Outbound travel firms gasp for survival in bubbles

Lack of visibility severely hurting outbound travel industry
/ New Delhi
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Resumption of international flights will go a long way to help outbound tourism industry in India (IO Photos/Varsha Singh)

Over five months after international flights were suspended in view of the coronavirus pandemic, outbound travel business in India is in deep trouble in absence of any clarity over resumption of regular flights. Confusion over who can fly and to where confounds the problem further.

It has been five months since the international flights were banned. A step that was taken to restrict the spread of coronavirus in the country is now simply killing businesses, especially the Indian travel industry.

“Not having regular flights has really hampered business and is also a bit of harassment on the client’s part as well. As of now we still continue to be in dark as there is no clarity on when and how we would or should revive the business,” Riddhi Roy of Dolphin Travel, a travel agent in Kolkata, tells India Outbound.

The different rules by different state governments is adding to the agony of the travel agents. In order to spread the curb from states that have high cases of coronavirus, few Indian states have banned flights from those states. This too is creating a lot of trouble for the travel operators. “Kolkata is not allowing flights from Delhi, Mumbai which is also very difficult as international flights are mostly departing and landing to and from Delhi and Mumbai,” adds Roy.

Alert to the importance of travel and tourism to their economies, many countries around the world have not only provided emergency aid to the sector, but have also started reopening their borders, permitting resumption of normal flights as well as welcoming tourists, even as they continue to grapple with the pandemic. The Gulf Cooperation Council nations are amongst a few of the latest nations to allow resumption of travel, including from India.

The travel firms are agitated as even though they see a fair bit of pent up demand for overseas travel from several Indians who have had enough of being cooped up inside their homes for over five months, they are unable to convert this strong desire into business, in the absence of flights.

The government has kept a stranglehold over international flights, strictly monitoring not just who can travel overseas and for what reasons, but also which airline can fly, to which destinations and how often, with what kind of aircraft.

For over four months, the government relied only on Vande Bharat Mission that saw Air India take a lion’s share of flight rights to various destinations, with some flights for other carriers, namely Indigo, SpiceJet, Vistara and Go Air. But earlier in August, it was obliged to allow airlines from other countries to fly into India or face the prospect of bans on flights by Indian carriers to several nations. Hence, India has now entered air bubble agreements with several nations including United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, France, UAE, Qatar and Maldives.

Vande Bharat Mission flights are masking real demand for outbound travel

Even though a number of special flights have since begun servicing these destinations, there is tremendous confusion about who can board these flights and the necessary documentation to be carried by passengers on these flights. ‘‘Regarding VBM, there is a whole lot of confusion as customers continue to panic and with so many rules and regulations that keep changing frequently, it has become an unmanageable mess to be able to book passengers on these. Also, the availability of ticket is an issue due to the very limited capacity. I have booked few passengers coming from USA and few students going back to Singapore under VBM,’’ says Roy of Dolphin Travels.

With no other business in sight, even bigger travel firms like Thomas Cook, India’s biggest, are obliged to turn to VBM and air bubbles as a way to do some business. Thomas Cook says it has so far booked over 10,000 passengers on VBM flights to various destinations. This includes repatriation of some Canadian citizens in partnership with Canadian High Commission.

‘‘We have catered to a wide segment of travellers through repatriation flights and the air bubble agreements – including those stranded in India – on work/immigrant/student visa as also Green cards & resident visa holders across destinations such as USA, Canada, UK, France and Germany, among others,’’ Indiver Rastogi, president & group head, Global Business Travel, Thomas Cook (India) tells India Outbound. ‘‘What is encouraging is that we are now seeing a strong return of the individual business traveller. Charter demand too has been significant – for repatriation, business travel and sports. Currently destinations like Dubai are featuring strongly on the traveller’s radar,’’ adds Rastogi.

However, these crumbs are not going to help the travel industry that is gasping for life as five months of little to no business has brought even the most mighty in the field to their knees. Yet, there is no visibility on when the government may reopen the aviation sector fully and allow regular flights which are critical for resumption of tourism. The agents say that leisure travellers are reluctant to start travelling again due to extremely high pricing of tickets on VBM flights and lack of clarity about which destination may reopen and under what conditions would Indian tourists be allowed to travel to these destinations.

The travel trade has approached the government on numerous occasions with request to allow resumption of flights and thus allow this key economic activity. ‘‘Of course, we have approached the government various times and at various platforms. But if you see it from tourism perspective people are skeptical as flights haven’t started normally and the governments, central and state, frequently change rules on who can travel, when and from where. Plus, there are quarantines in many states which also hampers international travel,’’ says Roy of Dolphin Travels.

Despite the lack of clarity from the government, most travel companies in India are hopeful that in the next quarter, outbound travel may start moving back to normalcy, at least in terms of availability of regular flights. ‘‘We expect operations to scale to a commercial level by Q4 2020, but it will take well into Q1 2021 for full scale operations of flights to between most countries,’’ says Rastogi.

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