As a matter of fact, it’s been a crazy roller coaster ride for the last 21 months. When the Covid tsunami hit the world in March 2019, we battled through the year, hoping that 2020 would bring relief, or at least that, like a T-20 game, 2020 would be a short encounter. But this virus seems to have settled in to play a test match. Every time we think that we can step out on the front foot, we’re tossed another googly! The only saving grace, if any, is that the new Omicron variant seems to be less lethal and we all hope, while we cope, that 2022 will see a revival of travel & tourism.
But for that revival to happen, the industry needs to change radically. The travellers have changed irrevocably, and the industry must keep pace with the new reality. So here, for want of a better term, is a critique and wish list for 2022.
Aviation forms the backbone of our industry, but it does more than that. Aviation is critical to the promotion of all trade and commerce and if planes don’t fly everything gets grounded. So the first thing is to get back to a normal, commercially viable schedule – both international and domestic. This requires globally acceptable health protocols to be put in place and in spite of its dwindled credibility, the WHO remains the only global health authority - it must fulfil that role. Airports, aircraft, ground handling staff and systems – all need to be tweaked to prevent overcrowding at arrival and departure. Travellers, too, need to be constantly sensitised to the new rules.
Airlines have suffered and need some relief. If ATF could be brought under GST, it would give the airlines some breathing space and help them recoup since fuel accounts for close to 40% of operating costs in the country. It could also make airfares more affordable. Yes, more and more airports are being privatised but the government could speak to the operators and negotiate a reduction in airport charges in the larger interest.
When T3 was inaugurated at Delhi, it was with a vision to make Delhi a major hub for transcontinental travel. That’s still a distant dream; the Middle East has become the global hub for connections. International airlines must be incentivised to make Delhi their hub – if we grow the pie, everyone benefits.
Simultaneously, airlines, too, need to recognise the value of travel agents. Many airlines, apart from having done away with agency commission, have also drastically reduced the number of agents who have been granted ticketing authority. This is counterproductive. Agents are the extended marketing arm of an airline and to cut them off is foolish.
IATA has lost its relevance – from being the arbiter of fair trade practices, it has degenerated into being just a club of airlines. Even as many agents have realized that ticketing is only one part of the travel & tourism ecosphere, it remains the mainstay for many of our members, and it’s irksome to function in an inequitable environment when all the rules apply to just one side. Either the IATA needs to revamp its Passenger Agency Program, or the Agent Associations need to come up with an alternative accreditation program and compel its implementation through sheer force of numbers.
We have far too many associations in the country! This plays right into the hands of the airlines and the government. “Mutthi band hai lakh ki, khule toh pyare khaq ki” sums up our situation. Fragmented voices, differing opinions and ego trips have ensured that the Travel & Tourism industry can be consistently ignored by the powers that be. There is a strong case to merge the two major travel agent associations and create one powerful association. When I last was President of TAFI in 2010-2012, I had broached the idea to the then TAAI President and both of us had agreed that it would be a game changer… Maybe it’s time to revisit the idea.
There is no government body that looks into how the business of air travel is conducted in the country. The DGCA has abdicated that responsibility – it does not look at IATA Resolutions, which technically require government approval before implementation, it does not even adjudicate in matters of clear violation of the Indian Aircraft Act and Indian Aircraft Rules, it has been unable to implement its own orders passed as far back as 2010 in the matter of agency commission and it has been sadly lacking in any proactive efforts at consumer protection.
Since 1973, the CAA in the UK has created and manages a passenger protection plan called ATOL (Air Travel Organiser’s License) whereby any holiday package booked through a tour operator is guaranteed against failure. We would like the DGCA to mandate an insurance cover against airline failure for every ticket issued in the country. This should be made a mandatory requirement for the grant or renewal of an operating license for every airline operating in India. This would go a long way in restoring confidence among travellers. We definitely do not need a repeat of the situation when the Supreme Court had to step in and rule on airline refunds!
And finally, we come to the much hyped but abysmally neglected tourism sector. The multiplier effect in terms of employment and revenue generation is virtually unparalleled, its contribution to GDP is well documented and yet, apart from perfunctory references in the Union budget, token obeisance in political speeches and the announcement of grandiose schemes, the industry discovered that it had been pretty much left to fend for itself during the pandemic. The last straw was the reduction in quantum and the capping of the SEIS – that was a cruel blow!
For close to 20 years, we have lived off the “Incredible India” brand, but it’s lost some sheen because of the terrible negative media reports during the second wave. It’s time to rewrite the script and sculpt a new global identity which resonates with the discerning traveller.
The benefits of tourism go far beyond the economic. It is the one industry that connects people across boundaries and cultures; it can build bridges and heal the wounds of conflict; it is in fact a powerful tool for the propagation of global harmony since every tourist is potentially an Ambassador for Peace. If tourism is to be sustainable, it must address the issue of the sustainability of the Planet. This is the paradigm shift that the industry needs to make and the government to promote – but the thrust has to come from within the industry. All too often committees and task forces constituted by the government end up merely parroting the official line. Perhaps a national Tourism Task Force needs to be constituted under the aegis of FAITH, and the first thing it needs to do is to commission a detailed study on the scale and scope of the entire Indian tourism industry. It’s absurd that out of 4000 IATA agents and lakhs of tourism operators in the country, there are a scant 1000 businesses registered with the Ministry of Tourism! How can you even begin to address the issues if you have no idea who the players are?
I could go on, but I shall end with just five things that need to be done if we’re serious about getting travel and tourism back on track.
1. Create conditions that help restore airline schedules
2. Revamp and revive the IATA Passenger Agency Program to make it more equitable
3. Bring in some essential regulation in the business of civil aviation to protect consumers and stake holders
4. Rethink and restructure tourism policy and marketing with a greater involvement of stakeholders
5. Travel & tourism should be at the heart of the India Revival story
By Ajay Prakash, President, TAFI