Numerous nations around the world have reopened their frontiers to international tourists even though they have not yet fully vanquished coronavirus. It signals a godsent opportunity for the Indian travel trade that has been on its knees since March.
After months of an uncertain wait, life at Thomas Cook (India), the nation’s largest travel company, seems to be fast picking up pace, even though it is nowhere near the normal hullaballoo that prevailed in the pre-pandemic days. The phones are ringing again and company’s email inboxes are slowly getting filled up with enquiries from the first customers who are beginning to tentatively plan their first overseas travel since the coronavirus pandemic hit the country in March.
The enquiries are in response to some of the new programmes that Thomas Cook has launched over the past few weeks as it sensed a revival was on the cards, something that it had ascertained through a series of surveys conducted earlier, which pointed at the desire of some tourists to travel again, even before the end of the year. The survey found that 14 pc respondents indicated that they are likely to travel in 2020 once restrictions were lifted. While 45 pc respondents preferred to defer their holiday to 2021 and as many as 41 pc were undecided. Of those planning to travel later this year, 29 pc said they could travel in November, while 50 pc opted for December.
‘‘According to our survey, ‘Holiday readiness travel report – Future of travel post Covid-19’, outbound travel is set to rebound. We have therefore launched our innovative line of products basis consumer feedback, while allowing them adequate time to plan their holidays well in advance,’’ Rajeev Kale, president of Thomas Cook India, tells India
Kale goes on to add that a recovery is already visible. ‘‘We are already seeing green shoots of recovery with not just enquiries, but paid transactions – both domestic and international and this is very encouraging. The Indian market has always been resilient and our strategy of offering flexibility (no change fee, zero cancellation charges up to five days before departure) and attractive pricing with value additions like upgrades and child stays free are working well to drive pent up demand into bookings,’’ he says.
Backing up Thomas Cook’s experience, a few other agents say that a revival is likely before too long, even if it is a limited one with few clients opting for a select group of destinations. This number could definitely grow higher as countries across the world open up to foreign tourists. Another big challenge, in fact the biggest one facing the outbound travel is the removal of an unprecedented ban on scheduled flights to and from India that has been in force since March 22.
Destinations restart & reset
Over the past two months, a number of countries have announced that they are getting ready to reopen their frontiers and receive foreign tourists, after a ban that has been in place since the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year. Turkey was the first major country that had said in May itself that it would be glad to welcome Chinese tourists. Since then a number of countries have decided to receive tourists from overseas, even if gradually.
Spain was the most ambitious of the 27-member European Union as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced that his country would reopen its borders to international tourists from July onwards, urging global footloose travellers to spend their 2020 vacation in the sunny Spain. Since then, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Maldives, Nepal and Seychelles have also begun preparations to receive tourists from around the world and especially India, which is one of the largest source markets for an increasing number of destinations.
Travel and tourism industry around the world is on its knees after practically all major countries were forced to shut their frontiers to tourists and imposed stiff lockdowns for almost six months due to the coronavirus pandemic. For many countries, and not just exotic tropical islands, tourism is key to their economy, accounting for a fair share of the GDP and one of the largest and most diverse employers. Thus, today there seems to be a race to be the first off the block.
Their sense of urgency may be rather obvious if seen from the economic point of view. The pandemic has cost hundreds of millions of jobs around the world and the share of tourism in this is relatively higher. Hence, the politicians think that they could earn some brownie points with their voters by showing that they are being proactive in economic revival and to restore jobs. As the borders reopen and airlines resume flying, tourism is expected to revive, even if slowly. Here, some countries seem to be ahead of the curve, notably those nations that had been hit by the coronavirus pandemic earlier in the cycle and who have since recovered, at least from the health and safety point of view.
But while destinations, airlines and hotels resume their activities, the bigger question is whether the tourists are ready to travel yet. And also, by corollary, are travel agents and other key intermediaries ready with the basics such as contracts and deals for the year which would be key to any resumption of business.
Indians travellers yearning to get back on a plane
In this context, agents like Thomas Cook, SOTC and many other smaller players have been gearing up to cater to the upcoming demand. Many of them believe that the first flush of tourists may start coming through before the end of the year. “Taking the current scenario into consideration, Indians won’t travel immediately but yes gradually people will travel. As tourism is something which will pick up sooner or later and people will travel once the panic settles down a bit,” Riddhi Roy of Dolphin Travel, a travel agent in Kolkata, tells India Outbound.
Eager to steal a march over its rivals, notably the OTAs, Thomas Cook has introduced a wide range of destinations including short haul international favourites such as Maldives, Mauritius, Thailand, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia. The company has also launched tours to a whole bunch of countries in Europe, Eurasian nations as well as Kenya, South Africa and New Zealand. The company says that it has already started to receive bookings for overseas travels from September onwards.
Keeping in mind the current situation and the changing consumer preferences, Thomas Cook says it has launched a new product of short breaks or mini-cations and the response has been very satisfactory, the company says. ‘‘Indian consumers are displaying a growing appetite for mini-cations that are convenient and flexible. Therefore, our City Escapes to places like Istanbul, Salzburg, Helsinki, Krakow, Zagreb, Riga and Almaty have been thoughtfully designed to include centrally located hotels for easy access, optional top ups with a diversity of experiences – and at very affordable pricing. We wanted to also gauge customer sentiment while exploring pent up demand. The response has been positive in regard to interest and the bookings / potential bookings meet our expectations,’’ says Kale.
Encouragingly for the outbound travel market, 36 pc of the respondents to Thomas Cook’s survey had said they would prefer to travel overseas first, mainly to short haul destinations like Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Dubai, Abu Dhabi. Surprisingly, even long-haul destinations like Australia, New Zealand and the USA were not off-limits for some of the travellers. Even Europe, which has only recently managed to get a grip over the pandemic, would still attract 38 pc of the respondents.
Even though the entire world has turned topsy turvy since the outbreak, Indian tour operators say they are not just ready, but eager to do business. “Tour operators are ready because since March we have only been taking cancellations. I believe every operator is ready with the necessary precautions to start off with business as soon as customers start coming to us with enquiries,’’ says Roy.
The travel firms say that a revival of tourism doesn’t seem to be a distant reality as people are now yearning to get out of the confines of their homes. The agents say that clients enquiring or booking with them are talking of very specific months for travel and they also know where they would like to go. It is indeed a major turnaround in the fortunes of Indian travel industry which had been getting ready for a total washout in 2020.
The travel companies say that they expect the revival to be slow and build over time as Indian tourists need to first find the confidence that their travel will be safe and not just themselves, but also the travel company, the airline, the hotels and other tourism sites that they would be visiting are following the latest norms of safety and hygiene.
One key shift in travel post-pandemic is that the consumers would not mind paying a premium for health and safety. A survey by Thomas Cook found that safety ranked as the primary concern for as many as 75 pc of the respondents; with 35 pc also willing to increase their spend to ensure the same. As a result, the market could see some major shift as bigger brands could benefit from the focus on health and safety as 72 pc respondents preferred reputed brands across their journey – including tour operators and hotel chains.
The focus on safety is likely to translate into another change in travel patterns as travellers now display a noticeable preference towards travelling in smaller groups, primarily due to issue of health and hygiene. In order to target this segment, Thomas Cook has launched a novel concept of ‘Private Journeys’ that offers premium, chauffeur-drive vans on tours specially designed for smaller/secure groups of family or close friends. The easy-paced itineraries promise a relaxed holiday with in-depth exploration of each destination. The company has offered a wide variety of places in Europe, Asia to choose from and says it is very happy with the response from customers on such tours.
‘‘The response for Private Journeys has been encouraging and we continue to receive queries as also bookings for travel in Q1 2021. It has only been a week since the launch and we look forward to more enquiries and bookings in the time to come,’’ says Kale.
In response to travellers’ concerns about health and safety, there have been other innovative initiatives by key players in the industry. For instance, Emirates Airlines, perhaps the airline with largest outbound air capacity from India, has launched a medical cover for all its flyers who take a flight until October 30. The airline says it will reimburse coronavirusrelated medical expenses of up to EUR 150,000 and also pay for a 14-day quarantine at EUR 100 per day.
As more air routes open up around the world, one could expect other offers from airlines and destinations alike.
But a big hurdle, perhaps the biggest one facing the revival of outbound tourism, is the closure of Indian airspace to international flights. The government has permitted some of the foreign carriers to fly into India but these are not the scheduled flights and there is still a strict control over who can fly.
However, the civil aviation minister has been talking of introducing air bubbles to permit normal flights to specific countries and this could lead to a revival of sorts. “Yes, I feel international flights should start soon. I feel the government needs to help reduce panic and help life get back to normalcy with whatever precautions needed and international travel is one big factor to restore confidence that normalcy would soon be here,’’ says Roy of Dolphin Travels.