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Associations need to focus on consumer protection

The travel, tourism, and hospitality segment, like every other segment, were caught unexpectedly into one of the gravest crises of this century. With the industry being strongly driven by Associations across the globe, members are looking up at the associations to bail them out of the pandemic. Tourism has steadily restarted across the globe, especially domestic and continental travel. For speedy revival, associations need to guide its members, also, represent the industry at the Government level.

T3 organised an e-conference at SATTE GenX titled, ‘Associations: Preparing for a safe resumption’. Moderated by Ajay Prakash, President, TAFI; the panel witnessed a lineup of eminent industry experts including Sunil Kumar, President, UFTAA; Lars Thykier, Managing Director, Association of Danish Travel Agents and Tour Operators; Jay Bhatia, Vice President, TAAI and Amaresh Tiwari, Vice Chairman, ICPB

During the last 18 months the travellers faced a huge challenge in terms of refunds from the airlines and hotels. Majority of the airlines and hotels offered credit shells or vouchers rather than cash refund. Associations need to protect the consumer interests along with the members.

Speaking about the new approach, Kumar, said, “While the pandemic has been a big disadvantage for the industry, we need to spot the advantage. Associations have been working to safeguard the interest of their members. I see a need for an urgent shift, and here we need to take sides of the consumers. Take stand for your customers and not only your members, but this also needs to be the priority. Associations have a major role to play to advocate their customers in front of the government. Consumer protection should be the approach. There is a need for the world to get together now. It’s time we have a forum within the country driven by associations. The main question is who owns the customer? Is it the airlines or the travel agents? We should have an ‘association traveller assistance programme’. Associations need to give the travellers a connect with the government. Associations can come together and use technology to create such platforms.”

In Europe, the consumer protection laws have been stricter and has helped in refunds. In fact, in the last few months majority of the travellers booking online have once again shifted to travel agents, which is a positive sign. Speaking about the EU market, Thykier, added, “It was a very complex situation in Europe.  The EU Union has strict laws under consumer protection. Most airlines have finally paid back what they owe to the customers and travel agents. Under the law, if you have sold a package to your customer and if its cancelled, you must refund within 14 days. Tour operators have paid the dues to the consumers and had to fight to get it back from the suppliers. In Europe, we were mandated to pay money back to the customers and cannot give travel vouchers. Customers have realized that it is beneficial to book through travel agents than go directly as you get your money back during such crisis situations. In Europe, we are now seeing customers coming back to travel agencies than book online.”

Speaking about the negative impact of the pandemic, he further said, “The negative side is that a lot of countries where there are no aids from the government a lot of travel agencies have gone bankrupt. In my country Denmark, around 10-15 per cent travel agents have gone out of business.”

MICE has been one of the most impacted segments during the pandemic and is expected to recover the last. Despite these reports, the segment has started to pick up. India is now looking to double its market share in the MICE industry globally.

Speaking about the status of MICE, Tiwari, said, “Getting back to normal will take a long time, but the role of associations is to examine and see how their members can compete and do business in the new world out there. Readiness and crisis management should be an integral part of the associations in their planning. Government has taken a few initiatives to revive the segment. For a tourist comes to India for a MICE event, the first two night’s CGST will be refunded back. Even in terms of bidding, if we win a bid or come as first or second runner up, Government is ready to support. There are a lot of MICE events happening currently across the country. It has started with 300-400 people but in 2022 we see a good business.”

Speaking about the vision for MICE, Tiwari, added, “The global MICE industry is around US$800 billion, unfortunately India’s share is less than one per cent. As a MICE association, our goal is that India should atleast reach 2.5 per cent of the market share in the next five years. In terms of MICE infrastructure, we are getting a lot in the coming years. All the stakeholders should work in synchronization. MICE is a year-round business, and we should focus on this.”

Majority of the associations in India have members who focus more on outbound. With outbound coming to a standstill, the only way out has been catering to the domestic market. Here education has played a key role in helping the outbound travel agents survive during the pandemic.

Bhatia said, “Domestic tourism has helped growth for a lot of our association members. With no outbound business for the last one-year, majority of the members have entered the domestic market business. There are a few pockets which have opened up and people are focusing on those like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Kashmir, etc.  The existing people in the domestic business have enhanced their business and grown in the last one year. Tourism and education go hand-in-hand. Our association partnered with the Government to launch the ‘Dekho Apna Desh’ webinar series which helped a lot of our members to gain insights and learn about the culture and history and the real tourism potential that India has. India has a lot to offer for every kind of traveller. We are now looking to promote Incredible India.”

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