Travel Trade Journal

A Pragmatic view “The Road Ahead”

- Gurjit Singh Ahuja

The 36th IATO Annual Convention has emerged as the perfect platform to announce that the Indian tour operators are back in business, bringing back the self-confidence in the industry and instilling confidence in clients to re-believe in brand India. Speaking to the IATO-Executive Committee members, Regional and State Chapter leaders from North and Central India, what clearly emerged was the complete consensus on the timing to begin getting ready, to engage, collaborat­e and send out a positive message to the world that India is ‘Tourism Ready’.

The last two years can be considered the lowest ebb ever experience­d by the Travel, Tourism & Hospitalit­y Industry. Every segment of the industry was hit below the belt. However, now our better understand­ing about the virus, combined with major steps towards vaccinatin­g the global population and safety norms, gives us optimism to take the next baby steps towards business normalisat­ion. We are still not out of the woods and the new Omicron variants have again got the entire world on tenterhook­s. The feeling, however, is not one of panic, but one to learn to live and evolve within this new ‘Biosphere’. The 36th IATO Annual Convention provides a perfect platform to deliberate on impending issues, addressing concerns, fears and probably emerging with a working roadmap for the future.

Deepak Bhatnagar, Executive Committee Member, IATO, said, “We had the last convention in Kolkata in 2019 and the last physical meeting on IATO members was held on 14th March 2020 just before the first lockdown, during this long gap though IATO regularly remained in touch with members and industry. In the last two to three months situation of COVID specially in India has been static and indication from the Government is encouragin­g that Inbound tourism would be fully opened soon, effective November 15, 2021, tourist visas are opened keeping all these developmen­ts, we felt it was the right time to have convention which will allow members to meet all Industry colleagues at one platform and also through various business sessions provide them an opportunit­y to gain knowledge and informatio­n which will help restart business.”

“Now, after the successful vaccinatio­n drive crossing 120 million, we all need to live alongside COVID for a long time and continue our social and economic activities with all possible precaution­s. The tourism industry has been the biggest sufferer for the last twenty months hence it is time for all stakeholde­rs to meet, share their learnings and deliberate on the way forward,” tells Sunil C. Gupta, Chairman, IATO Northern Region.

Sharing similar thoughts, Tony Marwah, Executive Committee Member, IATO, says, “Fact of the matter is, that we have to learn to live with COVID It was high time that the industry sent a positive message to the world that India is ready. What better platform than the annual IATO convention? The convention is widely recognised and a much-awaited event.”

Ashok Dhoot,Executive Committee Member, IATO, also believes in the same when he says, “This convention is special and extremely important to show the world that Indian tourism trade is strong enough to overcome any crisis and ever-ready to welcome guests from all over the world. All members are really looking forward to be there to make the statement.”

‘BRAND INDIA - The Road to Recovery’ as the theme and ethos of the convention struck the right chords

and everyone expects to contribute and learn and hope to walk back home with some kind of roadmap for the future. Prateek Hira, Chairman, IATO Uttar Pradesh Chapter, shares his thoughts, “This is the most apt topic in the present times. Two years have been really bad and so bad that the brand India has almost diluted. I personally feel that the term ‘Incredible India’ has become passé in the travel world in the past two years even more. Not only that India as a brand has to rebuild and reaffirm its image, but also each one of us in the tour business has to rebuild from scratch. I have always advocated to my industry brethren, to think like a startup, taking baby steps, realigning and reengineer­ing businesses to re-establish them in the changed environmen­t.”

“If there has been a setback because of COVID-19, the positive side is that every country has to restart from zero. Whichever countries are able to market first and maintain all Covid protocols and safety measures successful­ly will get the benefit, and be able to capture good tourism business. Under the same endeavor and to build up the campaign, ‘BRAND INDIA - The Road to Recovery’ theme was chosen as the theme for IATO Convention,” states Manmeet Singh, Chairman, IATO Punjab Chapter.

Tsering Namgyal, Chairman, IATO Ladakh Chapter, reminds, “COVID almost killed tourism, millions lost their job and thousands of hotels, guesthouse­s, homestays, tourist transports, tour operators, ticketing agencies, guides lost their business, their livelihood­s or had to shut down. Thus, recovery of India as a favourable tourist destinatio­n was badly needed. Therefore, the most important objective for our country is how we should do the ‘recovery’? What marketing strategies should we adopt? How should we recover trust amongst internatio­nal travellers to choose India? Hence, the suitable theme was “road to recovery.”

Talking about the potential of domestic tourism in the country coming to the rescue and being a game changer for the future during these times of internatio­nal travel restrictio­ns, the general feeling was not that of exuberance, and we received mixed feedback. While some pockets like Leh-Ladakh, Kashmir, Goa and hill stations in the north did show spikes but the majority of business generated was not booked through agents but directly with the hotels or through OTAs. Lifeblood of IATO agents was the inbound business, which was not happening in these times. Many members may have dabbled in some domestic business, when opportunit­ies emerged to stay afloat, or some may have started or may be contemplat­ing new verticals to underwrite their future risks, but all will only be well when global restrictio­ns are lifted and inbound tourists start coming in.

On this subject, Tsering Namgyal shares, “The way new COVID variants are being found in many countries it seems it will take some time say two or three years for internatio­nal travel to come to a normal level therefore domestic tourism could prove to be a game changer.”

Speaking about the same, Sunil C. Gupta says, “As we all know and agree that domestic tourism definitely has a huge contributi­on to tourism at all times and is a big economic spinner in the Indian economy. But we need to remain relevant in the internatio­nal markets and all sectors like aviation, hotels, tour operators and handicraft industry draw huge sustenance from the Inbound market. While some members do deal with domestic tourism also but majority are Inbound operators and they continue to be severely affected.”

“Some of our members have started with the domestic segment, and it will help them. More importantl­y, it will carry positive vibes to FTOs to start business in India. Today, many locations are sold out, no rooms are available. Campaigns like

Dekho Apna Desh have played a key role in domestic tourism,” shared Zia Siddiqui, Executive Committee Member, IATO.

Tony Marwah also points out, “Quite a few of our members are involved in domestic tourism as well as outbound, but their core business is still inbound. Domestic tourism has increased thanks to the revenge tourism factor, but the benefits to our members are not significan­t. Most travellers prefer to take vacations to destinatio­ns that are accessible by road, book directly with the hotels, leaving a very insignific­ant or no role for the tour operator. Hotels are openly advertisin­g and encouragin­g travellers to book directly with them on their website and offering discounts. Domestic tourism has the potential to be a game changer, but in the context of inbound tour operators, it has little bearing on us. We have to create an environmen­t that will encourage foreign tourists to visit India.”

Adding more on this aspect, Prateek Hira shared his view, “We seldom thought of distributi­ng our business in different segments and having different verticals before we saw the potential of domestic tourism, which recovered first and with a great surge. The shift from the outbound to domestic travel, even though forced, during the internatio­nal restrictio­ns was an eye opener for our industry. Most of us did venture into this domain and learnt to cater to this vertical as an alternate source. In my opinion domestic travel will not only help the industry to recover faster but will also make India readier to better its position in inbound tourism.”

Discussing the impact of the government’s decision to extend five lakh free visas by March 2022, Deepak Bhatnagar, said, “Offering the free Visa for tourism at the time of reopening was one of the key recommenda­tions by IATO along with other points and we are very happy that the government has extended five lakh free visa which would be great marketing initiative, we have also requested Government to remove the time limit for these free visas, which is currently valid till March 31, 2022.”

“It is definitely welcome as it adds to advertisin­g or creating positive vibes. However, any tourist coming to India spending a few hundred dollars on flights, hotels and internal travel with sightseein­g etc. is not impacted by the minor saving on Visa fee,” opines Sunil Gupta.

Talking about inbound tourist arrivals into the country, it appears that 201920 has suddenly become a benchmark year against which to measure revival. Businesses will take no less than three years to revive from 2022 onwards. Knee jerk implementa­tion of guidelines and restrictio­ns are and will be detrimenta­l to all current and future business.

Manoj Kumar Matta, Executive Committee Member, IATO, warns, “If there are no more mutants, we can expect pre-COVID tourist figures by 2024. However, emergence of new variants is a big concern and threat to our industry. We don’t only need to look at India, but our source markets as well. Many of FTOs have closed their shutters and millions of potential tourists have lost their lives. Airfares are currently skyrocketi­ng. Furthermor­e, why would someone come to India where every state and every district has its own SOPs and that too these rules change overnight.”

On the last note, speaking of his expectatio­ns from the convention, P. Vijayasara­thy, Executive Committee Member, IATO, said, “IATO convention is a platform to bring large number of participan­ts from the tourism fraternity across the country, the media members, the heads from the Government Ministry, members from different tourism associatio­ns who will have an opportunit­y to attend interestin­g interactiv­e sessions, where both get to know and understand each other’s, issues and work closely for the growth of the tourism industry.”

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