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Murari Mohan Jha

Murari Mohan Jha

The skies are getting darker as the economic downturn is making people cautious when it comes to travel. According to the Ministry of Civil Aviation data, about 82.56 million passengers travelled on domestic routes in January to July 2019 as against 80.04 million passengers a year earlier. This shows that there is a slump in the travel industry.

Second, the results of travel companies in the first quarter (April-June 2019), indicated that the growth in travel is in the higher single digits. The commentary that we hear from people in the industry is that there is a slowdown and this is getting even more obvious with each passing day.  Third, the Rupee continues to weaken against major currencies, though a global phenomena but this is not a good sign for the Indian traveler. Fourth, the recent economic data that has been splashed across media indicates the beginning of a slowdown and we have to brace for it.

While the signs are not good, we need to brace for it and arrive at solutions.

The nascent Indian outbound travel industry, which is not more than 30 years old, has experienced such shocks in the past. We have come out of such cycles, more fitter with the support of all the stakeholders contributing to this turnaround so therein lies the opportunity as well.

So, what are the opportunities for the travel industry? First, short-haul travel will be the new flavor and this should be lapped up by the closer destinations such as Singapore, Malaysia, Macau, Dubai, Thailand, Vietnam and Sri Lanka amongst others. These destinations have products that attract the Indian travelers with a mix of nature and First World attractions. Second, they are well connected by air from the metros and mini-metros. This provides the traveler the luxury of travelling on a budget but and a value for money holiday.

However, this is not all gloom and doom for the long-haul markets. The destinations that come up with innovative ideas and path breaking marketing initiatives will stand to gain in the marketplace. This is the time for tour operators to devise packages that attract the mass market effectively.

One of the issues that confront long-haul markets is the lack of adequate air seat capacity out of India, and the government should address this concern as the demise of Jet Airways and the dwindling fortunes of Air India have once again created uncertainty in the travel industry. The earlier this is sorted out the better it will be.

Finally, this is one big challenge that the outbound industry will have to factor in when charting out plans for the coming season and 2020. Hope by that time, some of the clouds would have cleared and we recover quickly.

Ludo Verheggen, Director of Global Air Content Adoption Strategy, Amadeus Travel, shares his perspective on NDC.

New Distribution Capability (NDC) is IATA’s new data standard for XML-based data communications, which will give airlines the ability to distribute their content through third parties. Since NDC is based on XML technology, it will allow airlines to offer descriptions, more flexibility in terms of offers to travel agency chain.

How is the pace of adoption of NDC by industry?

As NDC is technology change, it will take time. Over the last 18 months, we have seen that many more complexities come into play. We have seen that NDC standard has been maturing quite a bit but we are not fully there. Until 12-18 months ago, most of the NDC API stats only cover the first part of the travel agencies need i.e shop and book. But, it did not cover yet the post booking functionalities that are absolutely essential for travel agencies. Hence, it makes it very difficult for travel agencies to start using this new standard. Now, over the last 12 months, we have to realise that NDC needs to go well beyond what was envisaged and there is a need to start putting the functionalities in place in order to be able to work well with NDC booking.

Currently, the foundation of NDC is being laid in the industry so that travel agencies can start working with NDC content and can start doing some fresh bookings but the whole servicing including booking part needs to mature much more in order for travel agencies to be able to work with the NDC content in the same way that they can work today on the GDS.

Ultimately, NDC needs to bring benefits to all of us in terms of new contents and new types of offers.  This is being currently put in place. IATA has put two new certification levels to address the topic of servicing i.e post booking functionalities. During 2019, we will start seeing the airlines are taking basic servicing through NDC and in 2020 we can see that airlines can handle the volumes and they can meet the need of the response time to make all of these contents available.

The 2020 Leader board initiative of IATA is done together with 21 airlines. There objective is to reach 20 per cent of booking by travel agencies to be based on the NDC protocol.

Given the current scenario where only 20 per cent airlines will be on NDC platform by 2020, how do you see the NDC gaining momentum over the next 2-3 years?

2018 was the year of building our NDC-enabled solutions and 2019 is the year for deployment of as we are open for business through our platform. We see 2020 as a year where there will be more convergence of the servicing. There will be further optimization of service. One of the challenges today we have is that servicing that has been implemented through NDC platform by various airlines is quite different from one to other. It also makes difficult for agencies to adopt it as there are different flows and different process and it also makes us difficult for us as aggregator of the content to have one flow.

One thing that GDSs have proved very strongly over the last 40 years is the fact that we are harmonizing all of the airline contents in one way and we allow with the same transaction to book, change, refund etcetra. By 2021, we should start seeing significant volumes coming through NDC as the industry should have reached to a mature level of the NDC standard not only for shopping but also for servicing part. Then it will gradually further take off. Even though we are convinced that NDC will start picking up soon, it will still go very gradual the majority of the airlines will still be distributing all of their contents through the traditional channels based on the traditional protocol.

How Amadeus is strengthening NDC program?

Amadeus has been advocating a lot that the industry needs to maintain the same level of performance. Amadeus is already Level 4 certified as an IT provider. This is a clear testament that we indeed are very much focused on our servicing part. 2018 was the year of building our NDC enabled solutions, 2019 we see as year of deployment through Amadeus Travel Platform. We have been live with NDC since November last year with our pilot customer in Europe. Our solutions are robust and scalable enough. So, we are currently starting to roll out our NDC solutions for travel agencies in the market and we expect that after summer, we will start making our new NDC enabled solutions to also available to the travel agencies in India. So, travel agencies those are using today API for flight content can start using our new NDC enabled web service for bookings and servicing customers. We will be enabling NDC content through same tools. This means that travel agencies around the world can start working in the same environment as they have been working today with NDC content.

There are already so many APIs available in the market. Does not it making the overall system more complex as same contents are available at different platforms and interfaces?

It is right. It is very fare to say that the content landscape has become much more complex over the last years with new players like low cost carriers coming in and growing globally. These carriers are already making content available through their XML based APIs.  This is a clear change that we have been seeing since several years. We see that content from the same carrier is available through traditional and NDC protocol. So, we see more complexities to the picture. We also see it as our job to simplify again for travel agencies. It is very difficult  for travel agencies to be able to support all these different APIs and Connections. Travel agencies are not technology companies; they are very good at servicing of customers and making sure that they recommends the best offer and service once the booking has been made.

We have been in the industry since last 30 years and we have the investment capacity to bring all of these together again. And, our strategy is all around over the Amadeus Travel Platform.  Our Travel Platform is the evolution of our global distribution system. So, we are a GDS with more than 100 thousands travel agencies connected worldwide and more than 400 airlines distributing their content. We have been enhancing our GDS to make it much more scalable than what it used to be and especially flexible. The flexibility comes from the fact that our distribution system is now fully based on open systems. We are the first GDS to have fully migrated out of ‘The Main Frames (TPF)’   into an infrastructure that is fully-based on open systems which allows to bring our application systems to the cloud and also allows us to have much more flexibility that we used to have. This new flexibility is allowing us to also be able to integrate much more different content from the technology point of view.

What NDC brings to the industry?

The most important thing with NDC is that it can source the content from the different source in a very easy and seamless way. This means that we can source the content through existing protocol from airlines and at the same time source through NDC and any other APIs that are doing low cost carriers. Then by brining all of the content together again from all different technology sources into the Amadeus Travel Platform what we can offer travel agencies worldwide is that by accessing one platform still, they will have access all the different content types and their sources. They will have automatically access to all those different APIs that we connect in the background by using our connect platform.

Airlines are offering most cost effective tickets. Is this a situation where airline is directly competing with GDSs that have been supporting them on distribution front since last 40 years?

Currently, everyone is investing heavily in NDC and all of us still need to see the return on investment. Airlines are developing their NDC platform. As Amadeus, we are the leading IT provider to airline’s NDC systems. Many airlines are and will be using our technology, our NDC system. Airlines are investing, GDSs are investing. GDS is even today a very efficient and cost efficient distribution channel for any airline.

The main reason for airlines doing NDC is because how can we make the pie bigger. All players will be benefitted if we manage to generate more revenue. Airlines, intermediaries and agencies will benefit from this as it allows them to make more personalized offers, bundled offers. This needs to be focused because if the focus is on cost only, this is not going bring the scale. If we want NDC to fly, it needs to bring benefits to all of us.

So, all players such as intermediaries, agencies, NDC will remain in the distribution chain?

GDSs have been investing a lot in ancillary services. We are also investing heavily in branded fares that allow airlines to up sell their offers inside the agency community. So, we already came quite a long and we still can optimize much more. There is a merit in NDC. If we want to make airlines offering a digital retaining experience, there is a need for technology to evolve. It needs to happen at right pace.

Airlines have been arguing that NDC is brining transparency, personalization and e-commerce experiences. What is your take on this?

It will be unfair to say that GDSs have not evolved over time. Ancillary services and fare family is available. Multimedia pictures are also available. We keep investing in making the visual experience more compelling. We have been heavily investing in these. One of the main differences between when it comes to personalization that works today and will work with NDC is that in today’s GDS set up when a travel agency does a search, the offers that are being provided to travel agency are the combination that a GDS has put together. We act as a buffer between the travel agencies and airlines and we process all options and combinations available to them and they can choose from there. With NDC, there will be a significant change because with NDC all offers are made available at airline’s site. We, as an intermediary, will make these offers to travel agencies.

Airlines can decide to make a very special offer to a particular travel agency. So, personalization is easier to do with NDC than GDSs. Transparency is already available at GDSs. GDSs are today unrivalled in terms of transparency. We are empowering all metasearch engines. So saying that GDSs cannot offer e-commerce is not fare.  

The 15th edition of the International Travel Expo, Ho Chi Minh City (ITE HCMC), the most established travel event in Vietnam and the Mekong sub-region, is set to witness the presence of about 350 exhibitors, 300 hosted buyers from over 50 countries and 40 hosted international media from 14 countries. The 14th edition saw over 7,600 B2B meetings and this year, the organisers are expecting to set a new record.

Scheduled to be held during September 5-7, 2019 at Saigon Exhibition & Convention Center, Ho Chi Minh City, the show has added many new elements. “This 15th anniversary edition will enjoy a larger exhibition space of two halls, and extended operating hours from 9am to 7pm on all three days of the event. Previously, public visitors could visit the show only on the last day,” the Organisers said in a press release adding that various new elements have been incorporated in the 15th edition.

The show has been being organized by Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, Ho Chi Minh City Department of Tourism, Vietnam Trade Fair & Advertising Joint Stock (VINEXAD), and Informa Markets.  “As the 15th edition of ITE HCMC nears, we warmly welcome all visitors to our lovely city, and we will do our utmost to show you a memorable time,” Bui Ta Hoang Vu, Director of the Department of Tourism of Ho Chi Minh City, said.

Speaking on the new elements of the show, the organizers said that ITE HCMC 2019 will see a Start -up Tourism Forum to discuss fresh solutions, new perspectives, and enhanced customer experiences emerging out of the rapidly changing travel technology scenario.

Apart from the regular exhibitors such as BenThanh Tourist, Cambodia Ministry of Tourism, Hanoi Department of Tourism, Saigon Tourist, Vietnam Airlines, Vietravel, and Vung Tau Department of Tourism; ITE HCMC is set to see the participation of new players like Gangwon Province; Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture and Tourism; and Seoul Tourism Organisation. Also exhibiting are companies from popular tourism hotspots such as Australia, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Moreover, a series of comprehensive seminars covering the diverse range of topics will also be held during the show. One of them is the new Corporate Travel Trend Forum, organised by Corporate Travel Community. This forum will discuss topics like the Relationship Between Corporate Travel and MICE; An Introduction of Strategic Meetings Management Programme; and The Myths of Corporate Travel Management. The seminars and forums will also cover Medical Tourism, The Rise of the Solo Traveler, Smart Tourism Development in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – Russia Tourism Cooperation, Vietnam - Middle East Tourism Cooperation and Vietnam – Korea Tourism Cooperation amongst others.

 “Vietnam continues to witness strong sustained growth in the tourism sector, with local and foreign companies pumping in more investments and opening up new routes. We are thus confident that ITE HCMC will continue to serve the tourism industries in Vietnam and the Mekong sub-region far into the future,” Michael Duck, Executive Vice President of Informa Markets Asia, said and added that the entry Vinpearl Air and AirAsia is expected to make more parts of the country easily accessible to both local and foreign tourists.

With a substantial 20 per cent increase in Indian arrivals in the first five months of this year, Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is aiming to welcome two million Indians in 2019. This was informed by Charun Ohnmee, Deputy Governor for Policy and Planning, TAT at the last leg of four city Indian roadshows in New Delhi recently. Thailand welcomed 1.6 million Indian visitors in 2018.

With a consistent growth in arrivals, TAT is now putting a lot of efforts for sustainable tourism. Ohnmee informed that Thailand has moved from being a mass tourism destination to a value-for-money destination and now looking at quality tourism to follow the practices of responsible and sustainable tourism. “We have changed the perception of being a cheap destination. We now set our target as tourism revenue only. We do not focus about the number of tourists going to Thailand. We do advertising, broadcast new messages to people and then talk to people on supply side. We tell them that we need quality tourism,” the Deputy Governor said.

Drawing his opinion on a report suggesting Thailand’s aims to receive 10 million Indian tourists by 2028, he said that TAT is looking at India market too seriously with a focussed marketing and promotional strategy for India. “India and Thailand are quite close because we have a strong faith in our strong and similar culture. So, Indians love to visit Thailand,” said.

Recalling the arrival trends from India, Ohnmee looked optimistic to accomplish the target. However, he agreed to the fact that the entitled seats between India and Thailand under the existing aviation bilateral has almost exhausted. Currently, there are more than 300 weekly flights between India and Thailand.

The consistent rise in Indian arrivals to Thailand is due to the directed marketing strategy of TAT for this market. “Now we are focusing on leisure, family and wedding segments. We have to look now for millennials, female and solo tourists, MICE, senior citizens, Golf and honeymooner,” he added. TAT has always been coming up with segment wise marketing strategy for India and it has produced desired result. “We have developed microsites to promote different segments. We have developed a micro-website for first time visitors to Thailand. The site gives all relevant information to first time visitors and is getting very good response from India,” Isra Stapanaseth, Director of TAT New Delhi Office said.

Replying to a question over performance of TAT in China and European market, Ohnmee said, “It is completely different. I think number of tourists from European market is about 6.5 million. China is quite close to us and they can travel year around. China has a large middle class and we are a big market for them. We did not put more money and efforts for the Chinese market,” Ohnmee said and added that the profile of European travellers is quite different. “We try to upgrade our supply side and constantly improving to meet up their requirements. They come to Thailand from September up to March. So, for this period, we try to find some joy activities and do more promotions to draw more European tourists,” he informed.

Pinki Arora, Executive Director, Direct Representation – responsible of marketing Thailand in North and East India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, informed that TAT is actively looking at tier -II & III cities in India to maintain the growth trends to Thailand. “We are getting very good response from cities like Chandigarh, Amritsar, Pune, Nagpur, Lucknow, Jaipur, and Ahmedabad amongst others,” Arora said.

India currently ranks at 6th position as a source marker for Thailand is at number six source market after China, Malaysia, Lao, South Korea and Japan.

Thailand currently offers free Visa on Arrival for Indians and will continue to do so till October 31, 2019.

The hospitality industry in India is set to witness a better performance in 2019 almost after a gap of a decade. During the last few years, the industry was stuck in a crack due to oversupply, disruptions through technological innovations and a slowdown in demand due to macro issues. However, the scenario has changed since last few months and industry is expecting a better performance on major parameters. Experts of the industry believe that increasing middle class, rising disposable income, growing air connectivity and improving road infrastructure, rapid growth in domestic tourism and favorable policy initiatives are set to push the occupancy, Average Room Rate (ARR) and RevPar for the industry this year. Also, industry would witness gradual and sustainable rise in room rates backed with strong occupancies over next three-four years. This will put the industry back into its growth cycle after almost a decade.

According to Achin Khanna, Managing Partner – Strategic Advisory, Hotelivate, the past 24 months have played witness to a consistent growth in occupancy across most hotel markets in India. “Breaching the 65 per cent nationwide threshold, some markets have clocked 70 per cent plus occupancies as well. The ARR story continues to be modest though. While it is true that rates haven’t grown by leaps, it is equally pertinent to note that the blended nationwide ARR appears to grow slowly because a larger portion of the existing supply is budget and midscale positioned. The silver lining, however, is that there is growth in rates across most markets, albeit marginal,” Khanna added.

Increasing occupancies, ARR & RevPar

As demand is outpacing the supply, there is a clear indication that hotel occupancy, ARR and RevPar will see an increase this year which will continue for the next three to four years. Mandeep S. Lamba, President (South Asia), HVS Anarock informs that the industry has seen a steady growth in occupancy over the last three years growing from 61 per cent in 2016 to 66 per cent in 2018 along with a corresponding increase in ADR’s from Rs. 5550 in 2016 to Rs. 5950 in 2019 and RevPars from Rs. 3358 in 2016 to Rs. 3927 in 2018. “RevPar grew at the rate of 9.6 per cent in 2018 over 2017 and we expect it to grow by an additional 9.5 per cent in 2019 on the back of higher ADR’s,” Lamba opines.   

Ajay Bakaya, Managing Director, Sarovar Hotels and Resorts, also feels that RevPar has steadily improved, primarily driven by rate increase in the last two to three years. “The increase in ARR driven RevPars are more obvious in certain submarkets like Bengaluru and Hyderabad (Hitec city area). Most markets are still doing room occupancies story. The limited supply side additions have definitely helped,” Bakaya says adding that that Sarovar is seeing reasonable growths in both occupancies and in ARR. “We currently have a measured outlook for ARR increases. Properties which are now hitting 70-80 per cent occupancies can certainly do the rate yielding. For the rest, it will not be easy to play the rate yield game except certain dates/periods,” he says. He is confident that markets like Hyderabad, Bengaluru, and Mumbai will show increase in ARR. “The moderation however comes in form of the macro economic pointers. Currently, they are vague and do not reflect the big demand surge for the coming season as was expected,” Bakaya reveals.

Prashant Mehrotra, Vice President & Chief Revenue Officer, Lemon Tree Hotels feels that the current financial year started off at a slow pace in terms of occupancy going down by 300 bsp as compared to the previous financial year primarily due to elections. “India reported occupancy at 67 per cent, ARR at Rs 6169 and Rev Par at Rs 4153. The slump in occupancy rates has also impacted the ARR downwards by Rs 350. However, from second quarter onwards, we foresee a jump in the occupancy rates across India which is expected to result in occupancies slightly over the 70 per cent mark and consequently create a four to five per cent jump in the ARR over FY 19,” Mehrotra says. 

According to Khanna, occupancy across most major markets will continue to rise. “However, weekday-weekend seasonality does tend to put a cap on the upper limit of this growth. Most corporate/ commercial markets tend to peak in their mid-seventies and even the strongest leisure destinations (save Goa) do not breach late sixties. Given that many markets are already headed in this direction, coupled with the fact that demand is indeed outpacing supply in various locations, the continued growth of ARR is plausible,” Khanna says.

Slower pace of development

While performance parameters of hotels are going up, the pace of development has slowed down due to many issues. Several cities have witnessed an excessive growth in supply over demand in last three to four years impacting the overall performance of the industry. “There are roughly about 52,000 rooms in various stages of planning and development. Almost 35,000 are actively under construction. While the pace of new projects announcements had indeed slowed down in the past couple of years, recent months are showing signs of resurgence,” Khanna says.

Lamaba also believes the same. While the number of branded hotel keys signed in 2016 and 2017 remained stagnant at circa 16000 keys in about 170 hotels, 2018 witnessed a significant growth with over 19000 keys in 210 hotels having been signed during the year, Lamba adds and anticipates a similar number of keys being signed in 2019.

Bakaya, however, feels that the luxury/ultra luxe segment Greenfield investments have decreased considerably due to high capital expenditure and unfavorable lending regime. “The ROIs on these projects have never been more lopsided. However, the mid-segment still continues to go strong in terms of development. We ourselves have a pipeline of 30+ hotels in 25+ destinations slated to open in a time frame beginning this month till next 24 months,” Bakaya adds.

Chander K. Baljee, Managing Director, Regenta & Royal Orchid Hotels, opines that there was a boom in the Indian hospitality industry during 2003 – 2008. “The recession started in 2008 and the market was left with a demand-supply mismatch from here on till 2017. The development pipeline has now slowed down and demand is picking up, which is healthy for the industry. We will see a new pipeline again in two to three years,” Baljee says.

Elaborating it further, Mehrotra informs that the Indian hospitality industry added 93,000 rooms between 2005 and 2017; out of which 49 per cent of the supply was towards seven key cities including NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad, and Kolkata. “Currently, there are 128,000 branded hotel rooms across India; and by 2022, 30,000 new hotel rooms are expected to be added to the existing inventory. We envisage demand will outpace supply in the near future,” Mehrotra says.

Rate parity: Way forward

Rate parity is a legal agreement between a hotel and the OTA, providing the same rates for the same room on all the distribution channels. It is an important part of the overall hotel distribution landscape. “However, many brands have pushed for direct bookings in the last two to three years. Offering the best available rate on Brand.com is one of the ways hoteliers are using to incentivise direct bookings. Today, we’re seeing many alternative methods to drive direct bookings such as exclusive room type listing only on Brand.com, packaging of additional amenities to increase the value proposition for the customer and promoting private or closed group rates through the brand’s loyalty programmes,” Megha Tuli, Partner & Co-founder, Hotelivate, says.

Bakaya suggests that it is our fundamental duty to maintain rate parity. “Consumers should choose the distribution channel based on merits of his/her choice. As things are panning out, it is quite clear that the best value is in booking directly on the hotel Brand website. We are looking at period of consolidation of OTAs in terms of Indian markets. Its an interesting dynamic that is evolving every day,” Bakaya informs.

Baljee agrees to this and says hotels must work on value-adds which guests can only get when they book with them direct. “There are many exclusive benefits that guests can enjoy with direct bookings which they don't get when they book with OTAs. This includes F&B offers, bonus loyalty points, complimentary early check-in or late check out, free wi-fi etc.,” says Baljee.

Being more candid while explaining the dilemma, Lamba says that the battle between OTA’s and hotels wages on with no apparent solution in sight. “The relationship is that of Frenemies where hotels are hurting because of the large cost being paid to OTA’s but can’t do without them on account of the massive customer reach that OTA’s have gathered over the years and the technology infrastructure they have created,” he says adding that hotels are making focused efforts to get the customer to their websites and  have attempted to create certain advantages such as availability of loyalty points only if bookings are made through their official websites but OTA’s are countering that by often being able to offer rates lower than that offered by hotel websites and absorb these losses through allocating these to customer acquisition costs as is the norm for online commerce platforms.  Mehrota opines that the industry is surely witnessing rate parity establishing slowly with innovative offers and discounts.

Role of disruptors

Replying to a question over players like Oyo and Airbnb bringing in value to the industry, Khanna says that they have served a clear and evident need to a large populace that constitutes millions of traveller across the country. Bakaya also feels the same and says that they are creating new demand/development by changing the consumer behaviour. “They are driving the domestic travellers to expect a certain standard and comfort in accommodation solutions. This augurs well for the industry in terms of product development and service standard deployments. We are looking at grabbing onto a sizeable portion of the discretionary spends of one of largest consumer markets in the world,” says Bakaya.

Lamba opines that alternate accommodation players are growing rapidly and offering travellers a credible option outside of hotels. “Oyo added over 170,000 keys in 2018 alone which is 700 per cent more than what conventional hotels did during the same period. Since Oyo is largely in the economy space where the branded hotel segment has a negligible presence, there is no significant impact of these players on the performance of the branded hospitality sector,” Lamba says.  Baljee believes that player like Oyo is helping bring a lot of inventory from standalone units within the unorganised sector to the mainstream branded segment. Mehrota opines that these players create balance in the market share of the organised and unorganised sector.

Relevance of agents

The traditional travel agent continues to remain an integral part of the Indian hospitality industry for inbound business as well as domestic travel. “India’s digital penetration is expected to reach 627 million by end of 2019. However, such progress will continue to shape up in the years to come. Till such time, the traditional travel agent will continue to play a significant role, especially for leisure travel,” says Mehrota.

Bakaya feels that traditional travel agents have evolved and their newer business models allow them to cater to all segments of guests and hotels across geography.  “From a pure play travel agent, today he is evolving into a hybrid model combining a TMC, PCO and aggregator. It is THE survival and evolution story. It will continue to be a fascinating development,” Bakaya says.

Lamba opines that the role of traditional travel agents is reducing over time. “The only significant role continues in the Foreign GIT & Incentives segment where bookings for these segments are routed through tour operators and travel agents handling inbound travel,” he says. Khanna feels that while the online travel agencies have added to ability of a hotel to showcase and distribute inventory, it would be a folly to assume that they have replaced the traditional travel agents. “On a consistent basis, offline tour & tour operators continue to add value to the sector,” Khanna adds.

While performance of hotels in 2019 had a stellar start in the beginning of the year, it has been dampened by the general elections and the closure of Jet Airways. “We believe that the performance will catch up over the rest of the year and in 2020 we will witness the best ever performance of the hospitality sector since the turn of the century riding on the back of a stable government and an improved economy,” Lamba concludes. 

VFS Global, which processed close to 2.5 million applications in India during Jan - May, 2019, has seen a higher surge than usual this summer possibly due to the increase in UK-bound travel because of the Cricket World Cup. “In fact, for UK alone, VFS Global processed over 200,000 UK visa applications in India between January and April 2019. Last year, we observed a 13 per cent year-on-year growth in visa applications and I expect the growth to be positive for this year too,” Vinay Malhotra, Regional Group COO – South Asia, Middle East and China, VFS Global, said. VFS had processed 5.28 million applications in India in 2018.

Elaborating on the growth strategy for India, Malhotra informed that VFS Global’s operations have grown steadily in India, from one visa application centre in Mumbai in 2001, to the current presence in 17 cities. “Today, we offer visa application service for 47 countries in India, serving an ever-rising number of outbound travellers. We have made significant advancements in visa process technology. India has been the key incubation ground for many new solutions aimed at easing the visa process and experience for governments and applicants alike. We will further extend and enhance our customer service capabilities to better support the visa application processes for applicants,” he added. 

With the rapid growth of international travel, and more and more governments recognising the benefit of promoting tourism to further their economic agendas, VFS Global can expect to reasonably expand its client base. “Paramount to our core service, however, remains our commitment to keep customer-centricity at the front and centre of our services, ensuring better, faster and more flexible services for the end applicants. Our Premium Lounges have indeed been a success among our visa applicants. We have recorded a 121 per cent year-on-year rise in applicants opting for Premium Lounge in India, during period of January to April 2019. This indicates to a very clear trend towards demand for more personalised visa application processes across markets,” he informed.

He further informed that ViVA, the first-ever visa services chatbot already launched for Australia visa applicants in India. ‘Powered by Artificial Intelligence, ViVA tackles applicant queries round-the-clock with highly nuanced responses, significantly reducing turnaround times and acting as an invaluable support to customer service teams. We will continue to identify, prototype and launch innovations that will enhance the visa application process and cross-border travel of the future,” he revealed.

Talking about the trends in easing visas by different governments, Malhotra informed that governments and service providers are constantly building efficiencies in the visa process to firstly, ease the process for customers, and secondly, rationalise processes while maintaining security through the use of tech-enabled services. “For instance, earlier this year, UK Visas and Immigration rolled out its self-upload solution, enabling applicants to scan and submit their visa application form and supporting documents online from the comfort of their home, so they can visit the Visa Application Centre with just their passports for biometric enrolment,” he said and added that e-visas too are an emerging trend.

VFS Global values the travel agent fraternity as one of its biggest stakeholders and engage with them on a regular basis to improve the overall visa services ecosystem. “This is done through regular meetings in all cities of operations, road shows, and special offers and packages, while at the same time, being as being mindful of their requirements so their customers can enjoy a superior visa application experience. Furthermore, we also offer travel agents a wide range of innovative and extremely useful services that smoothens the visa application process for their customers,” he added.

VFS Global, which processed close to 2.5 million applications in India during Jan - May, 2019, has seen a higher surge than usual this summer possibly due to the increase in UK-bound travel because of the Cricket World Cup. “In fact, for UK alone, VFS Global processed over 200,000 UK visa applications in India between January and April 2019. Last year, we observed a 13 per cent year-on-year growth in visa applications and I expect the growth to be positive for this year too,” Vinay Malhotra, Regional Group COO – South Asia, Middle East and China, VFS Global, said. VFS had processed 5.28 million applications in India in 2018.

Elaborating on the growth strategy for India, Malhotra informed that VFS Global’s operations have grown steadily in India, from one visa application centre in Mumbai in 2001, to the current presence in 17 cities. “Today, we offer visa application service for 47 countries in India, serving an ever-rising number of outbound travellers. We have made significant advancements in visa process technology. India has been the key incubation ground for many new solutions aimed at easing the visa process and experience for governments and applicants alike. We will further extend and enhance our customer service capabilities to better support the visa application processes for applicants,” he added. 

With the rapid growth of international travel, and more and more governments recognizing the benefit of promoting tourism to further their economic agendas, VFS Global can expect to reasonably expand its  client base. “Paramount to our core service, however, remains our commitment to keep customer-centricity at the front and centre of our services, ensuring better, faster and more flexible services for the end applicants. Our Premium Lounges have indeed been a success among our visa applicants. We have recorded a 121 per cent year-on-year rise in applicants opting for Premium Lounge in India, during period of January to April 2019. This indicates to a very clear trend towards demand for more personalised visa application processes across markets,” he informed.

He further informed that ViVA, the first-ever visa services chatbot already launched for Australia visa applicants in India. ‘Powered by Artificial Intelligence, ViVA tackles applicant queries round-the-clock with highly nuanced responses, significantly reducing turnaround times and acting as an invaluable support to customer service teams. We will continue to identify, prototype and launch innovations that will enhance the visa application process and cross-border travel of the future,” he revealed.

Talking about the trends in easing visas by different governments, Malhotra informed that governments and service providers are constantly building efficiencies in the visa process to firstly, ease the process for customers, and secondly, rationalise processes while maintaining security through the use of tech-enabled services. “For instance, earlier this year, UK Visas and Immigration rolled out its self-upload solution, enabling applicants to scan and submit their visa application form and supporting documents online from the comfort of their home, so they can visit the Visa Application Centre with just their passports for biometric enrolment,” he said and added that e-visas too are an emerging trend.

VFS Global values the travel agent fraternity as one of its biggest stakeholders and engage with them on a regular basis to improve the overall visa services ecosystem. “This is done through regular meetings in all cities of operations, road shows, and special offers and packages, while at the same time, being as being mindful of their requirements so their customers can enjoy a superior visa application experience. Furthermore, we also offer travel agents a wide range of innovative and extremely useful services that smoothen the visa application process for their customers,” he added.

Bolstering its position as a premier international cruise destination, Dubai concluded its 2018/2019 cruise season with a record increase of over 51 per cent in cruise tourist footfall and a 38 per cent increase in cruise ship calls season-on-season.

Dubai welcomed through Mina Rashid Cruise Terminal, the award-winning cruise tourist destination in the Middle East, 846,176 cruise visitors via 152 ship calls during the season, compared to 558,781 visitors onboard 110 ships in 2017/2018. An additional 211 ship calls are now confirmed for the upcoming 2019/2020 season.

The 2018/2019 season witnessed 14 maiden calls and welcomed leading international cruise liners such as TUI Cruises, AIDA Cruises, MSC Cruises, Costa Cruises, Pullmantur Cruises, P&O Cruises and Royal Carribean cruise line to the homeport in Dubai, all expected to return in the upcoming season. The season concluded with the departure of the ‘Karnika’, India’s first premium cruise ship from Jalesh Cruises which has recently homeported in Dubai.

Mohammed Abdul Aziz Al Mannai, CEO-P&O Marinas & Executive Director, Mina Rashid, said: “We are pleased to move in the right direction in promoting Dubai as a popular destination for international cruise tourists. As the Middle East’s premier destination for cruise operators, Mina Rashid offers a value proposition to global luxury cruise liners. It is reassuring to see the steady double-digit increase in tourist traffic at Mina Rashid each year. Central to this stellar performance is our flagship Hamdan bin Mohammed Cruise Terminal, capable of handling 14,000 passengers a day.

“The increasing popularity of Dubai as a homeporting choice among international cruise liners will further boost luxury cruise tourism, with opportunities to connect Dubai to newer places. We will continue to work closely with our valued partner, Dubai Tourism, to support the efforts of the Dubai Cruise Committee and strengthen Dubai’s position as the ‘cruise hub of the region’.”

Commenting on the success of the 2018/2019 cruise season, Hamad Bin Mejren, Senior Vice President, Dubai Tourism, said: “The success of the 2018/2019 cruise season stands as a true testament to the robust growth of Dubai’s cruise industry and the city’s growing appeal as a year-round ‘must-visit’ destination. We are delighted to welcome leading cruise lines once again to operate regular international itineraries out of the city. We will continue to actively work with our valued network of local, regional and global partners to further highlight Dubai’s ease of accessibility, driven by efficient cruise terminal operations and continual enhancements that have welcomed an ever-increasing number of operators to anchor in the emirate.”

The Dubai cruise season 2019/2020 is set to commence on 19 October with Mein Schiff, homeporting cruise liner carrying over 6,000 passengers.

Hong Kong, which received over seven per cent growth in Indian arrivals during the first quarter of 2019, is aiming for an accelerated growth from India market this year. “In 2019, we expect a growth in our Indian arrivals especially with improved air connectivity on Cathay Pacific from all six key Indian ports and two new LCC’s Indigo and SpiceJet flying from New Delhi and Bengaluru and a strong demand in Incentive group travel and fly-cruise segment. we are positive about the increase in market share this year,” Puneet Kumar, Director, South Asia & Middle East, Hong Kong Tourism Board, said. 

Hong Kong has witnessed a de-growth for seven quarters starting 2017 and 2018 but India arrivals are now on growth trajectory since Q4 2018. “In Q1 2019, we registered a growth of 7.3 per cent YoY, close to 83,000 Indian visitors arrived into Hong Kong. Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru are the top three source markets; we have also noticed growing demand for travel to Hong Kong from Ahmedabad, Cochin and Pune,” Kumar informed.

In order to achieve the increased numbers, the Board has lined up multi-phased promotional campaigns in partnership with leading media, trade, and non-trade partners to engage with leisure, cruise and MICE segment in India. “In 2019, our focus is to creatively communicate and engage with the young affluent Indian travellers to bring alive Hong Kong’s core experiences such as living culture and festivals, rejuvenated local neighborhoods, soft adventure in green great outdoors, vibrant dining and nightlife scene, action-packed global events and cruising from Hong Kong along with iconic sights and sound of top attractions,” he added.

Currently, India is among the top 15 source markets for Hong Kong and the Board aims to increase the number of arrivals and spends from India to be among the top 10 markets for Hong Kong. “80 per cent of our India overnight arrivals into Hong Kong come on multiple destination itineraries. For Indians, Hong Kong remains the main draw among the other destinations in Greater Bay Area. In 2018, on average Indian travellers stayed for four nights with an average spends of HK$6,003 per trip,” he revealed. 

Speaking about the growth in MICE segment from India, Kumar said that Hong Kong sets off to a new MICE tourism era in 2019 and it will be highlighting a world of opportunities for MICE planners through the city’s latest product offerings, enhanced connectivity and new experiences and new MICE privileges of the Hong Kong Rewards! programme, all designed to lure incentive planners for choosing Hong Kong as their next destination. “India is one of the key strategic source markets for MICE arrivals into Hong Kong with a high growth potential in Meetings and Incentive group travel. We are aiming for a high single digit growth in 2019,” he revealed and added that Meetings and Exhibitions Hong Kong (MEHK) announced a further upgrade to the 2019/2020 Hong Kong Rewards! Programme recently. “This year, the programme includes 51 hotels offering complimentary cocktail receptions, complimentary meals at some of Hong Kong’s top attractions, as well as shopping vouchers and exclusive access,” he informed.

With bilateral trade target set for 2020 already achieved between Malaysia and India, tourism exchange between both these countries are bound to flourish. Replying to a question over the bilateral trade, Dato’ Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, said that there was a little drop because of Indian elections. “I am confident that the bilateral trade will increase after the conclusion of the recent election. In 2018, total trade with India amounted to US$15.56 billion, an increase of 2.2 per cent as compared to US$14.29 billion in 2017. This is already a positive development as we have already achieved our target of bilateral trade of US$15 billion by 2020 under the Malaysia-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement. We would like to encourage more investment from India in order to increase our bilateral trade. Last time I met Mr. Modi before the election, he mentioned that he wants to increase the business with Malaysia,” the Deputy Prime Minister told T3 on the sidelines of Malaysia Open House: Hari Raya Aidil Fitri event, organised by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture and Ministry of Federal Territories, at the Royal Museum. “Let this land of sunshine and friendly hospitality capture your hearts and create great memories,” Ismail said.

The event saw the gracious presence of Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Datuk Mohamaddin Ketapi and Minister of Federal Territories, Tuan Khalid Abdul Samad apart from international media, officials and executives of Tourism Malaysia and Government of Malaysia and local dignitaries and citizens. Hari Raya Aidilfitri is the day that marks the end of Ramadan.

Tourism Malaysia has recently organised a mega familiarisation trip for international media to give a first-hand experience of the “merewang” tradition that typically sees communities working together hand-in-hand in preparation of a big event such as weddings and in this case, Hari Raya Aidilfitri. This year, the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Malaysia (MOTAC) invited 29 journalists from 13 countries to market and promote Hari Raya Aidilfitri, a 30 day celebrations where there is an open kitchen and food for all participants. It was started in 2001 and MOTAC has taken initiative to bring together all races into one platform to organise and celebrate the main festivities such as Christmas, Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, Deepavali and Tandu Kaamtan.

Delivering the inaugural address to all participants of the mega fam at hotel PARKROYAL Kuala Lumpur, Zulkifly Bin Md. Said, Deputy Director General (Planning), Tourism Malaysia said that this mega fam programme is an initiative to bring travel writers, travel  journalists, TV crew, key influencers and social media influencers to Malaysia to experience what it’s like to celebrate Hari Raya Aidil Fitri in the traditional Malaysian-style of “open house” and offer them the experiences that Malaysia has to offer in terms of tourism places and attractions. “This programme began way back in 2001. Last year, a total of 80 guests were brought in from 10 different countries and the publicity generated was RM 3.7 million from the various articles, documentaries and social media. From 2000 to 2018, we have brought in a total of 15,618 different media and publicity generated was around RM 1.28 billion,” Said added.

Speaking further, Said informed that Malaysia recorded a very marginal deficit in international tourist arrivals at 25.8 million in 2018 compared to 25.9 million in 2017. “Despite, a marginal decline, we recorded a growth in tourists spend. The first three months of this year, we recorded a growth of 2.7 per cent in arrivals brining a total of 6.6 million tourists. The tourism expenditure recorded a 16.9 per cent growth to RM 21.4 billion. The average length of stay also went up by one night to six nights,” Said said and added that Malaysia is a multicultural and multiracial destination with more than 1023 ethnic groups.

He informed that Tourism Malaysia has set a target of 30 million tourist arrivals and RM 100 billion Ringgit in tourism receipts for the ‘Visit Malaysia Year 2020’ campaign. “For 2019, we have the target of welcoming 28.1 million tourists and RM 92.2 billion in tourism receipts. Along with the federal government, we have 10 states and three federal territories and some of the states will organise their own Visit Malaysia Year campaign 2020. We are working hand in hand with some of the states,” Said said and added that Tourism Malaysia is on course to create more experiential tourism products like Desaru Coast, sea-life in Legoland, Sky Mirror in Selangor etcetra. He explained that Tourism Malaysia is leveraging on its strong presence in social media which has 3.3 million followers on Facebook, 73,000 followers on Instagram, 422,489 followers on Twitter and 45.6 million views on YouTube. The session also highlighted the latest updates on the Visit Malaysia 2020 campaign and the developments of Desaru Coast in Johor, Encore Melaka and future plans of the Malaysia Airlines.

Talking about India market on the sidelines of the event, Tourism Minister Ketapi said that tourism ties between Malaysia and India are getting stronger. “Every year, we are getting a lot of tourists from India. India and Malaysia are good friends. Apart from this, connectivity is the main point. We have the good connectivity between two countries but we will be adding more. We will be getting more tourists movements between the two countries with a better connectivity. I think it’s a very good piece of cooperation between two countries,” Ketapi said while replying to a question about Indian arrivals.

When asked that the kind of focus of Tourism Malaysia on India market in terms of marketing and promotions has slightly gone down in the last couple of years, he replied that Tourism Malaysia will be accelerating its promotional efforts for India. “Actually, we will be doing our marketing more than it was used to be. We will be looking at India market in terms of what we need to do more and we will do this to improve the market for the people of India to know more about Malaysia. We are going to India market for promotion but of course everything will be done. We will be making our roadshow in India to promote Malaysia. Secondly, we have been attending SATTE in India. We will do the roadshow which will be quite effective for India market,” Ketapi said and added that both India and China markets are very close at the moment. “For me, between China and India, they are almost the same. A lot of Chinese and Indians are coming here. For Malaysia, both India and China are very big and important markets for us,” he said.

Talking about the strengthening connectivity between India and China, the Tourism Minister said: “In fact, I have directed my officials to get more charter flights even from India. Apart from IndiGo, we will be getting more charter flights from India to Malaysia as it is quite low as of now. We will have discussion with airlines in India so that both sides will be getting more traffic,” he said highlighting that tourism industry of Malaysia is developing new tourism products and it will be offered to India market.

Mohamad Taib Ibrahim, Senior Deputy Director, International Promotion Division, Asia/Africa, Tourism Malaysia also talked to media about India market. Replying to a question over how closely Tourism Malaysia works with Malaysia Airlines, Ibrahim said : “We are closely working with Malaysia Airlines. We have formed a committee with Malaysia Airlines two months ago and had held a series of discussions.  We are looking at joint promotion and tactical campaign with Malaysia Airlines. One of the things we are doing with them is planning a three city rodashow in India. We have three offices in India that work closely with Malaysia Airlines. Our collaboration with MH is very important and we support each other,” Taib added.

Replying to a question over introducing new tourism products in India market apart from Kuala Lumpur, Genting, Penang and Langkawi, Ibrahim said that Tourism Malaysia is now introducing new products in India market. “India has been patronising KL, Genting, Penang and Langkawi. We are now promoting Desaru and Ipoh. Ipoh is now receiving Indian groups. We know that Genting has been very popular in India and recently noticed that Indian footfall is slightly less. Hence, we decided to promote Cameron Highland which works as an alternative to Genting Highland. So, we are offering alternative to Genting to the India market. In Genting Highlands, we are developing 20th Century Fox World, an upcoming movie inspired theme park project. The park was supposed to open in July but it got delayed due to legal issues. So, we opened Ipoh and Cameroon Highland for India,” he said and added that we also work closely with wedding planners in India. “And, we want to introduce a new destination for Indian wedding and one of the new destinations we introduced is Port Dickson,  which is an hour drive from KL International airport. When Indians come for wedding, they like to go to Sunway Lagoon Theme Park. We also introduced Sabah as a wedding destination and we again want to launch Sabah in India market,” he said.

Tourism Malaysia has set a target of 30 million international tourists by 2020. “The highest figure from India was in 2014 which was 785,000. Our target for 2020 is 728,000 for 2020. The connectivity between two countries is also growing. We understand that IndiGo wants to fly from Kochi. Malaysia Airlines recently started its service between Kochi and Kuala Lumpur. Vistara has got the right to fly on Mumbai- Kuala Lumpur route. We have now Varanasi coming in terms of connectivity. Our target for South Asia for 2020 is 1.06 million,” Ibrahim informed and added that Tourism Malaysia is now promoting its tourism products in India Tier II & III cities apart from the established metros.

Malaysia Airlines, Turkish Airlines and PARKROYAL Kuala Lumpur were supporting partner for the Malaysia Mega Familiarisation Programme. 

 

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