Tourism industry needs to reskill, restructure, reboot and rebrand

Jyoti Mayal, President of Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI), opines that tourism can be revived by foregoing tourist visa fees & advances, no cancellation charges on forward bookings and cash refund, offering a COVID-19 insurance to travellers , tax free holidays, incentivising MICE for  Indian corporates & showcasing sanitisation & hygiene by virtual trips.

Ms. Jyoti Mayal- President of Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI)

IBT: How has COVID-19 influenced the tourism and travel industry in India in terms of losses incurred and unemployment?

Jyoti Mayal: According to the industry estimates, the tourism & hospitality industry is expected to suffer a loss of Rs 15 billion and the effects of the pandemic are expected to spill over to Q4. Workers being told to go on paid leaves, retrenchments and closures of businesses have become the order of the day. Similarly, many airlines are on the brink of bankruptcy. This will have a significant impact on the economy as the sector accounts for 10% of India’s GDP & generates 12% of employment.

This situation might improve once a cure has been found for the pandemic. However, the revival will be subdued & slow. The industry will have to adapt to new norms revolving around social distancing and adequate quarantine. Everything needs to be rebuilt from scratch and this calls for the need to reskill, restructure, reboot and rebrand. At the same time, the possibility that the virus might come back in a new form cannot be ruled out. Therefore, the industry must learn from this experience and be prepared for such a situation in the future.

IBT: What strategies can be adopted by stakeholders of the tourism industry to build confidence of travellers across the globe? What additional practices can be adopted to ensure their safety?

Jyoti Mayal: The first suggestion to build the confidence of travellers is to ramp up the testing of COVID-19 in the country to make the results open to public. Secondly, different states in the country have  different norms in place pertaining to things like travel restrictions and structure. This creates confusion in the traveller, which can be easily dispelled if we have a uniform policy across the country. Advertisements in newspapers, dailies and regular updates from the government can help disseminate such information among travellers.

Thirdly, people have become jittery about travelling these days. Therefore, measures like no cancellation policies & refund of money on ticket cancellations can play a major role in instilling confidence in travellers. Fourth, these travellers should be provided a COVID-19 insurance; so that just in case they happen to fall sick while travelling, they are able to get medical aid with no extra cost and insurance paid. Fifth, all the professionals in the industry – such as travel agents – need to be certified that they are COVID-free and healthy to work.

IBT: Given that domestic tourism is likely to play a key role in reviving the industry, what should be done to spur this segment? How can states emerge as attractive tourist destinations?

Jyoti Mayal: India is a beautiful land with a plethora of stunning sites and an array of attractions – medical tourism, wellness tourism, village tourism, agriculture tourism, cuisine, culture, wildlife & so forth. However, these can be promoted only if the Ministry of Tourism brands and endorses them as locations offering the best packages and proper sanitisation.

But at the same time, each state should come out with new travel products across the country, which are supported by the Ministry, in order to emerge as an attractive tourist destination. The uniqueness of each state needs to be marketed well. Social media & virtual travel can be leveraged to promote tourist attractions in various states.

Also, the government needs to consider revising GST and VAT in the light of the pandemic. Creating a tourism workforce fund to support industry employees will also keep the businesses running. Imparting skills to the industry stakeholders is also something that the government needs to undertake to protect the sector from the harsh effects of the pandemic. Another thing that the state governments should consider is opening public places to a larger audience than just 50, provided adequate safety measures are in place. Uniform policies of quarantine also need to be put in place.

IBT: What opportunity areas can be explored currently/in the coming months to revive revenue streams for your line of business?

Jyoti Mayal: India has a lot to offer in the realms of heritage, culture and luxury. In the light of this pandemic, there is an emergence of charter travel as people have been home-bound for months, leading to the creation of pent-up demand. For instance, people have started visiting luxurious tourist places around Delhi for weekend getaways. This is because these brands carry with them the promise of hygiene and safety.

At the same time, India can cash in on the fact that it is blessed with wilderness, mesmerising mountains and breathtaking beaches. Also, in the light of COVID-19 and the rise in consciousness about health, India can also market itself as an attractive tourist destination. Also, in the long run, the country will continue to be a popular destination for major events like weddings and major conferences.

Having said that, however, it needs to be reiterated that adequate regulatory framework & morale & business incentive is a prerequisite for the same. For example, the Government of United Kingdom is offering a 40% discount on food at all outlets, Monday to Wednesday to create demand and revive the sector.

IBT: What is your take on touchless travel? How can automation be incorporated into the industry to promote it?

Jyoti Mayal: The pandemic has proved to be a blessing in disguise for the travel & tourism industry in regards to creating awareness about social distancing, hygiene and sanitisation. At the same time, it has expedited the process of digitizing the industry and fostering touchless travel. A lot of processes will become faceless and contactless, thereby speeding up travel procedures without having to face hassles like standing in long queues. Therefore, technology is going to play a big role in transforming the industry and bringing in gains. Artificial intelligence will also play a very important role in touchless & virus free travel.

IBT: Do you see India escalating its market share in the global tourism industry post-COVID-19? Why or why not?

Jyoti Mayal: Yes, India has lots and lots to offer to travellers and its potential remains untapped till date. This holds true especially in the post-pandemic scenario. However, in order to make the most of it, the country needs to have a robust infrastructure ecosystem in place. At the same time, the sector needs to ensure that the principles of cleanliness, hygiene and health are not compromised at any time. We need to showcase India as a vast country where we can maintain social distancing with hygiene in place & good medical aid. These norms of living will be the new normal.

IBT: How can the Government step in to help the industry?

Jyoti Mayal: There are three things that the tourism and hospitality industry is struggling with in the face of COVID-19: survive, revive and then thrive. In order to overcome this ordeal, the government needs to provide financial support in the form of measures like moratoriums, reliefs and rebates & have a contingency plan in place to support the fixed costs & salaries for the employees.

Most of the governments globally have supported the travel tourism & hospitality industry. We have seen this done as a huge support in Singapore, Europe and USA, as every government realises the importance of tourism. In this difficult time, it’s not words but support that is needed. The government should bear at least 33% of the salaries of the employees in this sector. Also this year, the government should do away with TDS, GST & interest on EMIs.

Travel agents and tour operators are struggling with cash refunds on cancellation of air tickets. The government should declare tax free holidays, incentivise MICE, so that they have greater spending capacity and can plan vacations. Credit card charges should be reduced so that people can be encouraged to undertake more digital transactions. Tourist visa fees should be abolished to encourage foreign travellers to come to India. At the same time, a national task force should be established to take suggestions from the industry that can be implemented.

An experienced industry veteran and familiar face of the industry, Jyoti Mayal is the President of Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI). She is also the Vice Chairperson of the Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism & Hospitality (FAITH). She is also the Chairperson of Tourism & Hospitality Skill Council (THSC).

She has served as the Secretary-General of TAAI for the term 2017-2019. She was also the lead of Northern Region of TAAI during 2009-2013 and was elected to TAAI’s Managing Committee in 2013. Thereafter, she was actively involved in the conduct of the last two annual conventions of the association. The views expressed are her own. Usual disclaimers apply.

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