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Akshay Kumar

Akshay Kumar

Being one of the most recent entrants in the global tourism offerings, AlUla, a natural heritage destination in Saudi Arabia is all set to tap the Indian outbound potential. In the last one year, the destination has aggressively promoted its unique offering to Indian market. With India being the home to the second largest Muslim population, the destination is now looking tap the Umrah segment and promote AlUla as an extension to an Umrah tour.

Speaking about the India market, Beena Menon, India Representative, Royal Commission for AlUla, said, “India is a very important and big source market for AlUla. We believe it will attract a large number of travellers for leisure and MICE. AlUla is a place of extraordinary human and natural heritage. Located in northwest of Saudi Arabia, AlUla is certainly a new destination for Indian travellers. AlUla is a rich heritage and art & cultural destination for affluent travellers. We expect as soon as the borders open, AlUla will be an interesting destination to explore due to the vast open spaces, natural beauty, outstanding landscape, and highest standard of visitor experience.”

Speaking about the potential segment, Menon said, “India has the second largest Muslim population in the world and is the third largest market for Umrah. We will leverage the strong affinity and connection that Indian Muslims have for Saudi Arabia. Besides the high value leisure travellers, we will tap the Umrah segment and promote AlUla as an extension to an Umrah tour. We are bullish about AlUla and see great potential to promote tourism to AlUla from India.”

The destination is also seamlessly connected to all the major Indian cities. Pre-pandemic Saudia operated 68 flights a week from various cities in India. Also, travellers can explore the destination with self-drive options from all major cities in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking about the connectivity, Menon said, “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has great flight connections from Indian cities. Besides Saudia, Air India, Spice Jet, Indigo, Oman Air, Emirates, Etihad were also well connected from India to Saudia Arabia. There are 4 weekly flights from Riyadh and 2 weekly flights from Jeddah to AlUla. These are short distance flights being operated by Saudia. AlUla international airport is located around 35 kms southeast of AlUla. Private jets and international charters can also land at AlUla international airport.”

She further added, “AlUla has a great self-drive option to AlUla from major cities in Saudi Arabia and also within AlUla. AlUla is a 10-hour drive from Riyadh, 7-hour drive from Jeddah, 3.5-hours drive from Medina. It is also only a 2.5-hours drive to the Red Sea which visitors can add on to their trip.”

The destination also offers various adventure activities besides its cultural and heritage offerings. In terms of travellers’ profile, the destination is looking to tap both leisure and MICE markets.

Menon said, “AlUla is a destination for leisure and MICE travel. As far leisure is concerned it is an ideal destination for family, adventure seekers, couples, and honeymooners. AlUla’s vast open landscapes provide the perfect backdrop for great outdoor activities like zipline, hiking trails, cycling trails, a bike park, and horse treks. There is something to do every day, and night in AlUla. Extraordinary sand stones in remote desert land create some of the world’s most enviable dark skies, making AlUla an idyllic locale for stargazing.”

In terms of MICE offerings, AlUla is home to Maraya, the world’s largest mirrored building according to Guinness World Records.

She added, “AlUla is a great destination for MICE travel and boasts of a state-of-the-art multi-purpose conference and entertainment venue, Maraya. A glass structure covered in mirrored panels reflecting AlUla’s beauty.”

The destination also offers a range of accommodation for every kind of traveller. Also, it is an ideal destination for the luxury market with the development of various high-end hotels with luxury spas and gourmet restaurants. In addition, there are many new hotels scheduled to open to keep up with the demand that is expected once the borders open and flights resume.

Menon added, “Five-star luxury brand Habitas will open an eco-friendly luxury accommodation in the Ashar Valley by September 2021. The resort has been designed to blend with the landscape and will immerse the guest in the environment, heritage and people of the AlUla region, through a variety of culturally engaging, authentic experiences. International hotel brands like Aman Resorts, Four Seasons are in the pipeline and expected to open in the couple of years. The famous French architect Jean Nouvel will be opening Sharaan by Jean Nouvel by 2023.”

Wellness tourism has the potential of being the top-most driver of the growth of Indian tourism industry. In a consistently growing economy where the population is recovering from a pandemic jolt, people are facing a fast changing life, wellness tourism here becomes even more important as it rejuvenates the body, mind and soul by detoxification provided by various healthcare therapies. India is perceived as one of the true spiritual homes of the modern wellness movement globally with its ancient practices of ayurveda, yoga, meditation, acupuncture, naturopathy, panchakarma and holistic health are among the experiences sought by wellness travellers in India.

To further enhance the quality of service, Ministry of Tourism has drafted guideline for wellness tourism. These guidelines address issues regarding making available quality publicity material, training and capacity building for the service providers, participation in international & domestic Wellness related events, etc.

Recently, a session was organised during SATTE 2021 titled, ‘Wellness Tourism: a big opportunity’. The session was moderated by Poonam Tipnis, General Manager-Sales, Niraamaya Retreats and witnessed key speakers from the industry including Dr. Anand More, Professor, All India Institute of Ayurveda; Dr Kishore Patel, Research Officer (Ayu.), Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic Sciences; Abhilash K.R, Executive Director, Kairali Ayurvedic Group; Vasudha Sondhi, Managing Director, OMPL who discussed the unexplored opportunities that the wellness segment offers to the Indian tourism.

Travellers from across the globe are now looking at Ayurveda and wellness tourism during the pandemic to rejuvenate their mind and body. Speaking further about the benefits of Ayurveda, Dr, More, said, “Ayurveda will definitely help during this covid-19 pandemic. Under Ayurveda the entire lifestyle which is promoted will rejuvenate the person. Along with rejuvenation, Ayurveda helps in detoxification with the panchakarma treatment. Today, life has become very stressful and it has been disturbing the body and mind. To help the body, mind and soul, Ayurveda and Yoga are the key and also, they help in increasing immunity. These therapies do not only treat patients, but also further helps to immunise fit and healthy individuals.”

One of the major challenges in India is the lack of awareness about the various benefits and therapies under Ayurveda and wellness. Dr. Patel added, “Whenever we think about wellness tourism we think about spa. It is a very good wellness practice, but if one applies Ayurveda in this concept it provides excellent results. In terms of wellness and Ayurveda tourism there is lack of awareness amongst the travellers.”

Over the years, wellness tourism has been looked as a necessity by travellers rather than a luxury segment. The trend has shifted where travellers are looking at preventive treatments to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Speaking about the shift in trends, Sondhi said, “The last decade has seen a shift in terms of trends in wellness tourism. The trend has shifted from medical care to preventive care. In India we have a very young population and this segment is very important for the corporate industry. Over the years, large corporates have started including wellness benefits for their mid-level to senior-level employees.  The covid-19 pandemic has brought a sharp realization about one’s health. Even if 10 per cent of the people are touched by this realization then there is a huge market created for the wellness tourism segment. Under wellness tourism one can increase their immunity by eating substitute food, following various practices and a lot will look forward for these offerings.

The next generation travellers in India are looking at wellness tourism as a part of their itineraries which will provide an immense boost to this segment. Also, the awareness amongst this segment is high which will help the industry.

Speaking about the awareness of wellness tourism amongst the next generation travellers Abhilash added, “The next generation travellers have disposable income and are looking for a healthy lifestyle. These travellers are usually pre-educated about the wellness and living a healthy lifestyle. They are looking for yoga retreats, Ayurveda holidays, various other therapies, etc. It is a positive growth and a tremendous boost for us when this generation moves forward. Also, an interesting trend is this segment of travellers are looking for the traditional and natural way of wellness and they don’t want the hybrid models which are available. The come with a holistic approach and have immense knowledge.

Sheetal Munshaw, Director, Atout France in India speaks about trends and strategies post outbound tourism resumption

India still remains a promising source market, despite the pandemic deterring outbound tourism growth from India.

What is the current scenario of the tourism sector in France?

Travel to and from the European zone remains prohibited except for compelling, medical or professional reasons that cannot be postponed. On March 12, France announced that visitors from countries including Australia, South Korea, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, The United Kingdom and Singapore do not need a compelling reason to travel to France. There will be a quarantine of 10 days for Indian visitors coming to France. Based on the evolution of the pandemic, there will be a gradual reopening of café terraces and shops on a localized basis alongside resumption of certain sporting and cultural activities. However, nothing has been confirmed yet.

How are you tweaking your marketing strategy for 2021?

For India, in particular, as we are in the midst of a very serious health crisis, we think it only prudent to refrain from launching any active promotions at this time. We will continue with our digital initiatives and engage in soft promotions online which is essentially a continuation of our strategy from last year. When the time is right, we will be working on collaborations with influencers and other French brands to create aspirational content for France based on our areas of expertise. We will continue our engagement with the trade through webinars and e-learning initiatives and also organize our flagship B2B showcase our Explore France workshop in September either virtually or onsite depending on how the situation evolves over the next few months.

Post Pandemic, do you foresee India still featuring amongst your top priority markets? Please throw some light on this.

India is a promising and ever evolving source market for France. The bi lateral relations between our two countries continue to further strengthen in these times of duress. Once the situation allows for travel between the two countries, we will see a resurgence of inflow towards France. In the meantime, we remain committed to India as a market and continue to engage with key stake holders on both sides.

What will be the Indian travellers’ profile when tourism restarts?

We believe that the discerning traveler will be the first to plan a holiday in France once borders open. The FIT segment will see a first return to France with travelers vigilant about COVID protocols. People who have embraced travel as a way of life in the past will be the first to prioritize travel as we have already seen with some short haul destinations even during the pandemic. In terms of trends, self-drive holidays, conscious and immersive travel, and other sustainable forms of tourism could also manifest as foreseeable travel trends of the future.

Earlier most of the travellers combined several European destinations in the itinerary. With protocols and safety in the picture, do you see majority travellers looking at France as a standalone destination? Also, will this trend help in increasing the length of stay?

We have over the last few years been witness to an increase in France’s popularity as a solo destination and we believe that this pattern will only accentuate in the future. It is very likely to see a surge in demand for longer stays in France allowing for travelers to discover the country at their own pace which in turn will increase the length of stay in France.

By when do you foresee MICE and corporate travel market to bounce back?

The current situation does make it difficult to make any sort of projections, but we do hope that the MICE and corporate sector make a recovery not too long after FIT travel. Of course, with changes and adaptations in formats and a possible reduction in group sizes.

The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) recently unveiled the destination to the Indian market. AlUla is a living museum that holds 200,000 years of largely unexplored human history. The vast desert landscape features preserved tombs, sandstone outcrops, historic dwellings and monuments, both natural and human-made.

Speaking about the USP of the destination, Tyler Gosnell, Head of International Marketing, The Royal Commission for AlUla, said, “There are a number of established destinations in and around this region, but AlUla is uniquely positioned. Saudi Arabia is largely unexplored outside, religious destinations. There are a very few unexplored untouched destinations across the globe, we are one of those which is our key USP. Hegra is one of the fist UNESCO heritage sites in Saudi Arabia. We have thousands of years of history and it’s a breathtaking and natural setting which is incredible. Besides, we also have unique adventure and wellness tourism in AlUla. This a true authentic destination which has a lot to offer to the Indian travellers.”

The destination is looking to tap experienced travellers with a cultural and historic interest. India is one of the prime markets for AlUla.“We are looking at a large segment opportunity, we are looking at people with strong interest in culture and heritage and we are looking at intrepid voyager and people who want to explore, millennials, we are looking at various segments. We want to tap the experienced traveller with higher income and interest in heritage and history. We continue to develop, and we will add on more experiences,” Gosnell opined.

AlUla is establishing itself as an adventure tourism destination with more experiences opening over the coming months. AlUla’s new zipline experience is one of the longest in the world. Other adventure experiences include a range of hiking trails, cycling trails, a bike park, and horse treks.  “Adventure is a key part of our focus with one of the fastest ziplining. Also, we have the cycling and hiking trails which are very popular. We also have other adventure activities such as star gazing and soft adventure. In adventure we have an array of activities for each kind of travellers,” Gosnell informed.

The destination also boasts of its unique MICE infrastructure. Maraya Concert Hall in AlUla is one of the largest mirrored structures. AlUla is also looking to tap the Indian weddings segment.

Commenting on MICE and events tourism, he said: “We are aggressively looking at MICE and weddings from India market. At AlUla we have Maraya, which is the performing arts venue. It is the largest mirror building and this venue provides unforgettable experience. We are waiting for the first Indian wedding to happen. Also, no two events will be the same in terms of experience. We also have a rooftop restaurant at Maraya, which has one of the best views. We also want to develop as an event-based destination. Winter at Tantora Festival takes place at this venue and we get world class artists and promote the destination. We have different type of activities in summer as well and the events schedule will continue.”

Recently, AlUla International Airport has been approved to receive international flights. RCU has increased the airport’s annual capacity by 300 per cent from 100,000 to 400,000 passengers per year making it a fifth largest airport in Saudi Arabia. Gosnell added, “In terms of connectivity, we have a short flight from Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam to AlUla. Also, travellers can drive to AlUla from the major cities in Saudi Arabia and they can drive along the picturesque Red Sea.”

On the hospitality scenario in the region, he informed, “We cater to midscale and luxury markets. As it is an emerging destination there are a lot of customisation which needs to take place. It is certainly our short to medium term that we are looking at developing AlUla as a High-profile destination. We will have 500 room by end of the year and next year 1000 and by 2035 we have 10,000.”

India is often termed as the most diverse destination in terms of the mix in religion and culture. India is home to thousands of major temples, shrines, mosques, churches, gurudwara and holy sites, etc. Each year the domestic travel flow for religious travel is significant especially to destinations such as Amritsar, Ajmer, Fatehpur Sikri, Goa, Velankanni, Fort Kochi, Srirangam, Tirupati, Rameswaram, Thanjavur, Varanasi and Puri, etc. Despite huge numbers, there is no tapping mechanism, or major marketing strategy by states to promote religious tourism. If religious travellers add a leisure element to their itinerary, states can generate huge revenue.

To further brainstorm and look at the lucrative opportunity, SATTE organised a session titled, ‘Religious tourism: potential untapped’. Moderated by Murari Mohan Jha, Editor, T3, the conference witnessed noted speakers from across the fraternity including; Dr. Achyut Singh, Jt. General Manager, Indian Railways (IRCTC); Arun Srivastava, DDG, Ministry of Tourism, Govt. of India; Pawan Jain, Assistant Director, State Department of Tourism, Rajasthan; Gopi Vishrolia, I/C Manager, Gujarat Tourism who brainstormed and covered various aspects of religious tourism including tapping the high spending religious travellers, devising the right marketing strategy to make religious tourism more organised, creating circuits.

Addressing the audience, Srivastava said, “Earlier lack of infrastructure, activities, and lack of experiences were the major reason travellers were only going only for pilgrim tourism. Over the year’s things have improved a lot as the State Governments and the Central Government have worked to improve the accessibility and infrastructure. Around 25-30 years ago, ‘Chardham Yatra’ used to take around 25-30 days to complete, but now on an average it takes around 6-7 days to complete the entire tour. With better accessibility people have more time in hand to explore more.”

 One of the major players in the religious tourism segment in India, IRCTC, has been developing various ciruits and itineraries over the years.

Speaking about the development of religious tourism, Singh said, “Today domestic tourism is core sector which the country is focusing on and religious tourism is the main purpose for domestic tourism growth in the country. There is a big difference between pilgrim and a religious tourism, pilgrims majorly visit the pilgrim sites and return, they are not major spenders and don’t contribute big to tourism sector. Religious tourists impact the local economy as they stay there and are enjoying the services and also, they perform various religious activities.”

Earlier Pilgrim tourists were never associated with luxury. Now with a trend of multigenerational travel for religious purposes, the element of luxury has come into play.

Speaking about the luxury in religious tourism Jain said, “Pilgrim tourism is different from leisure travel. A pilgrim traveller doesn’t look for luxury. Religious destinations are usually on an unapproachable spot, where one need to travel for a long distance. Religious tourism is the only form of tourism where all generations travel together. This multigenerational travel has now helped in driving demand for luxury during religious tourism. As a trend a lot of resorts are now being developed in and around religious places in Rajasthan. We are promoting religious tourism in Rajasthan and are trying to include luxury tourism element in the religious tourism. Pushkar as a destination is famous for its religious tourism and it is globally popular, and tourists visit every year during Pushkar Fair.”

Gujarat is offering additional support to the tour operators to promote religious tourism itineraries. The destination is showcasing the Saurashtra Darshan circuit which can be clubbed with leisure tourism.

Speaking about the circuit, Vishrolia said, “In Gujarat, Dwarka is one of the most important pilgrim destinations and is popular across the nation. In Gujarat we have a popular circuit known as Saurashtra Darshan which includes Dwarka, Bet Dwarka, Somnath, etc. we recently started promoting Okha which is near Dwarka which can be a leisure destination combined with Dwarka. We are also introducing some experienced guides in these religious destinations to enhance the experience of the travellers. In the Saurashtra region we are bringing an element of leisure by tying up with a few private players and resorts. We also have tour operators coming to us with packages from across India to Gujarat for religious tourism, we are promoting them jointly. We are now trying to create awareness about the destinations and also about the offerings we have in terms of experiences.”

To further accelerate the pace of religious tourism, IRCTC has crafted various circuits with one single special train catering to those. Also, they are looking at promoting hidden destinations to the travellers.

Speaking about the combinations, Singh added, “In terms of itineraries, when travellers are going to Badrinath they can combine Auli, destination like Hampi is a key leisure destination but has a lot of importance as it’s known due to Ramayana, etc. In railways we have created religious circuits and have operated trains accordingly.  We have operated Ramayana circuit, Takt Circuit, Sufi circuit trains, Jyotirlinga circuit, Devine Tour for South India, we have successfully operated the Buddhist circuit. Apart from these we are also offering special packages or itineraries for religious tourism with special quotas in trains. We have also introduced religious tourism packages by flight. Our major focus has been to include leisure activities or destinations along with religious tourism. We cannot convert religious tourists into leisure but can associate them to an extent.”

Experts feel that accessibility issue to majority of the destinations have been addressed over the years. But we have not been able to create experiences in and around the religious places to increase the length of stay of travellers.

Srivastava said, “The main challenge now is the lack of activities and experiences around the pilgrimage. Now with Ayodhya being developed, the government has kept this in mind and a lot of experiences are being developed around. Even in Amritsar now there are various attractions packaged such as Jallianwala Baugh, and various attractions around the Golden Temple. We need to slowly increase the length of stay of the travellers and introduce leisure experiences, with religious tourism as the focus.”

Rajasthan tourism has been one of the states with ample religious tourism opportunities. To further enhance the experience, the destination has now sanctioned Rs. 100 Crore during the state budget to develop the religious destinations.

Speaking about the plans, Jain, said, “Recent, the Government of Rajasthan has announced Rs. 100 Crore budgets to develop infrastructure around these religious places. The announcement of Rs. 100 crores is a part of the Budget 2021-22. We have the Krishna Circuit under which three destinations are promoted Nathdwara, Jaipur, and Khatushyamji temple. As a trend we have seen pilgrims coming by their own vehicles, so we are developing the parking infrastructures in these sites. The infrastructure requirements for the religious tourists are basics and we are trying to address these challenges. To further accelerate religious tourism, Tour operators should plan the itineraries and include leisure elements in the religious travel.”

G.B Srithar, Regional Director, India, Middle East and South Asia, Singapore Tourism Board speaks about revival strategy and the latest developments.

Over the years, India has evolved as one of the major source markets for Singapore. The destination is now gearing up to welcome Indians with novel offerings, once international borders are open.

 

How do you see the travel and tourism industry in Singapore recovering from the pandemic? Has tourism been a major part of the Governments revival plans?

Singapore is a tourism and aviation hub and our Changi airport is one of the most important airports and we look to maintain as one of the top aviation hubs. Tourism is a major component for our economy. As we reopened one of our most important focus was safety of our residents. We are now in the third stage of our Singapore Transition. Under this the Government has reopened many segment interms of schools, MICE facilities, etc. Singapore has certified establishments which have maintained the safety standards and we are making sure to control the covid-19 spread. However, when it comes to borders reopening, we are very cautious and calibrated. As of now we are looking at how we can safely reopen, and it depends upon various factors. Tourism is important for us, but safety and security is the priority.

Any key recommendations by the cruise players which you would like to highlight from the Cruise World India 2021

The objective of the Cruise World India 2021 was to re-engage and connect. Theme was charting our pathway to cruise recovery. It was a platform to share ideas and thoughts for us to eventually open travel and then cruise. This is to prepare ourselves to restart the cruising segment efficiently. We are clear that as of now borders are not open. Purpose is to understand what the market needs. Singapore has opened cruise for locals and people 120,000 cruise holidays makers went on 90 sailings. Singapore now accounts One third cruising worldwide. Under cruise safe certifications we have great safety standards and protocols which cruise players need to adhere. Response was excellent and we had a lot of product updates and we had various polls during the discussion.

Earlier the major fly cruise Destinations in Asia for India market was Hong Kong and Singapore, with a lot of unfortunate challenges in Hong Kong, do we see a monopoly in 2022?

It is an evolving situation and a lot of things have changed and a lot depends on what countries will do to draw travellers. A lot of countries are going to look at how effectively and safely people open travel. I don’t think any single destination can monopolize. Consumers will be very picky and selective. Consumers will look at various factors like safety, ease of travel, vaccination requirements, insurance protocols, quarantine protocols, etc. Travellers may look at small family or couple travel and then destinations ill come into play. People will look at one destination, instead of country hopping. All destinations will put in place various measures to make sure that they are able to handle travellers. There will be some preferences that may emerge, it will be a different travel world that will come.

To give a boost to the domestic tourism segment, Singapore Tourism Board introduced SingapoRediscovers Vouchers (SRV), any similar plans for the international travellers as well?

The objective for the SRV was clear and we have for the first time championed domestic tourism. It ioss a new learning for us. Our objective was the travel and tourism fraternity and wanted to entice the locals to experience Singapore hotels, attractions. As we restart international markets there will be some conversations, but it is early to say on incentivization. There will be a confluence of things which we will look at. Currently we don’t have plans, but when we cautiously open our borders we will look at how we attract travellers. Now our focus is to reopen tourism safely. The domestic audience are keenly looking at the safety aspects of the products and attractions, similarly these will be the priority for international audience as well.

Singapore has over the years been a popular MICE destination as well, when do you see this segment bounce back? What is the future of MICE Tourism in Singapore?

In the MICE front we have come up with a few things, we have launched a framework and MICE is safe and intense. We want to retain our spot as one of the worlds credible and popular MICE destinations. India is a very important market for MICE travel to Singapore. We will look at how best to bring meetings and incentives from India. We will look at smaller groups first. We have a lot of incentives and inspire programme to attract MICE travellers. During the pandemic we have recalibrated the scheme and we are highly engaged during the pandemic. The general feedback is Indian corporates are ready to travel once travel restarts.

Any new trend which you foresee when tourism restarts? Any new attractions in Singapore?

Post pandemic there will be multilayered travel. Travellers will look to stay longer and immerse in the culture and would want to explore food and culinary. Travellers will go on more specific and purpose-driven tours.

In terms of new projects this year to support the tourism sector; we will launch Museum of Ice Cream Singapore which is expected to open in 2H 2021. It is the first international location and Asian flagship outlet that will feature multi-sensory installations around the theme of ice cream with sweet treats offered throughout the museum. Slingshot is slated to open in 2H 2021. Slingshot is an exhilarating thrill ride located in the heart of Singapore’s city centre. As “Asia’s tallest Slingshot”, visitors are catapulted almost 70m above the ground at top speeds of 160km/h. SkyHelix Sentosa is scheduled to open in 2022. It will be Singapore’s first open-air panoramic attraction that allows guests to have a drink as the rotating gondola ascends.

The covid-19 pandemic had decimated the global tourism sector in 2020, with the industry virtually coming to a standstill. Experts opined that tourism and hospitality will be the last ones to recover from the pandemic. As per UNWTO, international arrivals fell by one billion (74 per cent) in 2020 over 2019, ensuring that the overall estimated damage was over 11 times larger than in 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis.

But this said, towards the end of 2020 and early 2021, the travel and tourism industry witnessed a lot of positive signals with a few countries opening up borders for international tourists, with stringent safety policies in place. A few destinations also successfully tapped the India market post lockdown. Also, with vaccine rolling out the industry was totally geared up to restart business.

But beginning April 2021, the changing variants/mutants of covid-19 has again forced the Governments across the world to keep on fine tuning their SOPs/safety guidelines almost on weekly basis. Policy and decision makers do not have any idea, even now, about going forward on any issues. The most obvious impact of this surge of COVID-19 resulted into a total travel ban. The green shoots that were evident in December 2020 and January 2021, has faded again with arrival of new mutants. Travel bubbles between countries have been executed and now being halted. Vaccinated travellers, ease of travel, cross country movements, even cross-city movements were permitted and withdrawn now.

The second wave attack by COVID-19 in India has been resulting into 0.3 million to 0.4 million cases on a daily basis. India, as a country, has become the most vulnerable in the world. While international tourism is totally out-of-the-scene, domestic tourism that was witnessing revival faded away since March 2021. Countries after countries are withdrawing from air travel bubble agreement. Domestic air traffic in India has come down to half in April 2021 compared to March 2021. Countries that were welcoming Indian travellers and were planning to open doors have put a ban on Indian arrivals. Not only this, these countries have also issued travel advisories for their citizens against travelling to India.

The recently concluded SATTE 2021 tried to address the changing course of action on international travel regarding India through a session titled ‘International tourism: Tackling Pandemic Impact’. Panelists were quite optimistic about the revival of international tourism, but their hopes got totally dashed due to the exponential spread of Indian variant of COVID-19 strain in the country.  

 The session was moderated by Aashish Gupta, Founder of StrategyPluto & Consulting CEO, FAITH and witnessed an eminent panel including Thoyyib Mohamed, Managing Director, VisitMaldives; Dhananjay Regmi, Chief Executive Officer, Nepal Tourism Board; Rajiv Mehra, President, IATO; Milan Dostal, Commercial Economic Counsellor, Embassy of the Czech Republic; and Vachirachai Sirisumpan, Director, Tourism Authority of Thailand New Delhi Office.

Restarting tourism

In 2020, many international destinations, especially the ones which are majorly dependent on the tourism, opened borders for international tourism. One of the first destinations amongst them were Maldives that opened up its international borders on July 15, 2020.

Speaking about the initiatives, Mohamed stated, “We were one of the first destinations to open international borders last year. It was a bold move by the President of Maldives, at that time nobody knew what might happen to the tourism industry. But, with the stakeholders, frontline health workers, state authorities, we decided to open up the destination with all safety measures. We opened with one-island one resort properties and later we opened guest houses and other accommodations. We took complete advantage of the geographical isolation of how Maldives is scattered. Resorts are socially distanced in Maldives. We make sure that stringent checks are done, and protocols are in place.”

Every destination came up with its own customized set of protocols and SOPs which has been amended as per the scenario. Destinations came up with stringent regulations for their tourism and hospitality industry with the core focus being on safety and security.

Speaking about the SOPs in Nepal, Regmi added, “Just like other countries, Nepal has suffered a lot in terms of tourism. But we were one of the first to come up with safety protocols which are very activity specific. We came up with 11 safety protocols for adventure activities, trekking, rafting, lodges and hotels, etc.. We realized for the first time that we can sustain on our own domestic tourism. We promoted tourism within the country and requested people to travel domestically and that helped. All our tourism products and attractions are open and are getting local business.”

Similarly, Thailand opened its borders for international tourists last year, but with a quarantine policy. The destination was looking at long stay travellers ready to get quarantined for 14 days. The destination has been easing and revising its policy since then.

Elaborating on Thailand’s steps, Sirisumpan explained: “We are open for tourism, however there are some paperwork and insurance which travellers need to fulfill and also quarantine policy in place for anyone who is coming from an international destination. The quarantine policy is in place even for the local Thai Nationals if they return from an international destination. With vaccination happening across the globe, I see light at the end of the tunnel. The Ministry of Tourism, Thailand has said that there would be some easing in terms of measures every quarter. We will have some flexibility soon in terms of the policies.”

Changing Trends

The Ministry of Tourism Government of India has been only focusing on the domestic tourism segment in 2020. India as a destination will be looking at inbound tourism, but the present situation in the country will further push this development.

Suggesting initiatives which India should take to restart inbound, Mehra said, “The Ministry of Tourism, Government of India is planning digital marketing activities internationally in our source markets, once the pandemic scenario is a little better. The biggest potential which we need to realise is travellers who were going on outbound trips will now be moving within India.”

He further said, “Indian hotels are all ready to welcome international travellers when flights resume. Even the tour operators in India are ready, we as IATO are giving WTTC stamp as we have been authorized. To maximise the tourism numbers once things open up, we have requested the Ministry of Tourism to share ‘Dekho Apna Desh’ campaign videos to all the Indian Embassies and regional offices abroad and should be dubbed in the country’s specific local language. Post COVID, shows like SATTE will help in spreading a word that we are ready for tourism.”

In terms of the latest trends, the European Union is looking to restart tourism within Europe. To further make the process seamless the European Union is looking to introduce Green Pass. Destinations like Czech Republic are confident that whenever travel happens, the Indian outbound will bounce back.

On the emerging scenario in Europe, Dostal said, “The situation is far from ideal as of now for the tourism sector. Tourism is one of the most important sectors for Czech Republic. India and Asia are one of the most important markets which has been growing for us at a good pace.  As of now in the entire European Union there are very limited options to travel. We expect that there might be an improvement in the situation somewhere in the second half of this year. Initiatives like SATTE are extremely important where we can discuss about the future and contemplate the activities in order to step by step open the markets. European Union has planned to introduce Green Pass which will go through European Parliament. At the same time, being a Member of European Union look at the guidance of the European Commission to implement steps which will enable international travel.”

Maldives in its next phase is working to introduce vaccine tourism. The tagline for the new campaign will be, ‘Visit, Vaccine and Vacation’.

Explaining about the new campaign, Mohamed said, “From the beginning we wanted Maldives tourism to be leading in vaccination. More than half of our population have been vaccinated which includes our tourism staff as well. We want to move on to the next phase where we want to do a campaign on ‘Visit, Vaccine and Vacation’. Travellers can come and get the first dose and after few weeks take second dose and then leave, which we will provide. It is the first of its kind product and some of our partners here in Maldives are offering free quarantine if a traveller is detected positive. Everyone is gearing up now and changing their strategies towards this special time. With the help of health authorities and frontline staff we are now the leading destination.”

Closing Doors

A lot of the destinations which had opened up for India market for all purposes, either closed doors or did announce further restrictions.

Maldives was the most popular international destination for Indians post the lockdown last year. From January 1, 2021 to March 24, 2021, a total of 269,504 tourists arrived in the Maldives. The top source market for the tourist arrival was India with 64,059 arrivals. In a recent statement, the Maldives has also put restriction on Indian travellers visiting the inhabited islands.

The statement mentioned, “The government of Maldives has recently announced temporary measures to control the spread of COVID-19 in relation to the rising COVID-19 cases in India. Indian travellers arriving in the Maldives are restricted from staying at guesthouses and hotels located in local inhabited islands. The restriction does not apply to resorts and liveaboards. The restriction also applies for tourists who have completed the prescribed dose(s) of a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Australia as a destination was not open for leisure tourism, however the Australian Government, imposed a ban on its own citizens from returning home, if they have spent time in India up to 14 days before flying back. A step further the Australian Government announced that they will prosecute the violators with a possibility of five years of jail term or a penalty of 66,000 Australian dollars.

Close to home, Sri Lanka had planned to open up tourism for India market under the travel bubble agreement. India is the top source market for Sri Lanka. Recently, The Director General Civil aviation in a letter to the CEO of the national carrier Srilankan Airlines stated, "In accordance with instructions received from health authorities of Sri Lanka due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation, it is hereby directed that passengers travelling from India will not be permitted to disembark in Sri Lanka with immediate effect.”

Similarly, Israel announced the reopening its borders to international travellers on May 23rd. However, visitors will have to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and will be expected to travel in groups. Divulging more specific details the destination announced that it will be open only for 14 countries, which does not include India.

Apart from these destinations USA and the UK along with several other countries have shut borders for travellers from India.

Way forward

Nepal as a destination is looking to reposition its image in the India market. The destination which is popular for its spiritual tourism is showcasing various other aspects including nightlife, spas, and various other tourism offerings to the India market.

Regmi said, “India is our biggest market, on our borders between India and Nepal 35 crore people reside. We have changed our focus now and we will be looking at border tourism and we don’t need to wait for airlines to resume and one can drive to Nepal. We had a different image in the past with a focus on spiritual tourism. We have now completely changed, we have the best nightlife, casinos, spas, meditation centres, etc. also in terms of spiritual sites we are promoting a lot of unexplored sites now. We are now showcasing Nepal as a year-round destination and for all age groups.”

The major role for tourism boards in the current times has been to build confidence amongst travellers and the locals in the destination. Destinations are ensuring that all protocols and SOPs are strictly implemented and followed.

Sirisumpan, added, “The major role for all the tourism boards and tourism stakeholders is to build confidence amongst people. We need to promote to the tourists as well as the locals that tourism is safe to revive the industry. In Thailand we have launched Amazing Thailand Safety and Health Certification and have introduced SOPs which covers every aspect. Also, in Thailand travellers are every time looking for something new. So, we are now pushing more information on where one can go apart from popular destinations which are crowded. We have a lot of unexplored destinations in Thailand which are not crowded, and we are trying to promote these hidden gems. I believe transparency and communication of SOPs is the key to restart tourism.”

Also, with growing citizens getting completely vaccinated day by day, destinations need to customize their travel policies accordingly. Destinations should consider free travel for vaccinated travellers. “Despite of vaccination, countries are asking for RT-PCR Negative reports. It has to stop, there should be a clear mandate that once if a person is fully vaccinated, he can travel without any hassle. In India, a lot of lockdowns, night curfews are happening and there are different rules in different states for travel, which should not happen. We must follow all the rules and SOPs for personal safety and travel should happen as usual. There should be a uniformity in rules for interstate travel,” Mehra added. 

In a bid to showcase and promote unexplored destinations, Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI), recently conducted its annual Tourism Conclave at Kevadia, Gujarat. The event was organised in association with Gujarat Tourism. Kevadia is home to the world’s tallest statue, ‘Statue of Unity’. The conclave witnessed members from 20 Regions and Chapters across India.

Jyoti Mayal, President, TAAI, said, “We thank Gujarat Tourism and their entire team for their support in putting up such a conclave. We are confident in the revival of the travel and tourism industry. Members of the trade were going through challenging times due to the Covid-19 pandemic and this gave an opportunity for them to adopt to transformation, and ability to explore. Physical events like these are much needed to boost the confidence of the industry.”

The Member delegates experienced the accommodation and facilities at Tent City 1 and Tent City 2 at Kevadia along with evening dinner cruise along the River Narmada.

Kevadia has been developed as a wholesome destination with around 30 attractions in and around the Stature of Unity. Some of the major attractions include Jungle Safari, Sardar Sarovar Dam Project, Valley of Flowers, Cactus & Butterfly Garden, etc. Delegates also visited the five gardens inside Arogya Van (Herbal Garden), which exhibits a wide range of medicinal plants and health related landscapes.

Jay Bhatia, Vice President, TAAI, added, “This initiative of TAAI shall ensure members are familiarised with the region to promote Dekho Apna Desh and revive the promotion of domestic and inbound tourism through skilling and personal experiencing.”

Jenu Devan, Commissioner of Tourism and Managing Director, Gujarat Tourism addressed the conclave via live video call wherein he highlighted the initiatives of the government in promoting Gujarat to the world and thanked the TAAI committee for bringing their members to SoU, in Gujarat and also assured full support and encouragement to the members in promoting Gujarat as a wholesome destination.

Devan added, “Gujarat tourism is proud to be associated with the Travel Agents Association of India. Two years ago, we had the vision to develop the entire area of the Statue of Unity for tourists to spend at least two to three nights. Now, there are almost 30 attractions in and around the statue. We have something for everyone and all age group, segments to enjoy. Also, in the recent years a lot of accommodation options have been added and the state is now further investing to develop this destination.”

On day 3, a half day business session was organised which was addressed by Prahlad Singh Patel, Minister of Tourism (I/C), Govt of India, via a video message. He welcomed the initiative of India’s largest and premier travel- tourism association, TAAI, which has set an historic example of positivity due to the changing times. He added that TAAI membership has all aspects of tourism professional organisations and in the coming future the responsibility and challenges shall increase when inbound tourist commences their India visits. TAAI members must be ready with newer ideas and strategies to ensure Tourism to India is facilitated by them in a smooth manner.

Further, the day witnessed three engrossing panel discussions, which very well addressed the challenges and the way forward for the tourism industry.

The first panel discussion was moderated by Jay Bhatia, Vice President, TAAI on Bharat ka Vikas – Empowering Domestic Tourism. The session witnessed panelist including Dr. Achyut Singh Jt. General Manager- Indian Railways (IRCTC), Ajay Kumar Wadhawan, Chief of Sales, Air Asia India, and Past President of TAAI, Balbir Mayal. The speakers gave their views on the changing dynamics in the travel and tourism field of the last few decades and how India shall be a top tourist destination in the world.

The second knowledge session, “Where Winners Play” was moderated by Ashish Gupta, Founder – Strategy Pluto and Conculting CEO, FAITH. The panelists for this session were Rodney Dcruz, Asst. Director, IATA; Bettaiah Lokesh, Secretary General, TAAI and Sunil Kumar Rumalla, President, UFTAA.

Speaking about the relevance of IATA, Dcruz said, “The number of travel agents in India is much more than the total 4417 IATA Agents in the country. The disconnect which the industry feels with IATA is just a perceptional issue. We are not the regulators but just facilitators. We come up with all rules and mandates in consultation with the industry.”

Speaking on behalf of the members, Bettiah said, “When there is an issue, instead of dealing with individual airlines, why should I not deal with IATA, which is the representational body for all refunds. We have over 1000 IATA agents in our association and we don’t see any benefit. We would consider changing our Association’s constitution that IATA accreditation is required.”

Rumalla added, “The Covid crisis has shown the inability of IATA to take care of the travel agents. The travel agent is now merely a bank that is funding airlines. The airlines are using up our money for their operations. Today, we need a zero-risk investment and IATA needs to play a balanced role between the airlines and travel agents.”

The final discussion was moderated by Amish Desai, Karnataka Chapter Chairman, TAAI. The speakers for this session were Parineeta Sethi, Chief Editor & Publisher of Pinnacle Connect, Vasdha Sondhi, MD Om Marketing and Jyoti Mayal, Chairperson Tourism and Hospitality Skill Counsil (THSC). With their expertise in sales, marketing, PR and social media, technology and skill development, the panelist suggested how todays evolving TAAI member must peruse and be empowered with all the skills apart from delivery of service. Mayal also updated on the upcoming initiatives of WITT (Women in TAAI and Travel), where TAAI shall give back to society and empower the women to become entrepreneurs through skilling and work towards making India a safe and secure tourism destination.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to hit hard all sectors with travel and tourism being the hit hardest. Also, with international tourism falling by around 80% in 2020, domestic tourism seems to be one way to stay afloat.

UNWTO highlights the potential of domestic tourism as a way to boost economic and tourism recovery in destinations around the world. They explain that as global travel restrictions begin to ease, destinations all over the world are focusing on the growing domestic travel, with many offering promotions for travelers to meet and visit their own countries as an ideal opportunity for destinations and tourism businesses – in both developed and developing countries – to recover from the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Domestic tourism is helping to soften the blow, at least partially, and governments around the world have taken strategic action to restore and re-activate the sector, while protecting jobs and businesses. Many countries are also now developing measures to build a more resilient tourism economy post covid-19. These include preparing plans to support the sustainable recovery of tourism, promoting the digital transition and move to a greener tourism system, and rethinking tourism for the future.

States have realized the need to prioritize products and destinations that would be of interest in the target market and ensure that these deliver value for money. New segments such as rural, wellness, tribal, adventure, MICE and religious can be developed with a strong focus on the new norms.

India has a robust domestic market which could soften the impact as compared with nations that rely largely on international tourists. India receives 10 million foreign tourists and around 26 million Indians travel abroad each year, spending an estimated US$25 billion. There is a need to incentivize domestic travel to retain these high- spending tourists, which should not be difficult given the international travel restrictions in place.

Current scenario

The revenge travel behavior has kickstarted in the India market, with 2020 being a silent year for avid travellers. In the travel world, social distancing has now become the new mantra. People are now looking at unexplored and less crowded destinations, which naturally provides social distancing, for their next vacation. With very limited international tourism opportunities, travelers are looking at visiting never before heard of destinations within India. Popular leisure destinations are witnessing the usual traffic, but the unexplored markets are now the number one choice destination for travelers.

In a major step, The Ministry of Tourism (MoT) and its field offices has been organising and supporting different tourism promotion events under ‘Dekho Apna Desh’ Campaign showcasing various Domestic tourism assets and products of the country with aim to create awareness among the stake holders and citizens.

Speaking about the potential of domestic tourism, Arvind Singh, Secretary, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, said, “India has a robust domestic market which could soften the impact of COVID 19 as compared with nations that rely largely on international tourists. Post lockdown and as the control over the spread of pandemic is achieved, it is widely agreed fact that domestic tourism will recover faster than international tourism.  Dekho Apna Desh is an initiative of the Ministry of Tourism; the initiative is in line with the appeal of the Prime Minister made from the ramparts of Red Fort on 15th August 2019 in his speech asking every citizen to visit at least 15 destinations by the year 2022, to promote domestic tourism in India which is intended to enhance tourist footfalls in places of tourist interest so as to help develop the local economy.”

However, are destinations prepared to serve the increasing numbers? Are these hidden gems well connected along with accommodation options for travelers? Which are the potential hot destinations, unexplored by major travelers? Can circuits be developed to promote these destinations?

SATTE, South Asia’s largest travel and tourism exhibition which was recently held at India Expo Mart, Greater Noida organised a session titled ‘Domestic Tourism: Exploring unexplored’, to discuss the strategies in promoting domestic tourism and ground realities of the smaller and hidden destinations in terms of infrastructure development and connectivity.

The session was moderated by Himmat Anand, Founder, Tree of Life Resorts and witnessed an eminent panel including Rupinder Brar, Additional Director General at Ministry of Tourism, Govt of India; Jenu Devan, Managing Director & Commissioner of Tourism, Gujarat Tourism; MP Bezbaruah, Former Secretary-Tourism, Govt. of India and Secretary General, HAI; and PP Khanna, President, Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India (ADTOI).        

Look Northeast

The Northeast region of India is still pristine and unexplored. One of the major challenges remains accessibility and perception about the destination. The government has been focusing to develop the seven Northeastern states, but on ground the development is happening at snail’s pace.

Speaking about the challenges in establishing Northeast as a popular tourism destination Bezbaruah, explained, “The Ministry of Tourism has a tagline which says, Northeast is a paradise which is unexplored. I have discussed the challenges in a few meetings before covid-19 pandemic, that how long will it remain unexplored. It has been 20-25 years; the ministry is focusing on promoting the Northeast. There is a serious problem of perception. Fortunately, the geo-political situation around with the neighbours, things have improved a lot. The political issues in the Northeast has come down by 80-90 per cent. This is a good situation for tourism to flourish in the region. Second major issue is connectivity. Connectivity to Guwahati is excellent, but to other Northeast states the connectivity is poor with no airport or helipads. The UDAN scheme changed this to an extent in 2018-19. Due to less connectivity, road travel is the major mode in Northeast. One of the biggest challenges is lack of wayside amenities. Beyond metro cities, accommodation is another major challenge in most of the places. Infrastructure development and PPP is required to grow tourism in Northeast.”

To tackle these challenges the Ministry of Tourism has created a small focus group recently which recently concluded its first meeting.

Brar said, “There are no real-time dialogues, which is the major issue. Everyone talk about the potential of tourism in Northeast but there is no real action on ground. Last month with the approval of the Secretary Tourism, we have created a focus group to actually deliver results. The first meeting of this group took off with 14 participants from the Ministry and the local offices. We have noted down very doable things in the first round. In the later stage we will include other stakeholders as well. Routes need to be connected and accommodations are a major issue in the Northeast. We need to create more and more content to tackle the perception issue. We have discussed with associations that can every month one association organize a reasonable mid-sized event in one of the seven Northeast states? The association can pick the buyers and sellers and the products they want to sell, Ministry will come with financial support and support of the media. UDAN already has a major focus to develop the Northeast connectivity.”

Seven states in the Northeast should come on a common forum and develop a unified strategy to develop tourism in the region. Also, the ministry should collaborate with the Northeast Council to further effectively tackle the challenges.

Bezbaruah added, “Ministry should work with the Northeast Council to develop tourism in this region. We had developed a website for the Northeast Council, which is now almost defunct, this should be revived. We should have a dynamic website for Northeast which should be linked to incredible India website. Also, all the Northeast states should come together and develop a single strategy to grow tourism in the region. Prime Minister has announced a lot of infrastructure in the Northeast and this includes roads, accommodations and further connectivity.

Collaboration is the key

Khanna said, “Synergy is very important to develop domestic tourism in the country. OTAs are a major challenge as they are into unethical practices as they are undercutting the market. We have a good synergy with the government and under the new tourism policy there needs to be a uniformity and a level playing platform for tour operators and the OTAs.

In the last few months, Gujarat has become the hotspot for Association conventions. Gujarat Tourism is partnering with Associations to promote Kevadia as a tourism destination. Gujarat is also looking to partner with nearby states to create itineraries to further tap the domestic tourism segment.

Speaking about the plans, Devan stated, “We wanted to focus on holding more conventions in Gujarat and promote Kevadia as a tourist attraction. So, we have partnered with associations to organize their conventions in Kevadia. MICE tourism was not happening in a full-fledged way in Gujarat despite having excellent infrastructure. Now more and more events, conferences, weddings are happening. In terms of itinerary, 10-15 years ago the tourism corporation had developed an itinerary which started from Ahmedabad to North Gujarat and ended at Udaipur or Jaipur in Rajasthan. These itineraries were very popular and attracting a large number of tourists. This was discontinued due to some reason. Now we have restarted one itinerary to see the impact of it. We have started an itinerary in coordination with the Somnath Trust, which starts from Ahmedabad to Somnath and ending at Diu. Similarly, we are also focusing on travellers coming to Udaipur and Daman & Diu, to attract them to Gujarat. We are now trying to club one more state to our itinerary to attract more domestic tourists to the state.”

State Initiatives

Destinations like Odisha are looking to introduce new products including glamping and caravan tourism, where social distancing can be maintained easily. In an earlier interview, spokesperson from Odisha Tourism, said, “Over 185 crore people travel within the country each year, it is a huge number as compared to the inbound. All the stakeholders and tourism boards need to work hand in hand to tap the outbound travellers into domestic. Every destination should ensure safety and security which will be a key influencer. For Odisha we are focusing on quality tourism, last year we started high end glamping in Konark. This product witnessed an extremely positive response, and we will be expanding this product to many other destinations in Odisha. We will also look at Caravan tourism as people will look at this segment due to social distancing. We are also developing palaces in Odisha for hospitality, which will be a unique experience.”

The Goan economy is heavily dependent on the tourism and hospitality industry. To further restore tourism, the state is reinventing its strategies from time to time. Marketing and technological trend changes, Covid-19 may be a blessing in disguise to take us to the next level.

Spokesperson from Goa Tourism earlier said, “Though it is an unfortunate event for the globe but has opened our eyes and has made us aware about safety and hygiene and healthy practices. We have taken a step and engaged KPMG to come out with a vision document on how we should go ahead, and we have done an extensive survey with all stakeholders.”

Goa is now promoting the Hinterland and eco-tourism aggressively. Also, the state is looking at clean tourism and high-end tourism. We will look at targeting domestic tourism aggressively soon. The state is also aggressively pushing content on its social media handles.”

Similarly, Maharashtra Tourism has taken an aggresse approach on their digital marketing strategy and is looking to revive local tourism and weekend travel.

The state has received protocols from the Minister, and also engaged with KPMG to prepare guidelines for wayside amenities, adventure tourism and cruise tourism as well. Maharashtra is now promoting unexplored destinations in the state and request all citizens to travel to these less crowded destinations to revive tourism.”

In the past few years, India is on a mission to increase its share of the global MICE business which is currently under one per cent. The Ministry of Tourism, Government of India along with majority of the State Tourism Boards have been working hard to put India on the global MICE map. Cities like Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi, Kochi, Ahmedabad, etc have been aiming to be world-class MICE destinations and have been host to various international and domestic events over the years.

Like rest of the segments, the MICE industry has also been hit badly with virtually zero business due to the pandemic. Many of the Indian city-hotels thrive on the corporate and MICE business, which has been cut off.

But the reduced capacities and social distancing norms are playing a major spoilsport for the MICE industry where large gatherings and face-to-face engagement drive the business. The recovery of this segment is set to be slow compared to the other segments.

A recent report by FICCI states, “Experience suggests that business travel has been more vulnerable to crisis compared to leisure travel. Post the 2008-crisis international arrivals recovered in two years whereas international business travel didn’t fully rebound to pre-recession levels until five years after. The lifting of lockdown restrictions, air travel and hospitality have seen a moderate uptake of business travel limited to business-critical activities. It is expected that business travel will return to normalcy gradually and painstakingly in phases.”

During the lockdown period, majority of the companies have switched to various other tech-driven mediums such as MS Teams, Zoom, Amazon Chimes, Google Meet to fulfil their meeting requirements. This posed another question: Will MICE be the same as earlier? Or will there be a major disruption in the MICE movement across the globe?

In terms of the positioning, over the last decade the market share of all regions has remained nearly same. Regionally, Europe hosted more than half of all meetings in ICCA’s last assessment followed by Asia (at 23per cent). Among countries, the United States has held pole position for two decades and the top 20 have remained largely unchanged with countries alternating one or two positions. Among BRICS economies, China has been the front-runner by a significant margin featuring among the top 10 destinations globally, followed by Brazil (#20) and India at #28.

All said, India has the potential to jump to a higher spot if the destination will focus on key factors like upgrading MICE infrastructure, further simplifying the MICE processes, incentivizing MICE, upskilling MICE talents, etc.

Current status

With MICE being one of the worst hit tourism segments, the Government should give all the possible push to restart this potential sector. Both the states and centre along with private players should work in tandem to kickstart MICE and once again regain MICE traveller’s confidence.

Speaking about the policy initiatives, Rakesh Verma, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, said that tourism to be treated as export of goods in terms of taxation has been a long demand. He further added, “The concerned Ministries should look at this for the best possible solution. We have a champion sector scheme where we take care of the taxation to an extent. For restarting of MICE activities, there should be a coordinated approach between Centre and States. The Centre should also lay down protocols for international travel for MICE. State should provide necessary assistance for holding of events. State should also have plans to manage emergencies and panic. It is an important and promising segment in India. Many cities have infrastructure to deliver good experiences. We have five cities which can come in top 100 cities for MICE but currently only 1 is on the list. We have some tier II cities like Khajuraho, Mahabalipuram, etc which can be excellent MICE destinations.”

Presently, the Indian MICE has less than 1 per cent of the global market share. The destination is working towards creating world-class MICE environment. Experts feel that India should have a proper unified bidding system to keep a track of global congresses and events.

Senthil Gopinath, Chief Executive Officer, International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), stated, “India needs to invest on national data centre to track all meetings happening in India. Collection of data becomes a vital pathway in the 5-10-year plan. India needs a proper bidding system with a unified system which will help to rise on the index. We need a unified approach. India is so diversified that there needs to be benchmarking and the amount of events India can host is enormous. We need to identify industries. India should evaluate percentage of bids won and lost every year. Until borders open, we need to focus on national and regional events.”

In the leisure world, India is extremely popular across the globe due to the historical, cultural and traditional offerings. Despite this popularity, the MICE awareness is yet on the lower side. The destination needs to collectively work with the private players to promote the MICE aspects.

Ori Lahav, President, International Association of Professional Conference Organisers (IAPCO), says, “Lot of organisers across the globe don’t know much about India’s MICE offerings; we need to focus on promoting and marketing the destination. Also, bidding process for associations is quite complex, when we bid, we look at lots of parameter. Profit from the meetings is the main aspect. If there is an incentive from the government, it is good but that is not the only reason for selecting. Post covid, the parameters will increase. The confidence will come back from the local MICE markets. Ease of travelling, visas to be friendly, investment in technology in the MICE centres which allows hybrid solutions, contactless solutions will be the key.”

MICE Infrastructure and challenges

In 2020, the major MICE venue’s in the country witnessed only cancellations and postponements and the future was looking bleak without a vaccine in place. In an earlier interaction with T3, Priyanka Reddyar, Head - Venue Sales, HITEX, said, “The global pandemic of COVID-19 has permanently changed the MICE and events industry. The world is fighting the novel coronavirus, and we cannot dismiss the fact that all the industries across the globe have been adversely impacted. At HITEX, we have seen over 60 per cent impact in terms of events being postponed or cancelled. So far, big impact has been seen between March and October of 2020. If the status quo continues, it will be a huge challenge and we will have to get creative and come up with ideas to be future-ready.”

One of the major positives during the lockdown phase has been MICE venues are being more innovative by investing into technology and being ready with hybrid offerings. MICE and convention facilities are now gearing up and adapting digital and technology driven solutions.

Nagesh Chawla, Cluster General Manager, Renaissance Mumbai & Lakeside Chalet – Mumbai, Marriott Executive Apartments, had said, “Whilst we face innumerable challenges, there has been immense development on the innovative and digital front during this entire lockdown, with figuring out alternates and devising new strategies and ideas to comply with the new normal, keeping in mind the government regulations and guidelines. There have been new developments in the Events and F&B domain in the hospitality industry with many things becoming contact-less and digital. Virtual tours are being preferred for Site Inspections rather than personal visits for the show around. I strongly believe that the industry can get closer to recovery, with the measures and strategies followed right now. While gaining confidence of our guests is going to be a slow process, we are accepting that the recovery will be slow, however, are leaving no stone unturned in the meanwhile to ensure maximum recovery and confidence build up.”

India had a few challenges in terms of infrastructure and connectivity which was the key factor for MICE events. Over the last few years, a lot of world-class facilities have been created across the nation which can cater to mega MICE events. The only challenge now remains in terms of unified bidding process and attractive incentivization by the government.

Speaking about the challenges, Prof Rajeev Sood, Founder Dean, ABVIMS & Dr. RML Hospital, said, “Initially few years ago, we weren’t that mature and our Professional Conference Organisers (PCOs) were not capable of bidding internationally. Now there has been some challenges which we have faced, in some destinations there are a lot of incentives which are provided. Government has enough funds in some destinations to support and sponsor delegates also. Awareness needs to be increased; we need to put special efforts. We now have state-of-the-art venues in India. earlier we couldn’t host more conferences where there were more than 3000 people. Associations are being run by leaders and they are proactive, but we need more confidence in promoting our destination while bidding.”

To tackle the challenges the government is working towards strengthening infrastructure under PPP mode. Also, the government is aggressively looking to develop potential Tier II & III cities for MICE tourism. The Ministry of Tourism is also setting up a system for destination management

Speaking about the developments, Verma said, “The public investment in infrastructure is a priority area and every ministry is increasing their budget. We are more focused on destination planning and destination management. We are putting upon a system for destination management. City level bureaus for convention should be introduced to improve the offering and experiences for travellers. We are investing into some iconic destination with best international practices. We are currently developing 19 destinations and in next 2-3 years. We will constantly look at marketing these destinations.”

Key target & deciding factors

To further grow MICE tourism, experts feel that India should have a focused approach for the sector. The destination should focus more towards the top three to five sectors and try and tap the local MICE markets along with inbound.

Globally, the medical sector has been the frontrunners of the MICE events. India being one of the thriving IT hubs, this segment is also key for the nations MICE growth story apart from medical.

Gopinath said, “From a perception of India, medical is a top industry and India is in the forefront. The numbers could be tripled in India if India focuses on this segment. Technology, general retail, are the other sectors which India should focus on. To restart the industry, we need to communicate and collaborate and talk as one voice and the advocacy should be at a very high level.”

Global companies and brands decide upon destination for MICE on various parameters apart from the incentives. With the pandemic, there are a few more parameters in terms of safety and hygiene will be on the radar.

Talking about parameters for selecting a MICE destination, Mick Egberts, Founder, InspireME, stated, “Travellers need to feel the country and the destination and it is very important to have more experiences around the conference. People are looking forward for unique experiences all the more post the pandemic. Designing a programme will be even most important in the future. Technology will be a key aspect in the future conference along with sustainability. India is making progress in terms of sustainability. India has a lot of things to offer and people need to go home with a piece of India in their hearts. Tax and incentives are important, but they are small factors. Economic recovery will be aided by MICE and countries should realise this. For India, financial and insurance are major segments along with Luxury segment.”

The most important factor for MICE tourism remains experience. India offers unmatched culture and heritage and has an array of unique experiences. Despite these, the attractions and experiences, MICE itineraries do not include these unique aspects. Also, there should be a single window for organizing events are unique venues.

Sood added, “We are seeing that India is a great cultural and historical heritage destination. Satellite destinations needs to be developed in India. If in India we need to organise some event in a historical site, it is difficult, which is easily done internationally. This will enhance the experiences. Several cities are now developing convention facilities, but for other integration we need to take some extra efforts to include some attractions. We have satellite destinations which are very promising in India, once we start exploring the available resources, we can bag more events.”

From a venue perspective, convention centres and MICE venues are now looking at smaller events and are adapting various innovative concepts to tap MICE events. In the long-term view, venue players are confident about the MICE business.

Rashmi Kamboj, Cluster Director, of Convention Sales at Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty and Hyatt Regency Thrissur, said, “Profitability would be impacted in the short term, keeping in mind the predictions for future travel and physical meetings. Hotels and venues are reinventing their business models and develop innovative and new revenue streams. Focus is likely to shift to restaurants, small corporate meetings, weddings and social events. Alternate revenue streams such as relevant meeting technology, outdoor catering, customized away-from-office workspaces, laundry packages etc., are coming into the forefront.”

 

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