Ever since the start of this year, when the first signs of resumption of international travel emerged from around the world, Jyoti Mayal, President of Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI), India’s largest and oldest travel trade association, has been pitching for promoting regional travel, saying that while long-haul trips may still take some time to resume, there was enough potential in India’s neighbourhood for tourism industry to restart working and growing.
With this theme in mind, TAAI, led by Mayal, has been proactively engaging with tourism authorities in countries that are short or mid-haul flight away from India. The move was welcomed wholeheartedly by most countries in the region – extending right from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries to South East Asian nations as for most of them India had emerged as one of the largest, if not the largest, market.
As a result, TAAI had initially decided to hold the convention in Sri Lanka. However, with the outbreak of civil unrest, the convention was postponed and was organised in another place in the neighbourhood, but with a difference. It was not held in any country, but onboard the Spectrum of the Seas, a cruiseliner belonging to Royal Caribbean, off the coast of Singapore.
The convention was attended by over 300 TAAI members and keeping true to her word, Mayal had also invited representatives of tourism boards of a few neighbouring countries, notably Nepal, Sri Lanka and Penang in Malaysia which also hosted a reception for the visiting Indian travel trade partners.
Boosting regional travel
The discussions at the convention began with its central theme of promoting regional travel around India and several sessions were organised around this theme, with special presentations made by officials of Nepal Tourism Board as well as Sri Lanka Tourism, with the objective of updating the Indian travel trade fraternity about the recent developments in the destinations, vis a vis tourism products and services. The Nepalese delegation also included several private tourism players who got to interact with the large number of their Indian counterparts present on the occasion and the Nepalese travel professionals say their presence at the convention was highly beneficial.
“It has been a wonderful experience for us so far, for our delegates to be a part of the 66th Cruising Convention of TAAI. TAAI is one of the largest network of tour operators in India and Nepal Tourism is always looking for getting more tourists from India and TAAI will be a very strong partner for us to achieve that goal. The networking for industry members is also very important. Governments and NTOs they do their part, but getting tourists into the country and managing their travel and what tourists are actually looking for is mostly the part of the private sector. So we have brought in 15 private sector members this convention and they are having a great time meeting with the Indian travel and trade fraternity members,” Surya Thapliyal of Nepal Tourism Board told India Outbound.
TAAI also ensured that even if the Convention could not be held in Sri Lanka, the destination was involved at the Convention and invited Chalaka Gajabahu, chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Board, who used the occasion to dispel doubts about tourism possibilities in Sri Lanka currently. “TAAI Convention was absolutely a new experience for me. I would really like to thank the TAAI Convention and Jyoti Mayal specifically. She invited me to come and address the TAAI Convention, to clear the minds of the people, the doubts that people have, even the association has on Sri Lanka point of view. I think at this Convention I made a positive impression of my country, of Sri Lanka and we look forward to move in a very positive manner with TAAI for the future,” Gajabahu told India Outbound.
Another destination that got an opportunity to meet with the TAAI delegation was Penang in Malaysia, which hosted a gala reception for the Indian delegation that disembarked from the cruiseliner to spend an evening in the resort island that has been one of the hottest destinations for Indian travellers for many years.
“I would like to congratulate TAAI for successfully organising the 66th Cruising Convention in Singapore and thank you for docking in Penang. We are glad to host the TAAI members here in Penang for this networking evening. The Indian market is crucial to us and it is amongst the top five markets for Penang and we are definitely hoping to grow this market. It has been a two years of pause for everyone and now this start is definitely beneficial for all of us and we are definitely looking to move this market further,” Ashwin Gunasekaran, CEO of Penang Convention & Exhibition Bureau told India Outbound.
Market waiting to be tapped
During the discussions, Mayal highlighted the importance of regional markets for Indian agents not only to revive their business but also to grow it ahead. Mayal emphasised the growing importance of regional tourism and how the travel trade can easily and immediately encash this opportunity that has been staring at them for a while. She said that was the primary reason for focusing on regional tourism at the Convention.
“Regional tourism is an aspect which I have been actually supporting. Our borders don’t need to be closed, another Covid or no Covid, pandemic or no pandemic, we need to keep our borders open so that we can continue tourism. Like I say let India be one state and let the regions be one India. So let us move forward with that thought and see how can we make tourism policies better, so that more people can travel, how can visas be facilitated. May be even how can we have one visa and one tourism policy, one tax structure for tourism only,” Mayal told India Outbound at the Convention.
‘‘Tourism is the only thing that can keep every country alive and we need to build on these strengths, and we have everything in this region to encash on and the opportunities are huge. We should not be missing it. We missed the opportunity of making India a very big hub 15-20 years back when it could have been the largest hub of air travel and other countries encashed on it. And I think it is still time as again we are on ground zero and we need to build all our opportunities all our businesses again and this is the right opportunity to start building again,’’ Mayal added.
The first session “War, Peace & Tourism” showcased why regional tourism was the key in the short-term, at least. One of the factors inhibiting the full-fledged return of long-haul tourism, besides limited air capacity, visa delays as well as inflation, is the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, which has led to closure of airspace that is vital for efficient connectivity between India and Europe, and which has also disrupted wider travel from around the world due to rerouting of aircraft that pushes the costs even further.
Connected traveller, technology in tourism
Another major topic of discussion was the ongoing struggle in the global travel industry in finding the right balance between the use of technology and human interface vis a vis customers. At the Convention, there was general consensus that the pandemic has led to a dramatic acceleration in adoption of technology and even ending human interface in some aspects of travel, notably vis a vis touchless transactions or actions like automated boarding or immigration gates.
Indeed, one of the sessions was ‘The Connected Traveller’ where spokespersons of airlines, hotels and cruise companies broadly agreed that while there was scope to integrate more technology to make some aspects of travel seamless, faster and easier for the travellers, the vital need for human interface at key points during preparation of the travel and even during the travel. While some speakers highlighted how they were using advanced technology like facial recognition to make customer experience better, others raised the issue of intrusive technology and lack of respect of privacy without adequate safeguards to protect the users.
Mayal says the travel trade needed to adopt technology to keep abreast with the customer needs and expectations, which have undergone large-scale changes since the outbreak of the pandemic. Mayal says that technology represented an opportunity more than a challenge. “Post-pandemic the times have changed things need to be looked at differently. The traveller is looking for experiences, he is not only looking for the run of the mill that the travel agent has been used to doing. They need to change the way of working if they want to hold their businesses. It is very easy to blame people and say that there is no business, there is enough business in the market. As a matter of fact post-Covid there are many new streams that have come in and many new avenues that have come up and people need to utilise this and people need to take this opportunities from the crisis,’’ says Mayal.
Exploring cruise tourism
Another aspect of tourism that has not been adequately explored by Indian travel trade and which was showcased at the convention was cruise tourism, both inbound and outbound. Mayal says that while Indian agents could sell more cruises in South-East Asia in the spirit of regional tourism, to make India a cruise-tourism destination, the government needed to take some steps and urgently.
‘‘For cruising we have more than 7,000 km of coastline and it is underdeveloped. Our ports are lying raw and they are not even utilised to 1 pc of their potential. The government needs to work quickly on it to say how we can connect the country from east to west to move forward,’’ says Mayal.
It was with this focus on cruise tourism potential in India that TAAI and Royal Caribbean came together to organise the Convention onboard Spectrum of the Seas. “This is the first time that a TAAI convention is been hosted on board on a cruise ship. I won’t say it was a challenge but it was an issue because it was very last minute. It came just as a though to me. I discussed it with Jyoti Mayal, and she jumped at it. I would say credit goes to her fast decision to put this together because otherwise we could have just carried on discussing and it would have just been an idea. However, we Indians excel in reacting to crisis management and we put our best foot always and it always transforms from a challenge to an opportunity, so I think that’s really what happened. Both TAAI and Tirun put their heads together and gave it our best shot to get these 312 people on board and make it a memorable experience,’’ says Ratna Chaddha, chairperson, Tirun Travel, which has been the marketing and representative of Royal Caribbean Cruises in India for the last 29 years.
With a lot of work and some fun activities at the Convention, Mayal says that she was happy with the outcome of the convention. ‘‘The 66th cruising convention has been a success in terms of number, in terms of participation, in terms of knowledge sessions, in terms of sponsorships, in terms of people wanting to illuminate their minds. Looking at the change demography of a traveller, a changed demography of a destination, the evolved traveller, the connected traveller and that is what we discussed about where we are moving today and to the future,’’ she concludes.