical gardens and open skylights, we have incorporated sustainable measures to preserve and protect our environment. 

We have hotels and resorts in key locations of temple towns Shirdi and Tirupati, popular hill station Manali, business hubs, Jaipur and Gandhidham, and in wildlife space Bandhavgarh. We are keeping experiential locations, offbeat sites, and corporate venues on our radar in order to deliver the best and most unique experience possible. 

Which cities are on the radar and how would you like to fund the expansion? 

We are expanding our portfolio in Haridwar and Bangalore. We aim to grow at experiential and offbeat locations as well as at corporate locations. As far as funding is concerned, we are always on the lookout for opportunities, open to varied business models and always scouting for partners because we place a high value on partnerships by establishing a long-term two-way relationship that is committed to delivering strong profits. 

Where do you see Renest Hotels & Resorts by 2027? 

We are a growing and evolving brand that aspires to be the preferred brand of both our external and internal audiences. Yes, we will undoubtedly expand to other locations across India, but in the long run, we would like to see our brand have an international presence as well. We envision to have over 100 hotels by 2027. 

You are mainly focused on religious and leisure destinations. Is there any plan to foray into business destinations as well? 

We are not only confined to religious and leisure destinations as we are also located in business destinations like Kolkata and Bangalore, and we are doing pretty well ever since the pandemic led restrictions have been lifted. 

What is the contribution of F&B, MICE and weddings segment in your overall business? 

Despite pandemic, we have had overall growth as a result of our strategic location and our initiatives. Weddings and MICE, on the other hand, bring in a significant amount of revenue, which was impacted hard when the pandemic broke out. Situation is now getting back to normalcy with the adaptation of the new normal for MICE too.

 What is your marketing and promotional plan? How important is digital marketing for you? 

Ever since the pandemic happened, all the plans got disrupted. But now that things are gradually coming back to normal, we too want to come back stronger by harnessing new possibilities and utilising new trends. We are working on expanding our digital marketing strategies.

 What is the ratio of OTAs V/s travel agents in your overall bookings and how do you see the trend changing? 

OTAs are the reality, they give us a significant chunk of business. As per reports, the online travel market is expected to grow 18% in 2022 to $76.7 billion. OTA gross bookings are on track to surpass pre-pandemic levels in 2023. In 2021, OTAs delivered $65.2 in gross bookings, reaching 82% of pre-pandemic levels. So keeping in view the numbers, they will be beneficial for us in the coming years and will help us in revenue growth. On the other hand, travel agents are equally important for our business, we want to leverage them both for a win-win situation. If the trends are to be considered, then the audience majorly is shifting to the online booking but we want to be on both sides as they would benefit us separately in their own ways.

 

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