Not too long ago, we were grumbling about overtourism. In 2020, thanks to COVID-19, the travel and hospitality industry seems to have receded into the background; Indian tourism, in particular, has descended into the red due to the ban on domestic and international air travel in summer, when it is the peak of business.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that Indian commercial airlines are likely to suffer losses of $11.2 billion due to the temporary grounding of operations. But India is not alone. Nearly every country exposed to the virus is facing a similar conundrum: figuring out a way to ease back into solvency. “The travel sector will have to reinvent itself in what will be a ‘new normal’, requiring a meaningful transformation,” says Tiffany Misrahi, vice-president of policy, World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), UK, adding, “We expect to see significant transformations around health security and hygiene, sustainability, digitisation, the future of work and in terms of consumer demands and expectations.”
Tech will rule
- Technology would also be a major game-changer in the coming days, says Jyothi Mayal, president of Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI). “As work from home is going to play a big role in the next few months, technology platforms will become a very important component of our operations. TAAI is working on a simple tech platform that can be used by all our members efficiently, at a nominal fee,” Mayal says.
- With greater parity, online travel operators would no longer have a free run at the cost of brick-and-mortar companies, she says. “I think this pandemic has actually strengthened the traditional agencies because even the government tourism boards have realised that without a travel agent, you cannot create a demand,” she says.
- “In the new situation, validity of tickets and tour packages could be longer than before. Airlines will start looking at fares which are valid for a longer time, so that the ease of business remains. For this, online and offline travel agents have to cooperate rather than compete,” she says.
WTTC is devising the new Safe Travels protocols, following close consultation with its members as well as industry associations like Airports Council International (ACI), Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and IATA, to bring confidence back and set clear expectations of what travellers may experience in their next trip. Contactless travel, especially by air, could perhaps be the most significant change. In a report titled The Rise of Sanitised Travel, airline marketing strategy firm SimpliFlying highlights at least 70 areas in which the flight experience is going to change.
Among the new requirements would be an ‘immunity passport’ for passengers, which confirms the presence of COVID-19 antibodies. Instant health checks inside the airport will become common and travel agents will have to issue seating to optimise in-flight distancing. More importantly, without a vaccination, long-distance travel could be difficult. On the other hand, some countries like Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, where the recorded number of COVID-19 infections are low, have also created the Baltic Travel Bubble that allows one another’s citizens to travel without the need for quarantine.
“It is too early to talk about resuming business after the lockdown, because tourism depends on business activity that gives extra cash flow in hand,” says Pronab Sarkar, president, Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO) in Delhi. “The travel industry will have to keep this in mind before it can restart.”
Social distancing and sanitisation will play a strong role in the post-lockdown hospitality sector. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU
At a webinar organised recently by Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) to discuss the rebooting of the Indian travel industry, Dipak Deva, managing director, Sita, TCI and Distant Frontiers, suggested that the Government should consider supporting stores that had issued vouchers for booking a holiday in the future.
Catering to the new normal, The Leela group of hotels is currently offering bookings at its properties in Delhi, Gurugram, Chennai, Bengaluru, Udaipur, Mumbai and Goa through its ‘Memorable Moments’ programme that will be valid till September 30, 2020, with guaranteed upgrades and meal credits of ₹1,000 per day, as it reopens for business after lockdown. However, pre-booking may not work for mid-budget and business properties, feels Amitava Roy, CEO, The Great Indian Hotels and Resorts. “Travellers are unsure if they will be able to have a vacation after six months. One or two places have sold holidays like this, but you need to be sure about the arrangements being in place at the time you advertise,” he says.
Intra-industry unity is important at this time as a lot of livelihoods are at stake, believes Vinod Kannan, chief commercial officer, Vistara Airlines. “This pandemic has brought the whole world together and is helping everyone appreciate things that we may otherwise take for granted,” he says, adding, “This would also bring about positive changes in the travel behaviour of passengers and make them appreciate the efforts that airlines, airports and other relevant stakeholders are putting in for their comfort.”