Re-engineering tourism


TravTalk Digital Conclave that entered its fourth edition focused once again on the burning topic of the day – Revenge Tourism. The world over, tourism industries are hoping that people will start travelling with a vengeance, and among the first ones to possibly do that will be the resilient Indian traveller. Industry experts share their individual perspectives.

Hazel Jain

The first session of the 4th TravTalk Digital Conclave was titled ‘Re-engineering Tourism: Reducing fears and establishing confidence’ where experts from three sectors – tour operator, airline and destination – shared their views on how they think the road to recovery will look like.

Opening the discussion was Ritu Sharma, Deputy Director, Marketing Head – India, Switzerland Tourism, and she said, “These are tough times for all of us. We as a tourism board are there to help you. We understand that it is going to take some time for people to get back on their feet and for business to come back. We have a team dedicated to the trade and they have been doing a lot of trainings and webinars for the operators.”

Sharing a key update from the aviation sector was Sunil VA, Regional Vice President – APAC, Oman Air Regional Office, who said, “IATA will have an operational plan on international travel that will be released soon and this will ensure that we will be able to provide the safety required for our guests to feel confident enough to travel. As Oman Air, our prime objective is to understand the SOPs of the different countries we fly to as well as the airports, and then build a plan around it so that we can ensure our passengers are safe. We have implemented certain measures in our offices, the check-in counters, on-board the aircraft and, of course, the international airports. Things have been made easier with a lot of travel advisories which are available for our guests and our trade partners in terms of what’s happening in other countries.”

Riaz Munshi, President, Outbound Tour Operators Association of India (OTOAI), drew on his expertise and added that people have been dreaming about travel since the lockdown. “They now want to go on holidays and be pampered. They are willing to take short breaks and go to nearby places. A few hotels have already opened doors and have assured us that they are taking all precautions. Let’s now look at how we can change our scenario and grow from here. We need to work together. Tourism boards have always been very supportive to tour operators. Hotels have now realised that it is time to build relationships. Let’s get back to basics. India works on relationships, so let’s invest in nurturing relationships with our partners. Let’s go the traditional way and turn this situation around faster than we thought by doing it together. Airlines and hotels should not see us as competition but as collaborators. Do not try and cut our revenue. You will have to increase your marketing budgets. We must start afresh,” he opined.

Building traveller trust will be key

Sharma shares her perspective on this and says, “We as Indians aren’t very patient people. After being made to sit at home for three months, I am sure people will want to travel with a vengeance. Of course, that will be weighed against other key factors like the safety of the destination. What travellers will look for is a lot of reassurance on their safety and security and the biggest issue is going to be trust. They are going to choose destinations where they can have faith in the cleaning procedures. And I think all of us here need to build that faith in the consumer’s mind. Switzerland is now completely open, whether it is public transport or hotels and restaurants and even health spas – of course with a very strict protocol that needs to be followed. We as Switzerland have a huge advantage because it is a completely safe and secure country.”

Sharma also shared a new development from Switzerland which recently did a survey – a Global COVID-19 Assessment Survey – which had a lot of factors and wasn’t limited to tourism. “It stated that Switzerland is the safest country to travel to right now. Yes, we are looking for people to be able to travel soon but this ‘soon’ is some time away. We can’t say when India will open its borders. But Switzerland is open. And Switzerland has launched a ‘Clean & Safe’ campaign along with Switzerland Tourism Board. For this, we have tied up with six local associations that will award this ‘Clean & Safe’ label to companies which will indicate they are following protocols. That is something that all of us will have to look at – as an airline, hotel, or as a tour operator,” she added.

Standardised SOPs across borders

Sunil shared a much-needed requirement for airlines at this moment – a standard operating protocol. “Countries do have SOPs in place, but there is an SOP which is now released by ICAO for airlines as well as one that will come from IATA. These will be advocated by global tourism bodies such as UNWTO and WTTC. This is so that everybody educates their customers about how they must travel to each country. So there will definitely be a standard plan which will make life for airlines easier,” he said.

Sunil also clarifies a doubt that a lot of agents have about flying safely. “I understand that all airlines are talking to aircraft manufacturers to discuss how more safety measures can be implemented in the cabins. We have learned that the inside cabin protection is higher than being outdoors. Also, the mandated attire will help protect passengers. But we are still learning. We will have more norms coming in going forward. There are plans to change the seating on the aircraft but airlines will have to spend more money to do that. We are also in discussion with the airline manufacturers and talking about how we can implement more safety measures in cabin. We also have guidelines from manufacturers on the sanitisation process after each rotation, which will have to be followed very strictly by all airlines,” he shares.

Will people travel?

Munshi echoed industry-wide sentiments when he said, “The situation is very hard to predict right now. But travel will start very gradually. Outbound can start only once international flights commence. People will start with short-haul destinations that are safe, preferably wellness retreats or remotely-located resorts and isolated islands. Places that can assure people that they have been following strict measures. Slowly, when people start gaining confidence once they start travelling, they will look at long-haul destinations. They are not going to wait for a vaccination but will adapt to the situation.”

Munshi shares an example to back his theory. “One of my clients who recently flew Delhi-Mumbai said that after flying once, his fear of flying has gone after seeing how the airlines and airports are taking care of the passengers. Domestic flights have started and domestic hotels are also slowly opening up. Let’s cross our fingers and hope that long-haul will also start soon. As soon as a vaccination is found, Indian outbound will grow at high speed,” he said.

Will outbound become more expensive?

There has been a lot of conversation around cost of travel going north due to COVID-19. Sharing his views is Munshi who says, “I don’t think so. Cost is always a product of demand and supply. Right now, the demand is less so there is no way the cost can go up. People are thinking that airlines will add some costs, but it is not possible because airlines have to look at the price versus inventory. And once demand increases, prices are going to go up as well. And why not? Everybody is here to make money.”

Speaking as a destination, Sharma adds, “I don’t see any reason why travelling to Switzerland should get more expensive. Unlike an airline, it is not about selling limited seats. Switzerland is probably going to cost the same. In any case, Switzerland is not an expensive destination; it is a value-for-money destination.”

In terms of airline tickets which are possibly a major chunk of an international travel budget, Sunil adds, “Ideally, the cost of flying could be on the higher side due to certain factors. We may see low demand or lower capacity, and even limited destinations when airlines start flying. Many of them will have restrictions on travel. Initially, we are looking at more of the individual traveller rather than groups. Interestingly, we still have group bookings that are travelling in the months of August and September and they haven’t cancelled. This shows the confidence they have in us. I’m sure that once travel resumes, it’s going to be madness again.”

However, adding a caveat, Sunil adds that a possible increase in costs could also be due to the cost structure added due to third-party costs, such as extra sanitisation measures on-board as well as at the airports. “All these will be external factors over which we will not have control. We have already operated 11 charters in the last few weeks to bring Indians back to the country,” he adds.

Health certificates a reality?

Health certificates are also something that people are talking about. Sharma says, “We are all in this boat for the first time so nobody can tell for certain the right way of doing things. As Switzerland Tourism Board, we haven’t been informed about any health certificate requirements. What I can tell you is that at least in the EU and Schengen zones there are no restrictions. People don’t need a health certificate or go into quarantine for travel between these countries. What will happen for countries that are more affected by the virus is anybody’s guess at this point. We will have to wait and watch what happens there. We also spoke to our visa section and they said they really have no idea about what’s going to be the procedure.”

Sharma also shares an on-ground update of Switzerland. “In Switzerland, we have protocols in place, for example, there can be a limited number of people that can travel in a cable car, or a restaurant, with a two-metre distance around them. In restaurants, all tables are two metres apart and they need to record contact details of all patrons for trace-backs. But in places where physical distancing isn’t possible, like for instance in a tram, there people are expected to wear masks,” she reveals.

In-flight safety procedures

Giving a lowdown about the safety procedures that airlines are following right now, Sunil says, “Passengers are being asked to wear masks and gloves to the airport and hand sanitizers are provided by the airlines. There has been a dispute about the alcohol content in these sanitizers that are being carried by passengers. These discussions are ongoing and hopefully, we will have clarity on this soon, hopefully before international operations begin. Currently, these are testing times for infrastructure and all the regulations that are being put in place. Luckily, we don’t have a large number of people flying so we are able to identify the loopholes and make corrections in time. And by the time we have all flights resuming, everything should be under control.”

He says that Oman Air does have health checks conducted at different airports. “Hopefully, we will have a standardised protocol at every airport. Countries that have low or no cases might impose stricter regulations though. Things will get clearer in the days to come. If you are able to contain it, then you’ve made it,” Sunil adds. He also says that Oman Air will continue to transit passengers apart from point-to-point fliers. “For any airline to succeed, travelling beyond their hub and catering to transit passengers is very important. We are ready at the Muscat International Airport to facilitate transit passengers and that will continue to be a good size of our business,” Sunil adds.

Switzerland strategy

How is Switzerland planning to attract Indians once international travel resumes? “Right now we are still in a state of lockdown in India so we are talking to people about dreaming now, travelling later where we are going out with these fantastic images and videos of Switzerland made specifically for this.

The next stage will be more about the need to visit Switzerland. So the whole cleanliness protocol will be very much a part of our messaging. Yes, we are going to put money behind our messaging. Eventually, we are going to do a very big promotional push for Switzerland and for outbound travel because we need to support all our tour operators with this so that more and more people will look to Switzerland. And yes, we will try and support the travel trade wherever possible with new products. I think, after COVID-19, more people are going to come back to the travel agents and tour operators. I think the trade becomes even more important now. So yes, we are definitely going to be here for them and put money behind them,” Sharma shares. But when can Indians travel to Switzerland? “Right now, Switzerland is open only to the Schengen Zone and we will keep opening up to more countries bit by bit. We are expecting transcontinental travel from India to start by September-October 2020 provided things don’t get worse. We expect Asia to start travelling by then and we sincerely hope India will be one of them,” Sharma says.

Parting shots

Sharma underlines the need to be innovative to succeed right now. She says, “Innovation is something that we cannot live without. So yes, innovation will be required to convince people to travel. We must put more thought into marketing, do more research. Innovation is important for destinations for sure; we need to put in place products which will entice them. It will be important for tour operators as well because they are the ones to actually sell them. This is a good time for us to think and tweak our strategy. We have time to learn right now to be able to give our clients more. We should also think more about sustainability because more and more people are beginning to think about it. Last year, the buzz word for destinations was over-crowding. Unfortunately, that’s already been taken
care of now.”

For Sunil, co-ordination between all stakeholders whether it be government or private will become important. “There should also be absolute transparency in information flow, regular updates along with dynamic sales team and super-efficient operations. We will all have to bear up at least three times more when we start working again to make up for lost time,” he adds.

Munshi, on the other hand, is of the opinion that knowledge will become crucial in the times to come. “There is going to be a shift from a price-driven market to a knowledge-driven market. I request my friends in the industry to focus on enhancing their knowledge. Create your own product and expertise as per your market segment and your target audience. Do not go for a copy-paste job. So the price is not going to be a factor, but knowledge, expertise and assurance to the customer that you are available 24×7 will be the differentiating factor,”
he adds.

A word from MoCA

Due to increasing demand for resumption of scheduled international flights by people who want to travel abroad due to compelling reasons, I reviewed the state of international flight operations around the world. Globally, the situation is far from normal

–- Hardeep Singh Puri, Minister of Civil Aviation of India

Handbook for civil aviation

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has issued a handbook for Civil Aviation Authorities (CAAs) to help countries address the aviation safety risks. Produced specifically for national aviation regulators and civil aviation authorities, the handbook is on the Management of Aviation Safety Risks related to COVID-19. It has been developed with help from aviation experts serving on the ICAO Safety Management Panel.

What countries are doing to attract travellers

  • Over 200 private businesses in the city of Cancún in Mexico, known for its beautiful beaches, have launched an initiative to offer travellers money off.
  • Spain is ready to receive international tourists in safe conditions from July 1, 2020 without the need to be quarantined. This will save part of the tourist season while guaranteeing maximum sanitary security conditions. Work is being done at a European level so that there are common protocols/checks to guarantee security.

IATA speaks…

We aim at reopening domestic market by end of second quarter, and opening the regional or continental markets — such as Europe, North America or Asia-Pacific — by third quarter, and intercontinental by fall

– Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and CEO, IATA


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