Talk of timing. It was February 2020 and Vachirachai Sirisumpan had just taken over as director of the New Delhi office of Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), the official tourism promotion body of the south-east Asian nation, with a whole lot of gusto and curiousity, about the immense Indian market that has emerged as one of the most important source markets for Thailand tourism. Even though parts of the world had already been gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic, in India the situation did not seem so alarming. Thus, Sirisumpan got into the act soon after landing in New Delhi and began meeting a whole lot of travel trade partners of TAT in northern India, to help understand the market trends and to devise his strategy to propel arrivals of tourists from India to new highs.
But soon enough the pandemic hit India as well, entirely disrupting travel as a nationwide total lockdown was imposed from March 25 and it obliged Sirisumpan and his team in New Delhi to change tacks urgently. “The pandemic has changed the way we work and need to adapt very fast to this challenge. I arrived in Delhi in February 2020 when the pandemic was already on high alert. At that time we were working on updating the situation in Thailand to ensure of Indian tourists’ confidence and then by end of March 2020, India was locked down as well as many other countries around the world to prevent the pandemic. Therefore, same as many other partners in travel and tourism businesses, our office’s team had to work from home and shift on our activities to be online,” Sirisumpan tells India Outbound.
Moving online did become the SOP for all tourism bureaus in India and for many it has continued to remain the same. Even though physical or face to face meetings come with their own advantages, most tourism boards say they have had little practical difficulties in going fully digital during the lockdown, primarily because there had been increasingly migration to the digital domain over the preceding few years, due to the explosion in social media usage in India. So, while many destinations had been focusing on the digital media for reaching end consumers, most preferred dealing with the trade face to face, but with the lockdown digital was the only option of communicating with everyone, including the trade. This was the big change for many, but few seem troubled.
“We have kept our interactions with the trade alive through virtual catch ups, webinars, online trainings and our annual B2B workshops which took on a digital avatar this year. Our two B2B workshops resulted in a total of 528 online meetings that took place over two days between the French partners and the Indian trade. Our e-learning platforms and our participation in various webinars people to choose Britain when the time comes to book,” Vishal Bhatia, country manager of VisitBritain in India tells India Outbound.
Bhatia goes on to say that continuing with its digital strategy, VisitBritain will host its flagship annual travel trade event ExploreGB as a virtual event from March 1-5 2021, connecting international buyers with travel trade suppliers from across the UK to do business and boost bookings. “Using a tried and tested online platform, ExploreGB Virtual will give travel industry suppliers and destinations from across the UK the chance to get their products and services in front of top global buyers and forge valuable business connections,” he says.
South African Tourism India has invested in virtually training over 150 trade partners each week, across all travel verticals as well as engaging with consumers, CEOs and MICE leaders to understand consumer travel sentiment firsthand, says Neliswa NKani, hub head of Middle East, India & South East Asia at South African Tourism. It has launched SA Specialist, an interactive online learning programme, that has witnessed an increase in the number of Indian travel trade undertaking the training, as trade agents are using the pandemic to upskill and reskill themselves. “At present, we are in the process of setting up a platform for the Indian trade to interact directly with Provinces and local tourism boards in South Africa – we hope to unlock mutually profitable synergies through these associations,” Nkani tells India Outbound.
Braving the pandemic blow
The pandemic hit the Indian market plans for practically all the destinations, though to varying degrees. Most managers say they had to deal with a budget cut or at least an overhaul of their spends in the Indian market. “Almost all our activities and events post March 2020 were impacted because of the pandemic. Our flagship event of the year – our annual B2B workshop- was transformed into a digital initiative. Most of our events and initiatives were transformed into virtual ones to adapt to the situation like everyone else. Certain activations have been put on hold to kick start them at more a more opportune time,” says Atout France’s Munshaw.
TAT says the focus, as with many nations, is on domestic tourism which has revived and can boost the tourism business at the time of international travel restriction and limitation. “So, our budget is much less than previous year but our team has to see it as a challenge on how to optimise projects and activities. We focus on the return of investment (ROI) both quantity and quality as well as short and long term to promote Thailand in Indian market. Most of activities that has been disrupted or put-on-hold are those which involve travelling such as familiarisation trips to Thailand for travel agents and media which we could not organise at this time and our participation in travel trade shows which we need to wait and see when situation improves,” says Sirisumpan. “It is important that Thailand is present in the outbound market and commitment to work with our travel trade partner in India, but it has to be at the appropriate time and travel situation as well. Though we have started organising small functions to meet with our travel trade partners which are very well responded and have received good feedback,” he adds
Though the budgets had been slashed, to varying degrees, most destinations say there has not been any cut in local employee strength in India. “There has been no change to Atout France India’s employee structure in 2020. Of course, in 2020, our activity calendar was replete with B2B and B2C initiatives all through the year. Our activities were impacted to a great deal in 2020 but we reinvented ourselves and added the digital element to our way of working to continue an effectively showcase France’s touristic offerings and keep the recall high so that when borders open, France continues to stay on top of the travellers’ wish list,” says Munshaw.
“I would not say that we have scaled down our presence as India is very important market to Thailand and everyone knows that the Indian outbound market will bounce back very quick once the international travel has been eased. So, I would say that TAT India Offices both in New Delhi and Mumbai have adapted to the situation and limitations but our aim to maintain and promote Thailand to be favourite destination has not been scaled down. For 2020 nearly all activities have been moved to online and we only started some physical events during the last quarter of last year. For 2021, it will be on priority the activities to promote Thailand in term of continue to create awareness and engagement as well as to push sale with the target groups.
Top of travellers’ thoughts
As different strains of coronavirus continue to ravage parts of the world, for the moment few destinations have opened fully or even partially to tourism and predictions of most experts point at the situation continuing for at least the first quarter of the year. In absence of restarting normal activities and receiving tourists, most destinations say that their focus is keep themselves firmly entrenched at the top of travellers’ minds.
“Our main focus is to maintain and continue to promote Thailand as ‘Top of Mind’ destination for both trade and travellers in India, so we have done activities consistently to create both positive awareness and engagement keeping in consideration the right balance. We have been working with various media partners as well as with travel trade and travel and tourism industry in Thailand on keeping the momentum of Thailand for Indian tourists,’’ says Sirisampan.
“We are in an ever-changing situation with some markets opening up and some going into lockdown, we remain agile and flexible to this and will adapt our messaging. The important message we want to give to all of our markets is that even if you can’t travel at the moment, Britain will be waiting for you for when you can. VisitBritain is keeping Britain front of mind globally for when the time comes for us to promote travel once more. ‘Day Dreaming with VisitBritain’ is a campaign we are currently hosting on our website and promoting through our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter channels. The campaign invites our partners and influencers to contribute via blogs on their memories of Britain. In addition, we are also hosting ‘Travel Hangovers’ every Friday on Instagram using the recently launched Reels feature to invite bloggers/influencers to share pre-recorded videos on Britain,” says Bhatia.
Atout France too has reinforced presence on digital platforms. It launched ‘Friends of France’ campaign reaching out to trade, media and influencer network to share their best memories of France through a post or video which were then posted on its social media channels. “We received enthusiastic responses for this campaign. We also collaborated with the French Embassy for various digital initiatives especially the ‘French Fridays’ social media campaign that showcased a different facet of France every Friday on our social media networks. On the B2B front, for our workshop, we organised an interactive culinary session with Chef Pooja Dhingra. To keep the French connection alive, we had sent beforehand a DIY baking kit to agents enabling them to bake along Chef Dhingra. Agents also received digital postcards and souvenirs that brought France to their homes,” says Munshaw.
“For the current year, we are hoping to organise our on-ground events, specially the B2B showcase in the second half of the year. We will need to adapt as per the situation and will take the digital route if required,” she adds.
Welcoming Indian travellers back
Understandably, views on what 2021 holds for overseas destinations in India are fairly divergent, depending upon the situation of the pandemic in the country.
South Africa seems to be set to be first off the block, with the exception of countries like the UAE or Maldives. “We are very optimistic about 2021, as there is a pent-up demand for international travel. Our travel trade partners tell us that Indians are raring to travel. We are already seeing plenty of interest and queries for destination South Africa, especially from Indian business and leisure travellers. At South African Tourism, we expect to see Indian traffic to the destination in the first half of this year, subject to border restrictions and connectivity,” says Nkani, adding that the country has prepared a lot of exciting options for Indian travellers to rediscover the country and its myriad attractions (see box).
Most destinations are however looking at the second half of the year for travel to resume in some meaningful fashion from India, due to the ongoing issues like border closures, quarantines and lack of good connectivity because of restrictions on air travel, especially from and to India. Thailand’s Sirisumpan is buoyed by the revival of domestic travel since the last quarter of last year as well as decent number of departures to destinations that are already open. Vaccination against Covid-19 that is currently going on across the world is a big factor in bringing confidence back to the sector.
“With vaccination in progress, I do see a high possibility of India outbound travelling. For Indians to travel to Thailand, based on my duty and mission, I do hope that Thailand would be able to welcome Indian tourists back very soon, but I understand that Indian tourists will wait for the 14 days quarantines to be lifted, for which I can not give precise timing, but I do have high hopes that by 3rd or 4th quarter of this year there would be a positive sign of connecting and travel more for Indians to visit Thailand,” he says.
“We are also encouraged to see that airline access has already increased since the travel bubble agreement came into place in July 2020. As part of our India strategy, we are also working with airline partners to support new routes which have been recently launched. Tourism is an extremely competitive global industry and Britain will need to be out there and competing for international visitors. VisitBritain’s priority is to ensure that tourism rebounds to once again become one of the most successful sectors of the UK economy and we are working closely with the tourism industry and the UK government,” says Bhatia.
“India is a core market for South African Tourism globally and holds much promise in the coming years. Indian travellers are resilient, with a large appetite for travel and new experiences. They may, however, now choose to travel differently – we can expect to see a rise in FITs, demands for drivecations, and flexible booking dates. We are looking at introducing newer, customised experiences, products and itineraries for this rising FIT traveller segment,” adds Nkani.
Most destinations believe and hope that the year ahead will see a sharp resurgence of traffic across all segments of travel mainly due to pent up demand – be it weddings, family vacations and of course business travel. As the global economy continues its recovery, that scenario may be closer than most believe.
Destinations Speak Digital
The pandemic has changed the way we work and need to adapt very fast to this challenge. I arrived in Delhi in February 2020 when the pandemic was already on high alert. At that time we were working on updating the situation in Thailand to ensure of Indian tourists’ confidence and then by end of March 2020 India was locked down as well as many other countries around the world to prevent the pandemic. Therefore, same as many other partners in travel and tourism businesses, our office’s team had to work from home and shift on our activities to be online.
We are supporting our travel industry partners to ensure they have access to VisitBritain’s recovery approach and campaign information as it develops. We have continued to engage with more than 4000 partners in the travel trade through webinars since April 2020 to provide the latest guidance and information on travel to Britain. As Indian travellers continue to dream and plan for future international trips, the travel trade’s extensive networks ensure a large and targeted reach to inspire people to choose Britain when the time comes to book.
We have kept our interactions with the trade alive through virtual catch ups, webinars, online trainings and our annual B2B workshops which took on a digital avatar this year. Our two B2B workshops resulted in a total of 528 online meetings that took place over two days between the French partners and the Indian trade. Our e-learning platforms and our participation in various webinars also led to more than 16,000 agents being trained on France. We are also regularly updating the trade on the situation in France through newsletters.
South African Tourism India has invested in virtually training over 150 trade partners each week, across all travel verticals as well as engaging with consumers, CEOs and MICE leaders to understand consumer travel sentiment firsthand, says Neliswa NKani, hub head of Middle East, India & South East Asia at South African Tourism. It has launched SA Specialist, an interactive online learning programme, that has witnessed an increase in the number of Indian travel trade undertaking the training, as trade agents are using the pandemic to upskill and reskill themselves. “At present, we are in the process of setting up a platform for the Indian trade to interact directly with Provinces and local tourism boards in South Africa – we hope to unlock mutually profitable synergies through these associations.
Sustainable, niche tourism in South Africa await India
Neliswa Nkani, hub head of Middle East, India & South East Asia, South African Tourism, tells India Outbound about how South Africa has prepared to receive Indian tourists in the coming weeks.
We are aware of the effect the pandemic has on the global economy, and have been repackaging accordingly, with the intent to offer consumers’ excellent deals and discounts. Safety measures are transparent and well-communicated, and have been factored into overall packages, so that there is no surprise or extra-cost to travellers. We are also in conversation with several airlines to figure how we can best optimize and reduce travel costs. We believe that the competitive pricing edge that South Africa has over most other long-haul international destinations, will go a long way in aiding travel conversions.
We are very optimistic about 2021, as there is a pent-up demand for international travel. Our travel trade partners tell us that Indians are raring to travel. We are already seeing plenty of interest and queries for destination South Africa, especially from Indian business and leisure travellers. At South African Tourism, we expect to see Indian traffic to the destination in the first half of this year, subject to border restrictions and connectivity.
Specific plans for the year include: Promoting New Regions and safe experiences
Given that travellers are predicted to seek offbeat destinations, with good connectivity and a large number of activities within confined areas – we anticipate that South Africa’s new regions and geographies will be a hit with Indian travellers in 2021.
For the next couple of months, travellers can enter through cities that have restored international connectivity, so either through the Mother City – Cape Town, Johannesburg or Durban, and use these cities as a gateway to the rest of these picturesque new regions, including the stunning and relatively unexplored Port Elizabeth, Robertson, West Coast, Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal, Panorama Route (Mpumalanga) and Garden Route.
With regards to experiences, we will focus on leveraging the USPs South Africa has for the evolved and cautious post-Covid traveller. For example, the appeal of a safari holiday has increased given its natural ability to support social distancing. With the natural world as its stage, the essence of a safari has not changed. However, guests will experience enhanced sanitization policies, regular temperature checks for guests and staff, smaller camps and smaller game drive groups to ensure social distancing is maintained even in the safari vehicle. These safety and hygiene protocols can be expected across as all adventure, culinary and cultural attractions as well.
Targeting niche communities
A large focus area for 2021 will be mobilising niche communities in India. We expect self-drives to be popular with Indian travellers given that South Africa has some of the most beautiful self-drive routes in the world. Safe car rentals will play an important role in the tourism ecosystem, as larger number of travellers are turning to self-drives for the assurance of privacy and safety. The fact that Indian licenses are valid in South Africa is a huge bonus!
We want to invite biking groups to explore the vast, spectacular South African terrain. We are also looking at having more runners from India participate in uniquely South African ultra-marathons like the Comrades Marathon and the Two Oceans Marathon.
We anticipate that the immersive travel trend will continue in a post-Covid world, with a greater focus on sustainability. This means that travellers will be more conscious of where they spend their money, what kind of accommodation they choose, where they dine, and how they travel locally.
At South African Tourism, we are enhancing efforts to make our itineraries, properties and transport facilities more sustainable. We also intend to showcase our sustainable product offerings and ecotourism experiences, like cycling tours, nature safaris, conservation projects and rural experiences.