Reopening for Tourism 2.0

The first digital conclave themed “reselling tourism” concluded with a record number of viewers from the Middle East and Asia. There were two sessions; the first session included three personalities in the travel trade – Nasir Jamal Khan, Jamal Abdulnazar and Tarique Khatri.

Shehara Rizly

The three panellists mentioned the importance of the industry to stay positive during these challenging times as there will be light at the end of the tunnel. One of the key factors mentioned throughout was keeping the customers informed as to what is currently happening will help in building their confidence.

GCC ready to travel
In his opening statement, Nasir Jamal Khan, CEO, Al Naboodah Travel, mentioned, “If you look into the demographics of GCC, you will see that most of the people are ready to travel, most of the people need to travel; they will travel outbound to meet their family and friends, there will be people travelling inbound to the UAE to meet their family and friends therefore outbound will start in August and beyond. We hope that by October, November or December we will have a good number of inbound visitors to the UAE.”

Jamal Abdulnazar, Chief Executive Officer, Cozmo Travel, shared, “Human beings are very resilient in nature and travel is in the blood of most of the people in the Middle East. They have the heritage of travelling therefore the doubt of travel not coming in is not at all there, business will pick up but at a slow pace.”

Tarique Khatri, Executive Vice President Center of Excellence, Seera Group, shared, “Last month we carried out a survey in KSA with 3,000 plus customers, almost 70% of the people who participated in the survey expressed that they were confident to travel. Secondly they were willing to travel to places that has health and safety measures in place.”

Rise in staycations or domestic tourism
Over the past few months the government of UAE has been working very hard to ensure safety of all those who live there by sanitising all the areas. Most hotels remained open even during the lockdown to cater to some of the people that could not head back to their respective destinations due to closure of their home bound destination airports and borders. All hotels in the UAE were given instructions for opening with proper hygiene and safety protocols that are necessary. Every year, summer is the time of staycations or domestic tourism, as most people take their vacation along with that of their children and enjoy great deals through the summer. Surprises for summer announced by every emirate ensure that the retail sector is active. This year too a good amount of residents are seen partaking in the many hotel offerings. Khan noted, “Staycations or domestic tourism has now become popular especially during the summer. Residents will make use of the good deals on offer.” Abdulnazar reiterated, “As hotels, attractions and malls announced their deals we can see how residents are enjoying the staycations.” Khatri mentioned the difference during this year in terms of staycations or domestic tourism in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “People in KSA know that the places are safe to travel so when they are confident they want to travel first to destinations within where they reside, hence when domestic flights started we saw a rise in the segment of domestic tourism and saw that they wanted to visit lesser known places and cities, which we have now incorporated in our information guide. ”

Ensuring ‘customer confidence’
Ensuring the confidence of the client or the traveller is most important at this point of time. However, the travel agents did play a vital role when all the airports went on lockdown mode and people had to cancel and request refunds. This was a turning point for the industry, those who had made online bookings had to face many challenges for obtaining their refunds especially as there were cancellations. In the GCC, travel agents play a key role for travellers hence they ensured that the refunds, policies, information about the bookings were clearly communicated to their customers. Khan stated, “The role of the travel agent I believe will remain the same or become more important. Over the last couple of months when people wanted their bookings cancelled and refunded, they faced many issues. Booking tickets online was hard over the months as getting refunds and information too was difficult. When you go through a travel agent you know that he will provide you the refund and help the customer as much as possible. Travel agents do play a major role; corporates need a travel agent so that all their requirements are met with and most importantly they are offered a 30, 60 or 90-day credit period.”

Abdulnazar added, “Currently customer confidence is a big question mark but as a travel agent we help customers to maintain the confidence by engaging with them and sharing information about the health and safety measures. Also, we made sure that the customers received their refunds without having to wait, this helps build the relationship with them as we cater to their most important needs.

It will take some time to overcome the fear caused by the pandemic. Airlines have now found that there is an ultraviolet system that can destroy any virus, and this will help to regain trust among the travellers. Our role is important as a service provider, it is vital at this point of time, especially at the time of cancellations and refunds for customers. We should be providing them information on the safety measures and places, hotels that are safe so that they may become more confident. Travel agents’ role will be more vital, although everyone thought that with the internet coming in travel agents will go out of their business. However, people realised the importance of having a travel agent to depend on.”

Khatri shared, “In our survey, one of the most important points was that the customer wanted to know more details about refunds and cancellation policies, so as a travel agent we provided all this information to them to ensure that they are clear about the policies and conditions.”

Upgrade technology to support agents
Some of the lessons learnt through the pandemic were that those travel agents who were well equipped with technology managed to serve their customers more efficiently. “Going online we cannot deny the fact that technology will take over, however over a time period of five to 10 years. After the pandemic people will need one-to-one interactions; currently we are helping them by providing information on health and safety measures, opening of countries, their policies on entering etc.,” Abdulnazar stated. “Customers will prefer technology-driven areas. We need to come up with new and efficient technology to improve transactions.”

Khatri mentioned that having efficient technology can support the travel agent. “What is most important is that we all want to go forward, we do not want to go back to doing archaic things and one of the ways in which we can deal with our customers, vendors, partners, etc. is to look at them from a technology point of view; how can we make it faster, error free and more efficient, more seamless in every possible way because customers will demand a higher level of transparency for services while engaging with them. Travel agents have to invest in technology that will enable them to serve customers in the best possible way. At the end of the day it is the customer behaviour that drives and influences the market trends, not the other way around. Technology will evolve and there will be new methods to support the industry. Today technology is much cheaper than before, so investing in technology will make the travel agent more efficient. There are many new tools that will make the agents serve their customers more efficiently. In my opinion, we need to adapt to the new technologies and ensure that the customer benefits at the end.”

Outbound travel to resume
As UAE has already opened for outbound travel to the residents, most of them are taking shorter trips, especially to see their families. This has been a trend in summer every year. Khan shared, “Outbound will start by August to short-haul destinations and travellers will look for health and safety when flights start operating and airports and borders open. Travellers may opt for direct destinations than connecting flights during summer, however, travel will pick up soon. Travel insurance will now come into place, people will prefer to rent a car as a full package with other travel requisites. As travel agents we will have to upgrade our technology. People will also prefer to reach out to a travel agent to book the package so that they are assured of their refunds and information sharing; there will be a demand for the travel agent, just the role will be different.”

Abdulnazar was confident that outbound will pick up at a slower pace with leisure and corporate travel taking more time to revive. “Currently customers are interested in places where health and safety takes first place. Travel insurance will be mandatory with a clause of COVID test in place. The government is looking at the ultraviolet emissions from the AC vent that can kill any virus, including the COVID, which will build confidence in customers to travel.” Khatri went back to the survey and shared that most people would prefer to start off with short-haul destinations, especially UAE has always been the most favourite among Saudis and it will once again be so, once restrictions are lifted, borders open and people can travel. The relationship enjoyed between the two countries is another important factor as they prioritise on health and safety measures. “One of the top destinations Saudis like to travel to is UAE, I see a big jump, it is all a matter of opening the borders and starting flights, then Saudis will come to their favourite city.”

Travellers may opt for direct destinations than connecting flights during summer, however, travel will pick up soon. People will prefer to rent a car as a full package with other travel requisites. — Nasir Jamal Khan

The government is looking at the ultraviolet emissions from the AC vent that can kill any virus, including the COVID, which will build confidence in customers to travel. — Jamal Abdulnazar

One of the top destinations Saudis like to travel to is UAE, I see a big jump, it is all a matter of opening the borders and starting flights, then Saudis will come to their favourite city. — Tarique Khatri

Corporate travel
GCC is a huge corporate market; they need somebody to look after their business. They come to the agent for credit as online they have to pay cash. Currently we are working with corporates in terms of repatriation flights. — Nasir Jamal Khan

Middle East cruise business will resume soon. — Jamal Abdulnazar

Efficient technology
We have to bring in new information systems and financial disciplines with efficient technology to control the business, retain customers and enjoy profitability. — Jamal Abdulnazar

Most important is changing the way we deal with our partners and vendors and customers. Travel agent services and technology will go hand-in-hand. — Tarique Khatri

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