Pandemic has changed the working models of all industries, including travel and tourism. Travel and tourism was the worst affected sector globally. The ban on travel to contain the spread of virus brought the industry to a total halt. The survival of businesses throughout the tourism ecosystem was at risk without continued government support. Although governments had taken impressive action to cushion the blow to tourism, but it took almost 2 years to restart the industry.
Stakeholders of the industry kept on changing their policy, strategy frequently, even on daily and weekly basis, to the tune of the policies of their respective countries. Their remained total chaos and uncertainty prompting the industry to devise, revise, reorient and transform their travel and other related policies, working and business modules. Most of the activities were transferred to virtual from the physical. Physical and social distancing, touchless, sustainability, digital etc. emerged as major catch words for the world.
However, domestic tourism emerged as a saviour and helped to mitigate the impact on jobs and businesses. But, real recovery will only be possible when international tourism returns to the pre-pandemic level. And, this was the topic of the first panel discussion as the recently concluded 37th annual convention of the Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO) in Lucknow. The session titled ‘Inbound Tourism – What Lies Ahead!’, tried to chalk out the strategy for the inbound tourism sector in India.
India welcomed around 11 million foreign visitors in 2019. This number lowered to 2.74 million in 2020 and just over 1.4 million in 2021 due to the pandemic. However, with pandemic having entered the endemic stage and international travel picking up, Foreign Tourist Arrival (FTA) crossed 4.5 million during Jan – Oct 2022. It is estimated that India will achieve almost 50 per cent of the FTA of 2019.
The pace of the recovery of Indian inbound market at around 50 per cent is slightly lower than the international tourism recovery that reached 60 per cent for Jan – Sept 2022 period. However, inbound operators believe that even this number is mostly on account of business travel and not leisure travellers and tourists.
According to Rajiv Mehra, President, IATO, as far as inbound tour operators are concerned, “We are still getting over the pandemic at the moment. Although the hotels have already come out of the pandemic, but we have not. Inbound is still at 1/3rd of what we used to do in 2019.”
Rakesh Verma, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Tourism, Govt of India, said that the Ministry of Tourism was looking at doubling the 2019 FTA numbers by 2030 before pandemic. “The disruption of Covid is, technically, going to impact. So, the most conservative numbers we are looking at is still 25 million by 2030, but we also have a chance of achieving 30 million by 2030. And, the confidence comes from, 17.9 million international arrivals in 2019 which is just about 1.25 per cent of global tourist arrivals. A country like India deserves much better. So, there is a clear potential for us to increase our share in the global market,” Verma added.
So, what strategy India needs to adopt to achieve this number? Here, the Ministry of Tourism and states have to come together and work collaboratively. Interestingly, states are also geared up to understand the nuances of the international market to increase the number of foreign tourist arrivals.
Inbound tourism is a very serious business and there is a need to understand the need and priorities of the international market, said Sheo Shekhar Shukla, Principal Secretary (Tourism), Govt. of Madhya Pradesh. “Madhya Pradesh is consciously working towards a well-chartered, multi-faceted roadmap. We need to understand the needs and priorities of the international market. Post pandemic, there has been a paradigm shift. People are looking for different kind of products, experiential itineraries. So, we have figured out that depending on the source country, what is that we need to offer, as market assistance is very important. We are positioning ourselves into that mold and branding ourselves to satisfy the demand. We feel that our international presence is very important,” Shukla added.
Mukesh Kumar Meshram, Principal Secretary (Tourism), Govt. of UP, emphasized on storytelling to draw foreign tourists. The state has already been receiving a good number of foreign tourists due to Taj Mahal, Sarnath and other internationally acclaimed destination. Meshram said: “Uttar Pradesh is emerging as a big market for tourism. I visited Loch Ness in the UK. It’s a very small village but telling the story of Loch Ness Monster, doing business in a very big way. Here in UP, every nook and corner, every village, we are full of stories. Not just only Ayodhya, nearby, where Rajasuya Yagya was performed by Raja Dashrath, we have Panchkoshi Parikrama, we have many Sharman. We have Mathura, Vrindavan, Gokul, Barsana, Nandigram, and everything related to the life of Lord Krishna.” There is a need of highlighting the hidden facts about the destinations of UP to the global tourism market, he added.
S R Jadhav, Director, Odisha Tourism, shared that Odisha is on the news for sponsorship of hockey team in India and hosting consecutive two Hockey World Cups. “Odisha is emerging as the sports capital of the country and as an international tourist destination. We focus on extending the average length of stay of tourists by expanding our tourism product basket. Odisha recognizes the importance of the natural heritage that it possesses. Hundreds of foreign tourists, apart from domestic tourists and nature lovers, flock through to see the turtle breeding. These tourists also come to witness the migration of birds to Chilika. Chilika is home to migratory birds of more than 350 species. These birds migrate from 11 countries across the world. We have Chilika Bird Festival. We call it National Bird Festival and it is soon going to be expanded to International Bird Festival every year. It used to be held for three days every year. Next year onwards, we plan to extend it for one month, which will include witnessing breeding,” Jadhav said and added that foreign tourists will not just come to see the state capital.
“The average stay of foreign tourists in the country, the highest is recorded in Rajasthan and the Golden Triangle, is more than 28 days. But in Odisha, the average stay is not more than 3 nights. So, we aim to enlengthen this by adopting the three-prong strategy of infrastructure development, promotion and attracting investment. With these in mind, we have a 10-year eco-tourism roadmap,” Jadhav added.
The government is totally focused on strengthening the overall infrastructure of the country. Airports, roads, last mile connectivity are being developed with rapid pace. Far flung areas of the country are getting connected by air, rail and road. Waterways are also on the government’s radar. With all these, tourism is set to get the maximum benefits.
Verma said that India has scored well on connectivity, infrastructure, digitization and developing destinations, amongst others, indicating a bright future for the country’s tourism industry. “This whole strengthening and development of the supply side gives the confidence that India has a great future. So, what lies ahead is a great future for inbound tourism. Some of our states are very aggressive on developing infrastructure and promotion of tourism and this will result in a better inbound arrival number for the country,” Verma added.
What is more important is that the development of infrastructure is seen in every nook and corner of the country. And, tourism is also not lagging behind. Most of the states have formulated a comprehensive tourism policy to enable the growth of tourism. Uttar Pradesh has formulated new tourism policy that aims to set up a world-class tourism infrastructure, create mass employment opportunities, and attract big-ticket private investments. “We have the largest stretch of river Ganges. So, there are lots of destinations to focus. We are even developing all the destinations. We have identified 5,000 such places and we have already started developing infrastructure at 750 such places. We have completed lots of infrastructure in all these tourist destinations in the last 5-6 years,” Meshram informed.
Similarly, Madhya Pradesh has also a very proactive tourism policy. “We have one of the best tourism investment policies which have got many angles. Apart from only hotels and resorts, we have 16 activities related to tourism like hot air ballooning, ropeways and other many activities. There is a film tourism policy to offer incentives to filmmakers to let them come and shoot in Madhya Pradesh. So, the policy has done quite good to the state. In the last 4-5 years, more than 100 such kind of projects have come up resulting into a development of more than 5000 additional rooms in the state,” Shukla said on the sideline of the convention.
Odisha also adopted a multipronged strategy for the overall growth of tourism. “There are three aspects of the tourism industry: infrastructure, promotion and incentive wise investment and these can’t be separated from each other. If any of these components is absent, tourism sector is bound to fail. It will never grow. Infrastructure can enhance the stories that can engage the tourists. We have 480 km stretch of seacoast, numerous scenic beaches, but what is the use if the tourist cannot enjoy the beach? If they cannot stay there for more than 15 minutes!” Jadhav opined.
Citing example of the Golden Beach, Jadhav asked why will a tourist go there if there is no infrastructure? “If adequate infrastructure is made, the beach could be identified as one of the first ‘Blue Flag’ beaches of the country. Now, the tour operator has a story to sell. This contributes to the infrastructure like the museums, science parks, where the tour operators have a direct and indirect hold to stories to sell,” Jadhav said and added that the tourism budget allocation of the state of Odisha was Rs 80 crores in 2018. The budget outlay that we have proposed for 2023-24 is Rs 600 crores, almost 700 per cent jump, Jadhav said.
Tour Operators: A vital Cog
In Meshram’s word, tour operators are Saarthi who are going to read the entire story to attract the tourists. “Anyone who likes to visit our destination, they are most welcome round the year. Whenever you want to come to UP, just write to us. We will welcome you anytime, anywhere. We are going to organize a FAM tour, first visit all the places, then you decide by yourself that yes, there is immense potential in UP, and whatever requirements you have for the inbound tourists, we are ready to provide it,” Meshram said.
Shukla said that inbound tour operators are major players in positioning the state in overseas markets. “We make sure that Madhya Pradesh is well presented in international travel marts. We also take with us, as a part of our delegation, all the private stakeholders who are doing business with us in MP, whether they belong to MP or others who are marketing MP. We offer them MDA, incentives, to be a part of our delegation. We also do some kind of recce with our international partners to filter all the right kind of tour operators who are working in other countries. And then, we have one-on-one sessions with them. We also make a team that comprises of other stakeholders to have an interaction with them.”
We motivate outbound travel agents of those countries, to include MP in their brochures,” Shukla said and added that until and unless inbound tour operators are not there, we won’t be able to complete the chain.
“We need to understand the necessities, understand the gaps whether these are related to infra, or human resource, and whatever is required to promote inbound tourism in the state, positioning of the state in terms of requirements of those market countries, but the gap has to be filled by people like you (tour operators). So, we are welcoming with open heart, anyone who wants to be a part of the MP delegation, and people who have been participating, in or outside the state. We also offer brochure programs for them as well, whatever materials they are bringing out to adhere to international events. We offer financial assistance also,” Shukla informed.
According to Jadhav, tour operators are the circulation system of the blood of the economy. Tourism promotion cannot happen, unless you make the stories, and sell them. The hotels will not run unless you transport the people to those countries. Economy runs because of the promotions of the tour operators. And, in this regard, we offer certain direct and indirect incentives to tour operators,” he added.
Verma said that tour operators are the most significant part of the tourism value chain, very essential component. Tour operators interface with the customers, market and this is only going to increase. “Post pandemic, I am sure there are structural changes, there are changes in the pattern which are going to emerge and stabilize the tourism sector. You will be the first one to really feel the changes. The way forward will be probably to work with you, with the states, very closely and to make sure that we are able to figure out what are those changes and how we respond to those changes to make sure that our inbound increases and we get back to pre-Covid level as early as possible,” Verma said while urging tour operators to share market intelligence and feedback of the industry with the Ministry of Tourism so that the Ministry’s policies respond to the changes. “Obviously, we have our own way of analysis, data collection, interpretation, but it cannot match what you can bring to the table,” Verma said.
Verma was optimistic that inbound sector will see the full recovery by end 2023. “Some of the data and analysis show that we are recovering the fastest in Asia Pacific region. Earlier predictions were by 2024, that we may have to wait for the full recovery. But now I think most of the industry, they’re optimistic that by the end of 2023 we may be recovering to the pre-pandemic level,” Verma added.