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Murari Mohan Jha

Murari Mohan Jha

The lockdown due to COVID-19 impacted the hotel industry severely. Business were totally shut and hotels had to close its door. However, with drop in cases and availability of vaccines supported people’s desire to travel as part of the revenge tourism, Indian hotels are witnessing a gradual improvement in occupancies at pan-India level.

“There is a definite improvement which we have already started witnessing in our hotels. We are seeing occupancy improving to 30-35 per cent in most of our hotels. We expect occupancy to reach 50 to 60 per cent by end of the year,” Vilas Pawar, CEO, Choice Hotels India, said. He added that while occupancies are improving, the ARRs for the industry is stressed and it will take time to come back to the pre COVID level. “We used to command ARR of Rs 3500 in pre-COVID era across our hotels. The current ARR is Rs 2800,” he mentioned.

Replying to a question over the lower occupancies in hotels in metros, Pawar said that most of the companies across industry have adopted various cost cutting measures like reducing the office spaces, downsizing the team, restricting travel and others. He also mentioned that hotels having higher ARRs in metros are not getting good response from the market. While city hotels are stressed out, most of the resort hotels are performing better than earlier.

Commenting on the prospect for business travel to come back, the work from home culture is going to stay. “COVID -19 has made the company learn that the business can be run by curtailing travel. They have adopted virtual meetings. I think business travel will take a while to bounce back and it will not be at the pre-COVID level in the near future. And, this is a worrying point for the hotel industry,” Pawar opined.

He said that the industry reacted to the change induced by the pandemic by adopting various innovative measure to counter the impact. Hotels have adopted new SOPs to instill confidence among travelers. These SOPs are backed by technologies. “We had to reinvent ourselves. We had to cut down on staff, services and others. Adoption of health, safety and other security measures also increased the operating costs. We had to close few floors and rooms to cut the maintenance cost. The entire industry has faced severe situation,” he added.

On Choice Hotels India, he said that Choice Hotels India maintained its portfolio despite the lockdown. “We have currently 35 hotels in operation. We did not lose any hotel and kept on adding hotels in our portfolio. We opened 3 hotels in 2020 and are expecting to add 8-10 hotels in 2021. These hotels will be opened in Goa, Bodhgaya, Indore, Lucknow and other cities,” he revealed.

He said that like other hotels, Choice Hotels India is also adopting digital for marketing, promotion, and other brand building activities. “Our plan is to use social media and other digital platforms for expanding our reach in the market,” Pawar added. 

In March last year, when destinations were gearing up for the peak summer months the pandemic related shut down dealt a body blow to tourism the world over. Destinations across the world scrambled for measures to save the industry. At first, they adopted a wait-and-watch situation. Thereafter, they soon realised that global travel will come to a standstill for some time to travel restrictions.

Many Indian states took a cue from PM Modi’s Atmanirbhar (self-reliant) campaign and focussed on the domestic market. They went back to the drawing board and drew up tourism policies primarily focussed on the domestic market.

States like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Goa and Jharkhand amongst others unveiled new tourism policies. Several other states/UTs such as Odisha, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and others have adopted new policy initiatives in an attempt to revive and grow the tourism pie.

The measures adopted by states indicate that they are moving forward with initiatives to restart tourism and promote domestic demand. The establishment of health and sanitary protocols, emphasis on clean and safe practices, social distancing etc emerged as a crucial step to restore trust and confidence in the sector.

With domestic tourism gaining ground at the moment, marketing and promotional campaigns, product development initiatives and sops to improve infrastructure and special discounts begin to emerge in a few states.

New tourism policies

In January this year, Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani announced the state’s New Tourism Policy 2021-25 with a view to develop and augment tourism in a sustainable manner. The policy has been framed in the backdrop of the Atmanirbhar Bharat campaign which emphasises on ‘Vocal for Local’ thereby boosting local employment. Rupani added, “the state is gifted geographically. It has hill resorts, natural attractions, beaches, etc in addition to a rich legacy of ancient crafts and civilizations,”

Meanwhile, “the Karnataka Tourism Policy 2020-25 provides a framework for Karnataka’s tourism industry to tide over the immediate crisis and adapt to the new normal and remain healthy and competitive in the global tourism landscape,” B. S. Yediyurappa, Chief Minister of Karnataka, wrote in his foreword in the tourism policy. He added that the tourism sector is an important driver for employment generation.

“The growth of our business activities and tourism sector will bring more visitors to our shores and drive the growth of our cities and regions. We are therefore taking various initiatives with the involvement of stakeholders, both public and private, to foster a more favourable and safer ecosystem for the tourism sector,” he said adding that through the Karnataka Tourism Policy 2020-25 we wish to encourage the investors to invest in the tourism sector by providing a host of incentives and subsidies to facilitate investment in the sector. “I hope that the new tourism policy will go a long way towards improving the tourism sector in the State,” he added.

Another southern state, Andhra Pradesh, also unveiled its new tourism policy in December last year to revamp the outlook and give a paradigm shift to tourism in the state, with a theme- based approach, to make it a premier world-class destination. The Andhra Pradesh Tourism Policy 2020-25 aims at building a robust tourism infrastructure in tune with the ever-changing nature of tourism and promoting responsible tourism practices among all stakeholders.

The Govt of Goa also notified the ‘Goa Tourism Policy 2020’ in November last year with a focus on making the coastal state the most preferred destination around the year for high-spending tourists in India by 2024, and a world-class international tourism destination by 2030. The vision of the policy is to make Goa the most preferred destination around the year for high-spending tourists in India by 2024, and a world-class international tourism destination by 2030.

The Rajasthan Tourism Policy-2020 seeks to promote the state as a leading destination in national and international markets, strengthen and diversify existing products, give priority to lesser-known destinations and improve visitors experience.

Jharkhand has also drafted a new tourism policy focusing more on private investment, employment, tourism promotion and education.

Infrastructure in focus:

The new tourism policies put major thrust on infrastructure development. Almost all states are providing tax incentives to invite private players in order to boost the tourism infrastructure in the state. Currently, many of the Indian states are not equipped infrastructurally to offer the best experiences to the visitors.

One of the objectives of the Goa Tourism Policy 2020 is to develop and promote tourism infrastructure in an environmentally and ecologically sustainable manner through appropriate plans, programs and policies. “Create a more environmentally and socially sustainable tourism destination, where territorial development is more balanced between the coast and the hinterland; employment opportunities are enhanced for local Goans and growth opportunities are created for Small, Medium & Micro Enterprises,” the notification mentioned.

Gujarat, which offers the best infrastructure in the country, has also initiated measure to further strengthen the tourism infrastructure of the state. Rupani announced that the government will give subsidy of 20 per cent on capital investment for setting up a hotel in the designated high priority centers. Minimum investment requirement is Rs.1 crore, while there is no cap on maximum investment. A15 percent subsidy will be given on setting up theme parks or amusement parks in these priority centres with the investment of Rs.50 crore to Rs.500 crore. The state government will provide land on lease in addition to the 15 per cent subsidy for projects of more than Rs.500 crore. According to the new policy, the convention centres with a seating capacity of over 2500, NABH-accredited wellness centers, tourism hospitality and training centers, tents, cottages and container accommodation will also get 15 percent subsidy.

Kerala, which has been on the forefront of tourism in India, launched 27 new tourism projects apart from other infrastructural initiatives. The government has earmarked Rs 310 crore for these 27 new projects. "Once our state, the country and the world survive COVID-19, Kerala will become a tourist paradise again," Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said while inaugurating these projects. He further added that the state has suffered an estimated loss of around Rs 25,000 crores due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Jharkhand tourism policy proposes a 30% subsidy on total capital investment for developing any tourism facilities in Jharkhand. Besides, the policy also aims to generate employment for around one lakh people in the sector through short-term and long-term planning. “Private players were roped in to develop projects on an outsourcing basis. This model can’t be sustainable unless investments are encouraged to take place in this sector for building parks, amusement options, hotels and so on. The new policy aims to be forward-looking, wooing investors to create all-round facilities for tourists,” quoted an official of Jharkhand Tourism.

The Andhra Pradesh Tourism Policy 2020-25 aims at building a robust tourism infrastructure in tune with the ever-changing nature of tourism and promoting responsible tourism practices among all stakeholders. The policy seeks to attract huge private investments through a slew of incentives. The new policy of Andhra Pradesh aims to develop high-end five and seven-star luxury resorts and hotels at prominent tourist destinations in the state. It is reported that Gandikota in Kadapa will have the first such facility soon. Besides, 13 other locations have been identified across the state, including the famous Horsley Hills, Nagarjuna Sagar, Rushikonda (Visakhapatnam), Tirupati and also Polavaram, for construction of five and seven-star hotels and resorts


Expanding reach

The current trend suggests that tourism has been centered to select few destinations in India. The pandemic has necessitated an opportunity for states to promote lesser - known destinations due to measures like social distancing and others. 

Odisha emerged as the most proactive states during COVID-19 and took it as an opportunity to conduct extensive background work to revive tourism. The Eastern Indian state is promoting eco retreat in five unique locations – Konark, Hirakud, Bhitarkanika, Daringbadi and Satkosia, Jyoti Prakash Panigrahi, Tourism Minister of Odisha said on many occasions.

The new thrust on domestic tourism prompted Odisha to launch three road trips to woo travelllers from neighboring West Bengal. The first road circuit, ‘Deep into the Mangroves’, from Kolkata to Bhitarkanika via Bichitrapur Sanctuary & Chandipur (4N-5D), covers key destinations, Bichitrapur Mangrove Sanctuary, Talasari Beach, Chandipur’s Receding Beach, Aul Palace and Bhitarkanika National Park along this route.The second road trip circuit, ‘The Trail of Cascades-Keonjhar’, from Kolkata to Keonjhar – 500 km (3N-4D) covers the Bhimkund Waterfalls, Sitabinji Caves’ fresco paintings, Terracota craft village at Ghatagaon, Gundichaghai Waterfalls, Sanaghagara & Badaghagara Waterfalls and Kanjipani Ghati. The third road trip circuit, ‘Tiger trails and Royalty’ from Kolkata to Similipal – 470 Km (3N-4D) will cover the Belgadia Palace, Similipal Tiger Reserve, Sitakund Waterfall & Ecotourism Zone, Barehipani – India’s second highest waterfall and the Nawana Valley. These trips including many new destinations which were earlier unheard for the travel community.

 “The ‘Odisha by Road campaign’ intends to encourage tourists from within the state as well as from the neighbouring states to travel to various tourist destinations in Odisha through excellent network of roads. Through this campaign, we will promote some beautiful yet not so popular places of attraction which would be further facilitated by the Tourism Department,” Panigrahi said.

The recently launched tourism projects in Kerala includes the development of a hilltop tourist centre at Ponmudi in Thiruvananthapuram to the northernmost district of Kasaragod. Vijayan also inaugurated the Malamel Para Tourism Project at Kollam beach and Thanni beach. A major infrastructural developmental project was inaugurated in Ponmudi. The inauguration of a Rs. 49 lakh beautification projects of the Mooloor Memorial at Elavumthitta in Pathanamthitta district was also done.

While Kerala is sprucing up its tourism destinations, Gujarat’s new tourism policy also aims to develop new attractions in the state. Rupani said that Gujarat has hill resorts, natural attractions, beaches etc in addition to a rich legacy of ancient crafts and civilizations. He said that the state has the world’s tallest statue at Kevadia, Gir National Park, India’s first World Heritage City, world’s biggest stadium, seaplane services, Blue-Flag certified beach apart from religious places like Somanth, Dwarka and Ambaji.

Gujarat’s New Tourism Policy 2021-25 encapsulates various aspects like medical tourism, wellness tourism, MICE tourism, adventure and wildlife tourism, coastal and cruise tourism, rural based experience tourism etc. The state government had recently announced the Heritage Tourism Policy to highlight the ancient palaces and heritage places of kings.

Agri Tourism and Rural Tourism are the core tourism themes of the Karnataka’s Tourism Policy with the objective to promote not just with agriculture and farming activities but also various aspects of rural life in Karnataka such as local cuisine, culture, traditions, arts, etc.

Andhra Pradesh is also diversifying its tourism product portfolio. “We have chosen Rural Tourism, Heritage Tourism, Buddhist Tourism, Eco-Tourism, Beach and Water Tourism, Recreation and Adventure Tourism, Religious Tourism, Cuisine Tourism, Wellness Tourism, MICE Tourism and Medical Tourism,” Rajat Bhargava,Special Chief Secretary (Tourism and Culture), Govt of Andhra Pradesh, quoted as saying.

Other Indian states have also taken similar initiatives. Apart from infrastructure, states are also focusing on creating awareness through various marketing and promotional activities. Many of the states have already launched their campaigns on various media channels such as radio, social media and other digital marketing platforms to woo tourists from domestic market.


While policy solutions are needed to enable the tourism industry to live alongside the COVID-19 in the short to medium term, it is important to look beyond this and take steps to learn from the crisis, which has revealed gaps in government and industry preparedness and response capacity. It is necessary to have a coordinated action across governments at all levels and the private sector.

The crisis is an opportunity to rethink tourism for the future. Tourism is at a crossroads and the measures put in place today will shape the tourism of tomorrow. Governments need to consider the longer-term implications of the crisis, while capitalising on digitalisation, supporting the low carbon transition, and promoting the structural transformation needed to build a stronger, more sustainable and resilient tourism economy.

With 2020 labelled as the ‘pandemic year’ that witnessed all sort of unfortunate developments due to the ongoing health crisis, the rolling out of vaccines has brought much needed relief to every industry in the world including travel and tourism industry. 2020 will count among those which left an indelible mark on the course of history. The damage done to the tourism industry due to COVID-19 is beyond imagination and its spill over to 2021 is still a major concern. Experts of the industry feels that 2021 is likely to be the year when the world transitions to the next normal.

Going by the latest update, UNWTO expects international arrivals to decline by 70 per cent to 75 per cent for the whole of 2020. In this case, global tourism will have returned to levels of 30 years ago, with one billion fewer arrivals and a loss of some US$ 1.1 trillion in international tourism receipts. This massive drop in tourism due to the pandemic could result in an economic loss of US$ 2 trillion in world GDP.

T3 interacted with some of the thought leaders of the industry and all of them are of the opinion that the way forward is of cautious optimism.

Market dynamics

The industry had to move with speed and in the face of uncertainty in a way that it never anticipated before. Although there is optimism in the air, but a lot will hinge on how the thing unfold on the economy front.

“While a combination of lockdown fatigue and announcements on the vaccine have ushered in positive consumer sentiment, the road ahead will be one of cautious optimism for the sector at large,” says Madhavan Menon, CMD, Thomas Cook (India).

Rakesh Bansal, CEO, Amadeus India & sub-continent says that although it is too early to talk about life after COVID-19, as we entered into 2021 we have reason to be cautiously optimistic. “Breakthroughs in bioscience and medicine are helping to reduce the risks of contamination and limit the spread of the virus better than ever before. This is good news for everyone and particularly those who long for the freedom to travel. Helping travellers get safely back on the road, in the air, on the railways and into hotel rooms is a top priority for the industry. We’re seeing a growing number of industry initiatives from stakeholders such as The Commons Project and IATA’s Travel Pass,” Bansal adds.

Sandeep Dwivedi, Chief Operating Officer, InterGlobe Technology Quotient, opines that the industry is currently at the transition point both in terms of COVID-19 crisis and overall advancement in the sector. “Old methods are gradually shifting as market is advancing towards new methodologies, technologies and opportunities. With customers expressing interest in travelling and out-of-home activities, businesses in the industry have actively started innovating to bring safer, convenient options to meet this demand. On a broader scale, including international travel and global condition, various factors are at play, such as low GDP growth, especially below forecast for many economies; web meetings reducing the demand for business travel, further expected to be impacted by up to 35 per cent; and new waves of outbreaks restricting international movement as to the UK,” Dwivedi says.

Dwivedi further opines that while gradual lifting of restrictions may show signs in first quarter of 2021, yet the situation is skeptical and at the same time dynamic, and it may take up to 12 months for all restrictions to be lifted. “All this throws light at a slow but steady revival of low-scale out-of-home activities in what I call a testing-phase from customers,” Dwivedi adds.

According to Kerrie Hannaford, Vice President Commercial, Accor India & South Asia, travel decisions currently are being led by keeping safety and hygiene as prerequisites. “The hospitality industry will remain dynamic but will now be extra cautious, agile and innovative. Hotels are also undergoing a transformation with the deployment of digital, contactless solutions and potential design changes because of changing social behaviour and health considerations. We firmly believe that every crisis presents itself with opportunities. Domestic tourism is rebounding, sustainable travel is in focus more than ever before along with the emergence of experiential travel,” Hannaford adds.

Road ahead

Although cautious optimism is prevailing in the industry, the road ahead for the industry is full of uncertainty. Players are of the opinion that it will take time for the industry to get back to normal.

“My expectation is that 2022 will see a return to normalcy if I were to look at 2019 and 2023 will be a full-blown return to normalcy in each of our of line businesses. With regards to retail travel, I expect that when borders opened and the regulations regarding arrival at destinations as well as issuance of visas is clarified, we should see travel. As fast as business went away, I would hope that we would see a quicker return. 2021/2022 should see a degree of normalcy and 2022/2023 will see a full-blown return to normalcy,” Menon says adding that we can certainly expect more positive news in 2021 for the industry as Indians are already making their travel plans and are looking at both domestic as well as international destinations.

Dwivedi is looking at a coordinated recovery in 2021 and beyond, considering outbreaks subside in 2021 with substantial success rate of public health measures, and GDP grows in line with forecasts following availability of vaccine/s. “Further, if international restrictions are lifted 20-30 per cent faster, there shall be an optimistic growth in sight. In case of customer sentiment, expectation shall remain high on better safety with modified interiors in hospitality sector, and scientific upgrades in aviation as well as airports,” Dwivedi adds.

According to Hannaford, 2021 is looking positive in terms of bookings and Accor is hopeful that the industry will emerge stronger and provide seamless hospitality to our guests. “The ongoing trend of domestic leisure travel will keep prospering in India especially for weekend getaways, staycations, drivecations and celebrating special occasions. People want to step out of their house to simply relive the joys of travelling and relax. The overdue pent-up demand to travel has further resulted in a rise in number of bookings from the leisure segment,” Hannaford adds.

Menon opines that while booking trends for domestic travel continue, we are seeing a growth in demand for travel to longer haul destinations like Kashmir and the Andaman. “Our survey revealed that 71 per cent respondents displayed confidence in air travel and this has been substantiated by the increased demand for flight-inclusive packages,” Menon adds.

Bansal says that the success of the travel industry hinges on our collective ability to adapt, innovate, and collaborate to make travel easier, safer and more seamless than ever before. “Fortunately, the travel industry is chockfull of creative thinkers from all over the world, and our technological abilities have never been greater. Pre-COVID, the travel industry contributed approximately US$8.9 trillion to the world’s GDP – that’s roughly 1 in 10 jobs. This attests to the powerful human desire to explore the world. In 2021, this desire will remain undimmed – if not brightened –and will act as a powerful driver that will push the travel industry forward,” Bansal adds.

Citing Thomas Cook India and SOTC Travel jointly released Second Holiday Readiness Report (Dec 2020), Vishal Suri, Managing Director, SOTC Travel says that 73 per cent respondents are willing to increase spends to ensure higher levels of health and safety on their holiday – a significant 38% increase from the First Holiday Readiness Travel Report (May 2020). “The upcoming year has many weekends that can be clubbed with other holidays that make weekends longer. We are observing a rise in inquiries and bookings for these long weekends,” Suri adds.

Aditya Agarwal, Head of Corporate Strategy, Cleartrip opines that the pandemic has made forecasting challenging. “We expect the broad trend around recovery to continue moving forward. Customers were initially traveling for only emergency purposes close to the date of travel. However, over time we have seen confidence return as evidenced by the increasing share of round trips and advance bookings. We expect this trend to continue over the year further. We will increasingly see customers building confidence to travel longer distances, and as and when international travel returns to normalcy, we will see more volumes,” Agarwal adds.

Digitalisation: A game changer

With touchless becoming the new norms, digitalization is emerging as the key elements for the travel and tourism industry. Bansal expects that airports in in India is going to introduce new technologies and a greater level of automation to all of their processes in then ear future. “Contactless technologies are likely to become commonplace to enable passengers move from check-in to boarding in a more safe and seamless way. We also expect airports to adopt a range of technologies to reduce crowds and queues within the terminal buildings, to meet new demands for social distancing. The introduction of off-site passenger handling services – such as check-in and bag drop services outside the airport terminal at railway stations, conference and sporting venues, and hotels – is likely to be one such development,” Bansal adds.

Citing a recent study, Bansal says that that technology plays a crucial role in supporting recovery, as over 4 in 5 (84%) travellers said technology would increase their confidence to travel in the next 12 months by addressing concerns around mixing with crowds, social distancing and physical touchpoints. “Hence, mobile applications, self-service portals, contactless payments & transactions etc. would be the focus in the coming times,” Bansal adds.

According to Menon, technology was mission critical and technology solutions were immediately implemented post lockdown to serve our customers. “We deployed our Virtual Outlets and our Virtual Agency Network to enable contactless services to customers by equipping our teams (sales and servicing) with technology - to interact with consumers, as also access our critical internal systems for seamless delivery,” Menon adds.  He says that one of the key trends driving digitalisation in the travel industry is the need for safe, contactless, yet personalized holiday planning.

Agarwal says that the pandemic has accelerated the shift from offline to online across markets. “We expect digital business models to benefit from this shift and garner a higher market share. Travel behavior has also changed, with customers placing a high degree of emphasis on flexibility and safety in travel. Industry participants that can differentiate on these two needs will also garner a disproportionate share,” Agarwal adds

Hannaford opines that guests have become more tech-savvy during the lockdown and digital interaction has gained popularity now more than ever before. “The hospitality industry has been aggressively embraced technology; Starting from booking the room, to check-in, check-outs and payment procedures. Consumers also are preferring emails, digital posters, digital menus for all the communication,” she adds.

Echoing similar opinion, Rohit Kapoor, CEO, OYO India and South Asia, stated, “In 2020, we leveraged technology in a big way by offering meaningful solutions to our consumers, partners and employees in the new normal. We focussed on continuously delivering a high-quality experience to our customers as part of our ‘Sanitised Stays’, ‘Contact-less check-ins’ and ‘Sanitised Before Your Eyes’ initiatives while adding value to the experience of our asset partners with improved occupancy and revenue.”

For Dwivedi, digitally, race for offering advanced smartphone applications and chatbot facilities has been swifter than the other areas. “Many airports and airlines are picking this trend. Voluntary contact tracing by airlines is another emerging trend; its mass acceptability and adaptability is yet to be witnessed. At ITQ, we are planning to offer digitally advanced experience and options to our community of travel agents with chatbot and AI-ML based tools for better experience and augmented decision making to help our travel agents offer smoother, smarter and safer services to their customers,” Dwivedi adds.

MICE, social events & business travel

Hannaford informs that the hospitality industry is operating in a new reality with social distancing as the norm and in increased emphasis on health safety. “With the continuous focus on providing contactless services, hospitality industry has ventured into virtual events and weddings. This new trend in the MICE segment has already started attracting the eyeballs. However, weddings have been resilient, with continuous demand through the pandemic. At several of Accor’s hotels, we witnessed a rise in demand for curated and virtual weddings,” Hannaford says adding that Accor is also expecting an increase in bookings of small meeting rooms.  “Business travel will take some time to recover as people are still working from home and only travelling for unavoidable meetings only. However, we are positive that this segment will also recover gradually like others in the coming year,” she adds.

Thomas Cook (India)’s MICE teams have used the period of the lockdown to reimagine business and to conceptualise vibrant virtual/ digital models and platforms, advanced health and safety measures as well as new age technologies. “Our teams have successfully delivered exciting hybrid models and digital R&R events…We are proud of the impactful service our Corporate Travel teams were able to deliver handling the repatriation of around 10000 Canadian citizens in partnership with the Canadian High Commission during the period of the lockdown,” Menon reveals.

According to Dwivedi, business travel is one category with low signs of recovery and is expected to display baby steps towards revival in early 2021. “The year may witness gradual move towards business travel, especially in manufacturing sector where factory-visit has been long overdue. MICE may pick up for key sectors in current times like medical, banking, and technology. As these industries cover a substantial space in global marketplace, this sector shall see positive growth in 2021, comparing to 2020. Social events still remain a complex area to speculate considering new waves of outbreaks in various markets, especially Europe. This may likely portray limited growth and may shift for better when positive news regarding vaccine emerges in near future,” Dwivedi adds. 

Madhavan Menon, Chairman and Managing Director, Thomas Cook (India) speaks to T3 magazine about the current scenario and the way forward.

How would you explain the current market dynamics for travel, tourism and hospitality industry?

While a combination of lockdown fatigue and announcements on the vaccine have ushered in positive consumer sentiment, the road ahead will be one of cautious optimism for the sector at large.

As a leader, we at Thomas Cook have taken this challenge head-on and put together a holistic three pronged customer confidence-building program that we call “Assured-Insured-Secured” that covers every aspect of physical safety as well as mental and financial security to give the customer the peace of mind we ought to. Our “Thomas Cook Assured” Safe Travel Program developed and rolled out in association with Apollo Clinics (part of one of the most trusted healthcare networks in the country) is the most comprehensive set of travel safety protocols in the new normal, encompassing not only our own internal processes, retail outlets etc., but also every one of our partners and service providers. We have extended this partnership with Apollo Clinics to offer a Doctor on Call 24x7 service for our customers when they travel.

Customers may still feel the need to be reassured about what happens, if they still fall ill when they travel. So we in partnership with ICICI Lombard the country’s largest private insurer, have them fully covered with possibly the most comprehensive retail travel insurance program that includes COVID 19 related hospitalization up to their sum assured

As part of the “Secured” aspect - to ensure their confidence, from a money and security point of view, we offer flexible date changes, rescheduling, cancellations and even guaranteed, accelerated refunds (subject to certain minimum criteria)

We also have launched the country’s first “Safe Holiday Helpline” to offer free expert consultation and advice to help customers navigate the maze of confusing and changing information about state regulations, International travel guidelines, etc, to instill confidence and make the best and safest choice for their travel plans.

My expectation is that 2022 will see a return to normalcy if I don’t look at 2019 and 2023 will be a full-blown return to normalcy in each of our of line businesses. With regards to retail travel, I expect that when borders opened and the regulations regarding arrival at destinations as well as issuance of visas is clarified, we should see travel. 

As fast as business went away, I would hope we that would see a quicker return.  To me 2021/2022 a degree of normalcy and 2022/2023 a full blown return to normalcy.

What is in the store for the industry in 2021? What is the booking trend look like?

Come 2021, we can certainly expect more positive news for the industry. Indians are already making their travel plans and are looking at both domestic as well as international destinations. Our survey that 52% of respondents stated that they are likely to take a domestic holiday while 48% of respondents likely to take an international holiday.


While booking trends for domestic travel continue, what is encouraging is that while customers were earlier restricting their bookings to close-to-home staycations/drivecations, we are seeing a growth in demand for travel to longer haul destinations like Kashmir and the Andaman. Our survey revealed that 71% respondents displayed confidence in air travel and this has been substantiated by the increased demand for flight-inclusive packages.

While destinations such as Dubai and Maldives are leading the growth trajectory when it comes to international travel, given the easing of restrictions and the positive consumer sentiment due to the vaccine announcements, we have already started seeing a steady increase in both bookings as well as queries for other international destinations such as Egypt and Kenya as well. We have also seen an uptick in demand for Bali during the months of February-March as travellers anticipate the re-opening.

Digitalisation is the way forward for the industry. What trends do you have noticed? What is your digital strategy for 2021 for IHS?

Technology was mission critical and technology solutions were immediately implemented post lockdown to serve our customers. We deployed our Virtual Outlets and our Virtual Agency Network to enable contactless services to customers by equipping our teams (sales and servicing) with technology - to interact with consumers, as also access our critical internal systems for seamless delivery. 

As a group, we have in the past continuously scaled our digital knowledge and business applications and used it as an enabler for growth. COVID-19 has reiterated the importance of technology in business as the lockdown demanded digital capabilities to be enhanced. We are not only consistently imbibing new technologies for innovation but also for simplification and optimization of core processes with a view to create a deeper understanding of all stakeholder expectations and enhancing their experience

Given the lockdowns and the current situation, the demand for virtual and contactless sales and service has accelerated. Based on customer feedback, one of the key trends driving digitalisation in the travel industry is the need for safe, contactless, yet personalized holiday planning. Our survey also revealed that given the prevailing uncertainty, Indians need human interface for guidance/reassurance in today’s COVID-19 era. A significant 71% respondents stated that they require guidance of a holiday expert and preferred to visit an outlet/Virtual Store/video chat while planning their holidays.

We also introduced India’s first Virtual Holiday Store to empower customers with contactless and convenient holiday planning, coupled with a personalized experience of our holiday experts.  For our foreign exchange branches too, through our unique Virtual Branch model we will continue to facilitate contactless customer servicing. We have also operationalized a Corporate and B2B Booking Tool - to extend reach and seamless transactions.

The demand for digitization also allowed us to use the period of the lockdown to reimagine our MICE business completely - with virtual event platforms, advanced health & safety measures & new age technologies. An innovative product line of Gourmet Genie & Experiential Concierge was launched. Digital R&R events were successfully completed for top corporates in addition to physical events.

To support our Corporates, our Business Travel process was redeployed as an off-site model with bots for invoicing, refunds, streamlined processes & automated credit flow on a single platform. Our model of Centralized Service Delivery Hubs will ensure seamless remote delivery.

Technology will continue to play a crucial role and come 2021, our strategy will be to continue to leverage its use in our outreach to the customer as also continue to focus on technology driven initiatives.

How is MICE, social events and business travel shaping up?

Given the restrictions, our MICE teams have used the period of the lockdown to reimagine business and to conceptualise vibrant virtual/ digital models and platforms, advanced health & safety measures & new age technologies. Our teams have successfully delivered exciting hybrid models and digital R&R events- our digital platform allows seamless engagement across a variety of business functions and can be scaled up to include over 100000 attendees, with every aspect of it being customizable. We have launched a series of innovative product lines under our #NextinMICE offering: an exclusive selection of travel vouchers, digital events & engagements, experiential venues, Meetings Round the Corner, Staycations, Gourmet Genie (from exclusive dining experiences to delivering choicest sweetmeats/savouries at one’s doorstep), Experiential Concierge (dedicated concierge services with specially curated experiential holidays) and strategic communication & collateral design.

We are proud of the impactful service our Corporate Travel teams were able to deliver handling the repatriation of around 10000 Canadian citizens in partnership with the Canadian High Commission during the period of the lockdown.

To support our Corporates, our Business Travel process was redeployed as an off-site model with bots for invoicing, refunds, streamlined processes & automated credit flow on a single platform. Our model of Centralized Service Delivery Hubs will ensure seamless remote delivery. 44 clients of the recently acquired dnata Travel’s corporate travel portfolio have been integrated with the business unit.

F&B, workation, staycation etc are emerging as revenue earner. What is your take on this?

During the period of the lockdown and subsequent easing of travel restrictions, our teams ensured that a strategic focus was given to product development. As they adapted and created products as part of the new normal and basis the consumer’s wish-list, an exciting new range of holidays were launched such as workations, staycations, drivecations, affordable luxury holidays, etc. These quick breaks were created to counter the stress of work from home and home chores and at convenient short drivable distances/within their city of residence and also celebrate special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries. We witnessed a significant uptake for such holidays and we expect to see a continue demand. However, while short driveable holidays were preferred post lockdown, our survey revealed to us that only 29% respondents now show preference for road travel with 71% respondents displaying confidence in air travel, which is truly encouraging when it comes to planning holidays. This has also been substantiated by the increased demand for flight-inclusive packages.

With an aim to drive safe & hassle-free travel experience, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA), introduced a unique technology that provides results for COVID-19 in just 13 minutes. The testing facility option is available for all international arriving passengers at the airport. The 24 x 7 testing facility is located at Level 2 near exit Gate B.

In compliance with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) standards, CSMIA is the first airport to adopt the express test method by Abbott ‘ID Now’.  The express test is available at INR 4500 and aims to provide arriving passengers with quick & accurate diagnosis in 13 minutes. Passengers can also opt for regular RT-PCR test which takes around 6 - 8 hours for the result.

The rapid molecular testing technology by Abbott is a tool to help fight the pandemic by allowing fast, highly sensitive and accurate diagnosis. Reducing the wait time for reports and provides early detection of the virus in time for passengers to take necessary measures to prevent disease transmission. Thus, creating a safer environment for travellers and airport staff.

The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered severe blows to the aviation industry which has already been under pressure due to various issues. Unprecedented travel restrictions throughout the first half of 2020 have forced aviation operations to all-but grind to a halt as both the leisure and business travel felt the full force of a global lockdown. The whole aviation ecosystem has been impacted by this crisis since the fear of virus forced the world to remain isolated. The crisis is growing longer and deeper than anybody could have imagined.

According to IATA, airlines burned through $51 billion in the June quarter and will burn through $77 billion in cash during the second half of 2020 (almost $13 billion/month or $300,000 per minute) despite the restart of operations. This makes up nearly 80 per cent of $162 billion of bailout money they have already received and airlines will not return to pre-COVID traffic levels until 2024 . The slow recovery in air travel will see the airline industry continuing to burn through cash at an average rate of $5 to $6 billion per month in 2021, IATA forecasts.

Another global agency, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), in its latest report, has projected international and domestic aviation could take up to a US$399 billion hit, in terms of gross passenger revenue for the first quarter alone. While the global situation is quite alarming, the situation in India is not any better despite the growth in domestic passenger post lockdown. In India, the domestic traffic has reduced from 5,85,30,038 during March-July 2019 to 1,20,84,952 during March-July 2020.  The revenue of Indian carriers has reduced from Rs 25,517 crore during April-June 2019 to Rs 3,651 crore during April-June 2020. Airport operators also saw their revenues decline to ₹894 crore in the June quarter of 2020 from ₹5,745 crore a year earlier.

Consultancy firm CAPA India estimated that Indian airlines are expected to report consolidated losses of $6-6.5 billion this fiscal and an estimated $4.5-5 billion of funding will be required to overcome the covid-19 crisis. Meanwhile, Indian carriers have asked the government to set up an interest-free line of credit of at least $1.5 billion for the aviation sector.

Thought leaders of the industry feels that there would be fewer players as the industry is all set to witness consolidation in near future. They predict that COVID-19 would make airlines more resilient as most airlines are restructuring in a very positive way.

Optimism in the air

However, airlines are optimistic with a hope that coming months will bring some respite. “As the world starts to adjust to the next phase of the pandemic and international borders gradually re-open, we are optimistic this will bring some stability for global travel demand to return. We look forward to resuming passenger services to India when it is commercially and operationally feasible to do so. In the meantime, we will continue to support repatriation flights to/from the country including Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Thiruvananthapuram - facilitating travel and helping stranded Indians return home,” Jabr Al-Azeeby, Vice President -  India & Nepal, Emirates Airline said. Emirates operate passenger services to more than 90 destinations via Dubai and is committed to fully restoring its network.

The Indian aviation industry is witnessing a continued recovery in domestic passenger traffic since the opening up of the service. The domestic market saw a 37 per cent growth in traffic to 39 lakh passengers in September over August 2020. The increase in capacity deployment helped airline in attaining the growth. However, it will take time to come back at pre-COVID level.

We believe that it may take anywhere between 12-18 months to recover from the current situation and come back to the Pre-COVID levels of travel demand, also depending upon how other countries resume their international operations and how receptive are they towards international travellers. However, we do foresee a rise in demand at the onset of the festive season, with people travelling by air to meet their family and friends and with air travel being the safest mode to travel, this will also contribute to the overall rise in demand,” Sanjay Kumar, Chief Strategy and Revenue Officer, IndiGo, said and added that travel demand has shown consistent growth after the opening of the domestic markets since May 25, 2020. “We have seen a positive trend over the first 100 days of resumption of operations post the lockdown including the steadily rising PLF, unit revenue and future bookings on the back of increasing customer confidence in air travel.  We are bullish that our passenger loads  will grow with the increase in capacity across our network,” he said and hoped that if the regulation around the various states becomes consistent and more liberal in terms of rules and regulations, we should see much faster growth in passenger numbers.

Vistara too is augmenting its operation to come back to pre-COVID level. “Since the resumption of operations, we have been constantly monitoring passenger demand and have been scaling up our operations in a calibrated manner. We are operating at over 50 per cent of our pre-COVID capacity, connecting 27 domestic destinations (as on 08 October 2020). We plan to further scale it up to 60 per cent of our pre-covid capacity in the coming weeks, which is the capacity allowed by the Ministry of Civil Aviation,” a Spokesperson of Vistara said. Vistara was operating operating close to 200 flights daily in the domestic sector before pandemic.

Instilling confidence

With demand from passenger gradually going up, all these carriers are incorporating innovations in its overall operations to infuse confidence among travelers. “We introduced our Lean Clean Flying Machine initiative, aimed to educate our passengers about the steps being taken for their safety and safety of others, once air travel resumed in May to enhance their confidence in air travel,” Kumar said highlighting the findings of their survey that says 95 per customers prioritize health and wellness of the airline staff, while 92 per cent feel that sanitation and safety protocols by airlines need to be in place. Personal safety kits (90%) and contactless travel experience (89%) were next on priority. “As an industry we have done well in communicating all our safety measures and protocols across platforms, with almost 93% of travellers being aware of them,” Kumar said and shared that indigo added the 6E Double Seat option, for a single passenger to book 2 adjacent seats for added emotional security based on the customer demand. Moreover, airlines are also providing complementary travel insurance globally. “Additionally, IndiGo’s travel assistance has hospitalization benefits along with coverage for COVID-19. Complementary travel insurance is being provided by Karvat Cover-More Assist Private Limited underwritten by Bharti Axa General Insurance,” Kumar revealed that IndiGo has re-started Tiffin services through pre-booking.

According to Vistara, safety and hygiene will continue to be key considerations for customers and technology will play a key role in ensuring that throughout the passenger’s journey. “At Vistara, we were already on our digital transformation journey which has only been fast tracked due to the pandemic. Initiative taken by Vistara like casting of kiosk screens on passenger mobile, scan & fly, Self-tagging, self-baggage drop, self-boarding, e-gates, biometrics/face recognition, e-boarding passes and bag tags are all touchless solutions which will go a long way to build confidence in flying again.  We also launched an integrated campaign #FlyingFeelSafeAgain, aimed at generating awareness about air travel being the safest mode of travel during the Covid-19 crisis and informing customers about the airline’s various initiatives, “the Spokesperson added.

Emirates too always placed customers first and their top priority is also the health and safety of the communities we serve. “We know customers are yearning to fly and we are very proud to lead the way in boosting confidence for international travel. We modified our services to mitigate risk of infection, ensuring we always keep in line with the latest hygiene and safety protocols made by authorities and health experts. We were also the first airline in the world to offer free, global cover for COVID-19 related costs. Customers can now travel with confidence, as Emirates will cover medical expenses of up to EUR 150,000 and quarantine costs of EUR 100 per day for 14 days, should they be diagnosed with COVID-19 during their travel, while they are away from home. This cover is immediately effective for customers flying on Emirates until 31 December 2020 and is valid for 31 days from the moment they fly the first sector of their journey,” Al-Azeeby said.

Emirates also revised their booking policies to offer customers peace of mind while planning their travels. “Customers who purchase an Emirates ticket for travel on or before 31 March 2021, can enjoy generous rebooking terms and options, if they have to change their travel plans. Customers have options to change their travel dates, extend their ticket validity for 2 years, or convert their ticket into a travel voucher to use against any future flight-related purchase for themselves or their family and friends,” he said.

Sluggish demand from corporate travel

Despite all health and safety measure, traveler’s confidence are still low. While leisure and essential travel is taking place, although in slower pace, corporate/business travel is yet to be back to the market, not even with slower pace. Business travel contributes substantially in airlines’ overall business.

According to Al-Azeeby, corporate travel is heavily dependent on the reopening and recovery of economies across the world. “While some businesses may continue to use virtual meetings, we are optimistic corporate and leisure travel will resume as the world adjusts to the next phase of the pandemic. We’re currently seeing a positive trend in MICE travel across parts of Asia, which is a very positive sign of economic recovery. However, these are still early times.  For us, we remain committed to serving our customers and we hope to resume our full complement of services and destinations as quickly and safely as the situation allows,” Al-Azeeby said.

Vistara also feels that a slow but consistent increase in business travel can be observed as people have started going back to their place of work. “In our customer study concluded in June 2020, 65 percent of the respondents mentioned that they expect to take their next Vistara flight before December 2020. 35 percent of the respondents expected to fly for business while 25 percent of them indicated that they would fly to visit their friends and relatives,” the Spokesperson informed.

Humanitarian measures

Airlines across the globe have adopted various humanitarian measures to support a larger section of the society by giving complimentary tickets to health professionals, teachers or by extending other kind of support.

In order to contribute towards the society and help our nation in these difficult times, IndiGo operated cargo flights to ferry vital supplies and Vande Bharat repatriation flights for stranded Indian citizens. “We transported medicine, equipment and relief supplies from one part of the country to another, while adhering to all the precautionary measures. In addition to this, we also created the first ever blood plasma corridor to save the life of a patient suffering from COVID-19. The plasma units were transported on IndiGo CarGo from Bengaluru to Srinagar via connecting flights,” Kumar informed.

Community services is deep-rooted in Vistara’s culture and the airlines strongly believes in giving back to the local communities they operate in. “As part of our ongoing efforts, we had launched the Vistara Wellness Initiative in April this year by collaborating with Indian Hotels Company Limited (IHCL) to distribute over 50,000 long shelf-life nutritious food items to the frontline health workers. Since then, we have been able to distribute over 100,000 nutrition and sanitisation items to thousands of people across the country,” Vistara Spokesperson informed.

Emirates too kept communities connected through repatriation flights and cargo operations. “While waiting for borders to re-open, we actively engaged with embassies and consulates to support repatriation of stranded travellers and citizens, including our special flights to India. We also scaled up our SkyCargo network to maintain trade lanes and movement of essential goods across the world,” Al-Azeeby said and added that Emirates ensured an adequate flow of critical supplies such as pharmaceutical products, and perishables.

Despite all these challenges, airlines are keeping connect with the trade partners regularly. “We are grateful for our trade partners across the world who continue to play a vital role in our operations and success and we look forward to supporting and strengthening such crucial ties,” Al-Azeeby said. The pandemic has severely impacted all aspects of the travel industry and travel trade is a very integral part of it. “We have tried to maintain constant and transparent communication with our trade partners as we are collectively trying to re-build demand in the market,” the Vistara Spokesperson said.

We all know that rising to the challenges of a crisis is nothing new to airlines and the broader aviation, travel and tourism sector. Just as the industry has overcome past health epidemics, economic recessions, unfortunate safety incidents, and other debilitating events, it too will overcome the COVID-19 crisis.

The Republic of Indonesia has become the first signatory of the Framework Convention on Tourism Ethics, the landmark instrument created to ensure global tourism is fair, inclusive, more transparent, and works for everyone.

The ceremony, hosted by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in Madrid, is a significant step towards the ratification of the Convention, which was adopted during the 23rd meeting of the UNWTO General Assembly in September 2019. With the sector currently facing up to the biggest crisis in its history, today’s signing was a clear sign that Member States are looking to UNWTO for firm leadership and remain committed to its mission to use this pause as an opportunity to realign tourism.

The Convention was hailed as a “big step forward” towards introducing a universal, legally binding ethical code for tourism, one of the world’s most important socio-economic sectors. In a special ceremony attended by the country’s Ambassador to Spain Bapak Hermono and hosted at the UNWTO headquarters, Indonesia became the first country to sign, signalling its strong commitment to uphold the highest ethical principles as it expands its tourism sector.

Indonesia played an important role in the drafting of the Convention as part of the Committee that converted the Global Code of Ethics in Tourism into an international legally binding instrument.

South Asia, which is expected to see nearly 47.7 million travel and tourism jobs getting affected due to the COVID -19, needs to adopt a regional approach to in order to revive tourism sector. While the governments in the region moves from crisis to recovery planning, governments and destinations have an opportunity to think strategically about the future of their tourism sectors and implement policies that will improve the industry. Regional collaboration could help tourism throughout South Asia rebuild itself as a stronger, innovative industry, says World Bank.

Meenakshi Sharma, DG – Tourism, Govt of India opines that tourism in the neighboring countries is very crucial for India.  “There are so many things: history, heritage, culture, religion, architecture, cuisine etc. which we share all among our neighbors. We also have a lot of connectivity with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan etc. There is no reason that why we should not have a very strong regional tourism. We do get numbers from region but there is a whole new scope of improvement on Buddhism, the Himalayas, beaches, Sundarbans etc. The linkages are very strong. Only thing is how to take benefit of this. India is very keen, and we are working on the Act East policy,” Sharma said.

Almost all countries from South Asia feel that regional tourism is the way forward. “The enhancement of regional cooperation on tourism will be not only useful to the successful restoration of tourism but far beyond. This could be pursued at the government level through the existing structures like the SAARC or even create a new body.  This body could discuss various matters such as minimum common standard and protocols under new normal tourism, facilitating seamless transit, entry, exit of tourists, development of regional circuit tourism packages, common marketing and promotional strategies. Special arrangements like the travel bubble and green lane could be also discussed and developed,” Dorji Dhradhul, Director General, Tourism Council of Bhutan, says.

Maldives, which depend on tourism for 60 per cent of GDP and jobs, reopened its tourism sector on July 15 with strict safety standards to protect vacationers and employees from the coronavirus. “This pandemic has definitely brought countries closer together as we fight against a common threat. Thus, it's important for us to strengthen the relationship between tourism promotional bodies, tourism regulatory bodies & NGO’s within the region, to assist in cross promotional activities,” Thoyyib Mohamed, MD, Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation, said and added that each country is gifted with its own uniqueness thus by utilizing the media and various mediums in each country to promote the similarities (cuisines & culture) we share within the region to restore the tourism sector to its prior status.

Javed Ahmed, CEO, Bangladesh Tourism Board, also shares the similar opinion. “Due to pandemic, it is better to promote short-haul tourism than long-haul. In this connection, regional integration like extended group tour programs, regional MICE, study trips, health tourism etc. can be formed to restore the tourism sector,” Ahmed said.

Dhananjay Regmi, CEO, Nepal Tourism Board opines that supporting each other’s’ tourism is crucial for the restoration of regional tourism. “Cooperation and collaboration should be the main ‘mantra’ in the recovery phase. Intense homework has been done previously on regional tourism promotion; BIMSTEC, SASEC, Great Himalayan Trail to name a few.  We must fall back on the knowledge and experiences collected earlier for these projects. We share the Buddhist heritage, and the grand nature and culture of the Himalayas. I believe that with strategic promotion, customized packaging, effective branding, tourism sector of the region will definitely gain momentum once the crisis takes a backseat,” Regmi opined.


Despite so much of similarities, the regional tourism is prospering in the region.  South Asia is blessed with diverse cultural and natural heritage; however, the potential remains largely untapped. Together, we can take tourism to the next level, by improving air connectivity, streamlining immigration procedures, sharing of information and best practices, promoting collaborative research and innovation, enhancing the quality of services, promoting private sector participation, etc. However, the biggest impact will come from improving the personal safety of a tourist,” Dhradhul said and informed that while COVID 19 has added the health safety as a new priority for everyone, but all along even without COVID 19 or similar health pandemic, South Asia does not have a good reputation as far as personal safety is concerned. “South Asia in general is viewed as “not so safe” to travelers. Therefore, South Asia needs to do a lot in correcting this wrong reputation. This will have a significant influence on making South Asia a popular destination. This is of course a major task that will demand concerted efforts from all countries and more critically from every citizen,” Dhradhul suggested.  

According to Regmi, the prime factors that constrain the growth of tourism in South Asia are lack of access, tourism infrastructure and lack of trained manpower. These are inadequate in the rural areas especially in the Himalayan region that have high tourism potential. Similarly, sanitation and hygiene standards are sometimes not on par international standards, and we are losing out to that. Insufficient promotion of products and destinations play a part. Apart from these, I also think we position ourselves low due to our developing economy. If we can brand and position as high-value tourism region, our tourism sector will move towards quality and sustainable,” Regmi opined.

Echoing the similar opinion, Mohamed says that strengthening the air connectivity further from the key cities within the region could play a vital role in promoting tourism within the region. “During this time, charters also could be something that will work. Additionally, strong relationships between tourism boards, tourism NGO’s can help to create awareness within the region. Our simple lifestyles & welcoming culture are interconnected within this region; hence we believe that this could be an added advantage in terms of regional promotion,” Mohamed added.

Ahmed also speaks on similar line. “Lack of regional integration, unstable social and political situation, excessive tour cost and lack of security are the main constraints for the growth of tourism in South Asia. To overcome this constraint, we should be more supportive for each other and more tourist friendly.

Long term measures

Currently Maldives is perceived as a honeymooners and couples only destination among Indian market. “Maldives offers varieties of options for families, adventure with lots of water spotting activities, health & wellness, MICE combined with leisure, hence we strongly believe that we should heavily promote these segments among Indians to create a more resilient region. Additionally, penetrating into other niche segments, such as the multi-billion Indian film industry. In terms of location, we are blessed to have amazing natural beauty, both above and under the water which is ideal to shoot movies, travel documentaries, travel magazines etc.,” Mohamed said.

Dhradhul suggests formation of a regional tourism body to facilitate effective networking and solidarity. “One important mandate of this body could be to give a new reputation to the region - that "South Asia is a very safe for travelers". The region could also champion the practice of sustainable tourism driven by the development philosophy of Gross National Happiness. Development of strong regional and domestic tourism could be other measures to build resilience in the tourism sector. The region could also have a regional tourism development fund which could be also used for recovery and rebuilding during such unforeseen difficult times,” Dhradhul suggested.

Regmi feels that this is the right time to prepare for a more sustainable and resilient future of the region’s tourism industry. “We must invest in eco-friendly infrastructure, train tourism manpower thoroughly, promote sustainable-responsible-green tourism exclusively to build resilient destinations and communities. Similarly, we need a tourism industry that works closely with the governments and communities. Raising the bar in tourism services through close adhering to safety protocols and hygiene, diversified products for quality experience of visitors could also play a role in the same. We must also try to cut off heavy dependency by promoting to increase arrivals from within the region,” Regmi said.

According to Ahmed, primarily we should focus on the strong regional integration to build resilience in this region. “After this, we can initiate a comprehensive approach for tourism development and promotion that can be ranged from low cost tourism to build up a common platform for promotion and marketing,” Ahmed revealed. 

Instilling confidence

Meanwhile, countries are working on confidence building measures (CBM)to draw tourists. “Reinstating traveler’s confidence in Nepal, as a destination, especially pertaining to health, hygiene and sanitation, is our prime priority now. To ensure safety to tourists as well as the industry and the public, we have come up with "Covid-19 Safety and Hygiene Protocol for Tourism Industry". The protocol guidelines aim to support the industry in gaining back confidence of clients in the domestic and international market, and in mitigating the crisis among staff and the industry,” Regmi informed.

Fortunately for Bhutan, due to their long-standing tourism policy of High-value Low volume, the Kingdom would not require big changes in their policy and practice. “We will be focusing on reinforcing the tourism policy of High-Value Low Volume, which we have been practicing for the last fifty years. Under this unique policy, all tours in Bhutan is guided to ensure safe and exclusive experience of tourists, which could be an important element in the new normal in tourism. This will be further reinforced with our story of, how successfully we are containing the COVID 19 pandemic as evidenced by the fact that Bhutan has the lowest positive cases in the region and no loss of life to date,” Dhradhul said. Bangladesh will maintain frequent communication with our their consumers and provide excellent offers to rebuild the consumer trust and confidence for the tourism recovery.

To ensure safety of all travellers, Health Protection Agency of Maldives has made it mandatory for all inbound travelers to present a negative PCR certificate on arrival. “This has to be done within a maximum of 72 hours prior to departure to Maldives. Tourists will be allowed to visit the Maldives without any form of quarantine and travellers are required to submit a health declaration card before arrival and it is available online too,” Mohamed said.

According to World Bank, a full recovery of South Asia tourism is likely to take 18 months or more. “Domestic tourism will recover first, followed by intraregional travel between areas designated as “COVID-19 safe zones.”  International long-haul travel will likely be the last to reappear,” the World Bank said in a blog.

COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on corporate travel bringing it to a sudden and complete halt. Experts have been raising the alarm that this is almost the demise of the of corporate travel arguing that it will take a long time to recover till the vaccine is out. Organisations adopted a people-first approach during the lockdown and work from home became the norm. Business travellers have become used to meetings on the likes of Zoom and MS Teams. As a result, many of them no longer see the need for constant travel for businesses.

According to a recent survey by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), almost every member company (98 per cent) cancelled or suspended international business travel in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. Study suggests that business travel amounted to 1.7 per cent of global GDP with a 3X faster growth rate than GDP before pandemic. This year, due to COVID-19, business travel, despite making relatively smaller percentage of global GDP, is expected to reduce global GDP by 17 per cent.

A report from WTTC says that business-travel spending exceeded US$1.4 trillion—21.4 per cent of the global travel and hospitality sector in 2018. Corporate travel is significant for airlines and hotels not only in traffic but in profitability. For airlines, corporate travellers represent 12 per cent of passengers and generate billions in revenue.

With COVID-19, business travel will undeniably be different, but it will pick up slowly and gradually. The new normal for business travel will be a more mindful, thought-out way of travelling. In the long run, it will benefit both employees and employers, leading to a better life-balance for the former and a better return on investment for the later.

But is this the start of a new normal for business travel?  T3 connected with Nadia Yahiaoui, Vice President, Corporations, Amadeus Asia Pacific; Todd Arthur, Vice President, Asia Pacific, Travel Solutions Agency Sales, Sabre; Sandeep Dwivedi, Chief Operating Officer, InterGlobe Technology Quotient; Rakshit Desai, Managing Director- India, Flight Centre Travel Group and Raj Rishi Singh, Chief Business Officer, Corporate Travel, MakemyTrip to know what might be in store.

The New Normal

It is believed that business travel will return in phases, spurred by proximity, reason for travel and sector.  According to a GBTA’s survey, companies are twice as likely to have halted international travel as have halted domestic travel as of July 2020. So, what is going to be a new normal?

“There will be a heightened demand for IT solutions that help corporations manage corporate travel. Health and hygiene considerations and a seamless end-to-end experience will be the make-or-break factors for winning back corporate travellers in the era of COVID-19 and technology will underpin this strategy,” Yahiaoui says adding that one of the biggest changes that we anticipate is that lead times for bookings are likely to be much shorter, and cancellations more common. “It is likely that companies will change their booking policies to reflect this, and in turn, internal teams within corporations that manage employee travel will need to be more agile in how they work, and how they partner with TMCs. Across the entire travel industry, the idea of being able to predict booking volumes and revenue based on historical trends is now a thing of the past, so real-time data will be more important than ever for resource and revenue planning,” Yahiaoui adds.

Arthur opines that business travel planning and booking could become more complex as travellers will be looking to combine multiple trips, while corporate policies will need to adapt to cater for added insurance coverage and such factors as quarantine costs and swab tests. “Traditionally, corporate travel policies focused to a large extent on cost. Now, traveller safety will be the utmost priority and companies want to make sure they fulfill their duty of care to employees by ensuring the airlines, accommodation providers and other travel services they use are meeting stringent hygiene and cleanliness protocols,” Arthur adds. 

Dwivedi says that some of the major advantages of corporate travel is the capacity to broaden understanding and knowledge with inflow of knowhow as a result of in-person consultations and observations. “With COVID-19 changing the face of industries’ economical and operational capacities, corporate travel will likely to evolve as a result with obvious polarity. With the continuous influx of virtual meetings, we are witnessing, may leave many accustomed to the comfort, ultimately limiting travel opportunities; and further limiting knowledge transfer and inflow of knowhow as a result. As far as the new normal is concerned, it is difficult to paint a picture with constantly evolving business and global scenario. The ‘new normal’, irrespective may take eons to emerge and getting accustomed to subconsciously, while consciously, it appears we are already living it,” Dwivedi adds.

Desai opines that government policies, public health situation and all other factors determining demand are still in flux and it is difficult to assess the new normal with certainty right now. “But we have no doubt that travel in all forms will see a phased but definite recovery. Organisations will be reconfiguring their corporate travel policies to focus on duty of care and brace for more spends on ensuring well-being of their employees while travelling. Short and frequent business trips will make way for longer business trips and suites and apartment hotels will be preferred for their privacy and long-stay features,” Desai adds.

Singh says that the impact varies across industries. “Pharma sector has been travelling more than IT and technology. FMCG are travelling within region. SMEs have started travelling far more frequently,” Singh says and adds that we are seeing some recovery in last one-month week-on-week, overall recovery if to the tune of 15-20 per cent from pre COVID.”

Road to recovery

COVID-19 is arguably one of the biggest challenges that industry will have to overcome. Hence, new products/innovations/modification has become central to every aspect of business strategy.

“We are evolving to grow with an innovative and adaptive mindset, holding dynamic needs of our community of travel agents as the epicenter of our developments during and beyond the pandemic. Our prime focus at this moment is to bring latest developments and updates in aviation sector to our travel agents and for the same we have been relentlessly exploring and deploying technology. From chatbot to plugin, including COVID-19 plugin released by Travelport lately; advanced fintech for optimised financial and accounting operations to enhanced processing capabilities with simplified transactions; exclusive researches to COVID-19 resource hubs; we have been constantly observing and innovating ways to ease the process of making and managing travel bookings during the pandemic,” Dwivedi says.

For Amadeus also, the top priority is to develop minimal viable product propositions to make it easier and more cost effective for travel companies to trial new technologies that address the problems created by COVID-19. “We hope that this will help accelerate the adoption of the technologies that will be so vital to the industry’s recovery. We have enhanced the Amadeus Mobile Messenger to provide real-time status alerts about specific regions and countries at risk and to locate all travelers globally at a glance by their region, country or city, to keep employees safe and their business continuity plans on track. We’ve also partnered with world-leading travel security and risk consultant, Riskline, to integrate specific COVID-19 related information within the tool,” Yahiaoui informs. 


Understanding how demanding and complicated corporate travel management can be, Sabre’s corporate booking engine, GetThere is helping businesses to plan in uncertain times. “Hygiene and cleanliness have never been so important, and our airline and hospitality partners are able to communicate the health and safety measures they have in place through our GDS. Travel agents are then able to make a choice for their corporate clients based on these protocols. Airlines and hotels are able to put their offers in front of a wide, high-value audience while growing geographic reach so agents can create unique trips based on the changing priorities of travellers and companies. Our clients are also using our solutions to help automate exchanges and refunds and to minimize disruption during these uncertain times, freeing up more time to improve customer service at a time when corporations may need extra support,” Arthur says. 


Flight Centre Travel Group India has partnered with leading insurance companies and Indian Council of Medical Research accredited COVID testing laboratories to make travelling safer for customers. “In the MICE segment, we have introduced virtual reality events which closely mimic the on-ground meetings and events experience. In retail, we are building a network of work from home agents with Travel Tours Associates who will take our services direct to customers to supplement our retail presence and generate employment,” Desai says.

According to Singh, there is a culture of trust in most of the Asian countries where personal meetings play a key role. “So, rebound will happen. Remote working especially in the IT sector will be the new normal and travel may go down dramatically in such segments. Now suppliers with good health and safety guideline will be the frontrunner. Cancellation policy should be traveller friendly and customised. A lot of travel will also move from unstructured to the structured segment,” Singh adds.

Changing long-term plans

Speaking realistically, Dwivedi informs that that with the global economic, development and national plans in a mayhem as a result of this pandemic, our business like every other business has been impacted. “Our long-term focus has now more strenuously shifted to innovating our technology, making it more adaptive to unexpected shifts while bringing more advanced automations like robotic process automations, artificial intelligence and natural language processing to forefront. With these automations we are hoping to optimise and enhance our community’s travel booking and management processes, making it more adaptive and agreeable with modern technologies,” Dwivedi adds.

Similarly, Amadeus was also working on a lot of the technology to help make travel safe and frictionless in the COVID-19 era such as contactless technology in airports, airlines and hotels; real-time disruption management; and AI-powered booking and revenue management systems. “These will remain central to our long-term strategy. A unified, industry-wide approach will be critical to the travel sector’s recovery, and that’s where I think Amadeus can make the biggest difference in the long-term. We already work across all aspects of the travel eco-system, and by connecting the different parts of the industry and ‘traveler journey’, we can help co-ordinate a cross-sector plan for recovery. To this end, we are committed to collaborating with the right stakeholders and organisations to rethink travel and prepare for a brighter future,” Yahiaoui says.

Flight Centre Travel Group India understands that it will take atleast 18-24 months for travel to fully recover to pre-COVID levels and our strategies will have to be both long and short term. “The pandemic has accelerated the implementation of some of our plans slated for the next few years – an expansive network of work from home agents and using technology to make customer experience better,” Desai says.

Singh, being optimistic, expects pre COVID level recovery by end of Q1 next year. “The one critical element is vaccine for the market, when there is a news, things will rebound quickly,” Singh adds.

Sabre has also been impacted in the same as other travel partners. “As soon as Covid-19 started to impact our business, we took immediate action to reduce expenses before making more significant cuts as the pandemic took hold, as well as a capital raise of more than $1.1 billion. However, in the same way that our new and existing clients are continuing to invest in our technological solutions in order to recover and, ultimately, grow, we remain very focused on our own long-term strategic imperatives. We are actively positioning Sabre to take advantage of the opportunities on the other side of Covid-19 so we can support our clients to do the same,” Arthur informs.


Trends in bleisure

According to Dwivedi, bleisure shall eventually prove a good source of opportunities for travel booking and experience providers, especially when considering most people’s zero to limited travel during pandemic.  

As corporate travel emerges from hibernation, it could be that it takes a different shape. “While businesses need to ensure that the right protocols are in place so their team members are as safe as possible, business travellers may wish to include more leisure time during their trip so they can enjoy travelling without having to take two separate trips with their perceived risks and potential quarantine measures,” Arthur adds.

Yahiaoui feels that the trend was picking up rapidly before the pandemic hit and we can expect a renewed interest in bleisure travel as corporate travel itself recovers. “However, while bleisure travelers might have been keen to explore novel experiences previously, the priority now will likely be around safer, “tried-and-tested” options and known brands.  Employers might be able to encourage a return to corporate travel by facilitating bleisure arrangements; and likewise, there might be an opportunity in the COVID-19 era for TMCs to support bleisure, as well as pure business trips, as an additional revenue stream,” Yahiaoui adds.

Anand Ramadurai, Vice President – Marketing, Indian Hotels Company (IHCL) shares his views on how the brand has been successful in leveraging digital marketing during the crisis. Excerpts from the interview:

The COVID -19 has pushed stakeholders of the tourism industry to go aggressive with their digital marketing strategy. How are you re-strategizing your marketing and promotional plan?

Digital marketing has always been a key area of focus for Indian Hotels Company (IHCL), and a substantial proportion of marketing spends have been allocated to digital marketing. In the current context and immediate period going forward, it is expected that travellers will seek greater comfort in seamless online journeys. In fact, recent studies have shown that there has been an exponential rise in the time people have spent on digital platforms or browsing social media channels over the period of the lockdown. This has led to a boom in digital and social media content consumption. We are optimizing our websites in line with the anticipated consumer trends so that discoverability is made easier. Our customer outreach plans currently centre around the digital space.

What new elements have you incorporated in your current digital marketing strategy and how are you planning to approach the market? Is this going to be a long-term strategy or just a temporary requirement?

Consumption of data and content in the digital space has increased manifold, and we have stepped up our engagement through our social media outreach. We will be soon launching chat-bots to provide increased touchpoints for the consumer and enhance their experience with the brand. Similarly, enhancements in our Mobile App is also underway.

We strongly believe that the trends that have surfaced in this recent period have been under-currents that were bound to see the light of day in the near future. The COVID-19 crisis has largely served to precipitate action and bring digital initiatives to the centre-stage of an organization’s plans.

What appealing offers/incentives you are rolling out in the market to draw travelers?

Our customer propositions are based on a well-founded understanding of the consumer and insights with regards to their requirements. For example, our 4D – Dream, Drive, Discover and Delight travel offer is based on the insight that consumers, having been cooped up within the confines of their homes, will be looking forward to taking a break. However, social distancing and increased awareness about health and hygiene will continue to be priority, and people will be keen to travel to destinations within close vicinity of their homes; thereby leading to an increase in demand for driving holidays. Our 4D offer gives guests the perfect opportunity to drive with families and friends to discover, unwind, and be one with nature once again at our resorts and hotels across the country.

Our Urban Getaways proposition provides consumers who wish to take a break, an opportunity to enjoy a mini vacation within the safety and comfort of their resident city. We have several other such consumer-focused propositions that we will be bringing to the market progressively.

Evaluating the ROI has been one of the major challenges for digital marketing. What mechanism are you putting place to measure the ROI?

Digital marketing is a space where at least indicative ROIs are relatively easier to arrive at than anything done in the off-line space. Using analytical tools and an attribution model, we get an indication of the impact our digital campaigns have on generating revenue.

It is however, important to note that while campaigns may serve to drive traffic to our website, the customer may then decide to book through our Customer Service Centre or directly at the hotel. In order to account for such reservations and bookings, which will not be captured in conversions or ROI calculations, it is critical to look at the trend rather than only focusing on the absolute number. As long as we use like-to-like comparisons, one can assess what’s working.

Furthermore, we do A/B tests on our websites on a regular basis so that we can take informed decisions.

On which social media platforms are you present and how is the response? How are you leveraging social media platforms?

We are present across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn. Each of these perform different roles and are important in their own right. Instagram has increasingly become the platform that showcases a greater degree of engagement, while Facebook has the largest audience that one can reach out to.

We use social media as a platform for storytelling for our brands and I believe it can be a significant channel to establish our brands. We have started increasingly experimenting with Instagram Live – starting with Yoga Day – and we will continue to use different formats to engage with our audience. With amongst the best collection of Safari Lodges in the country, we have also now started to have live sessions with our naturalists, which allows consumers from across the globe to not only connect with the brand but also experience armchair travel.

Besides content, social media remains an important channel for any campaign. We use different techniques to target relevant audiences for different consumer propositions and offers, and direct them to our website for bookings.

Has Social Media brought in transparency in the travel segment (for example: the reviews and comments) and how is it received by the travel trade?

The digital space in general has been a great leveler as it gives voice to even a single individual. Consistent with its wonderful culture of service, IHCL has recognized the importance of this channel and built an online reputation management platform to listen to and respond to comments in the online space. We call this Taj.Live. This enables us to be closer to customers, resolve concerns quicker, and in general understand what people are talking about and engaging with the brand.

Reviews have become an integral part of many online users’ journeys. As individuals, we tend to rely more on what our peers have experienced, than what a company or brand puts out. We see this as an opportunity, a mirror that reflects what consumers see of us – areas of excellence that we can further strengthen, and things that can be further improved and enhanced.

However, like two sides of a coin, digital and social media platforms come with their own set of challenges and this is something that is something every brand has to manage.

Anything more you would like to add from your side

We believe that for a brand to successfully communicate with its target audiences in relevant and timely manner, it is key that the brand’s digital marketing plan has to be integrated into the overall marketing and communication strategy and approach. Further, each digital channel has to come together seamlessly and evaluating each one – be it search, meta search or social media – independently could lead to incorrect conclusions. Digital marketing is a fine blend of science and art!



Informa Markets Travel Portfolio

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