Tourism tales of 2020

The journey of tourism industry, the first to be affected and the last to be cured

Tourism

January 1, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Tourism tales of 2020

Tourists headed to traditional favourites like Sonamarg in Kashmir (pictured above) as soon as the lockdown was eased (MIG photos)

As the year comes to an end, here is a flashback on how the year went by for the tourism sector.

Just like every year, the year 2020 was well stacked for Riddhi Roy, operations manager at Dolphin Travels, a Kolkata based travel firm. In January, she had two back to back trips of Europe, eight trips to Bhutan, two to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, Dubai, US and Canada. Bookings for domestic market were also full to the brim with almost 40 travellers in a single group.

However, as soon as February arrived, the situation turned on its head and Roy began to be overwhelmed with cancellations, mainly as overseas and domestic destinations began closing down borders and travellers started turning towards the agents seeking cancellations.

Situation continued to worsen dramatically and before March was over, an unprecedented strict lockdown brought the entire country to a complete halt, stopping all kinds of businesses instantaneously. The sudden stoppage caused the biggest blow ever in the history of Dolphin Travel, says Roy. “Our company has never faced a situation like this. All the bookings for summer vacations had to be cancelled or postponed. We had full bookings till May. From a sweet dream, the experience quickly turned to a bitter nightmare,” Roy tells Media India Group.

While India was hit by the lockdown on March 25 evening, the tourism industry had already gone into a partial coma on March 22 itself when international flights were banned. It was a time when India had slammed the door shut on its Atithis or God-like guests.

Big business, bigger disappointments

Tourism industry accounts for USD 247 billion or nearly 10 pc of India’s GDP and employs over 55 million persons, across the entire spectrum of hotels, transport, restaurants, entertainment and souvenirs. The entire structure came tumbling down with the lockdown. According to a report by KPMG, a financial services and business advisory firm, due to Covid-19 the Indian tourism and hospitality industry is staring at a potential job loss of around 38 million, which is 70 pc of the total workforce.

Over the next two months, the situation turned worse for the travel sector. Seeing that governments the world over had opened their purses to help all industry, including tourism, Indian travel agents too looked forward to some fiscal support from the government. However, the Indian government chose to look the other way, letting the industry stay comatose. The situation was so dramatic that many organisations including Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI) planned to resort to the Gandhian way of protest against the government for its failure to provide any relief to the tourism industry.

Yet, no help was coming forth from the government even then. However, by June, things started to change as the government began easing the lockdown, mainly due to the unprecedented shock that the Indian economy had already suffered and by the visuals of tens of millions of migrant workers walking back home in the absence of any income or food.

With the gradual easing of the lockdown, some states began opening their doors for local tourists first and then moved on to welcome tourists from other states. This brought some degree of confidence among many  who had been longing to get a breath of fresh air, after spending months cooped up in their homes.

July saw a bigger number of people headed for quick getaways to nearby destinations. In the absence of regular transport connectivity, the concept of driveways gained a new meaning in the pandemic as people began to take their cars for getting to their vacation spots. Even though most of the hotels were still closed, a few began welcoming tourists with all necessary precautions.

The following month saw the emergence of a new trend that most working professionals would have never thought of. It was the trend of workation, work from home but away from home. Soon many IT professionals started rushing to the hills for workation for a period of 15 days to 1 month. People chose the most unconventional spots, as peace and tranquillity topped the desired parametres of travellers this year amidst the pandemic.

2021: Revival in the making?

For tour operators in West Bengal, the first real green shoots of revival appeared in October for the Durga Puja festival in Bengal.A number of bookings were made by people for  travelling in small groups to destinations like the Dooars in North Bengal, Kashmir and Karnataka. Even though the travel operators were relieved by the small progress, they say it was nothing compared to the business of previous bookings.

“Normally, during the Puja season, for only those five days we have 45 departures. Every trip comprises of more than 40 people. Compared to that this year during Puja we had just four group departures- two to Dooars, one each to Kashmir and Karnataka and there were just 10 people in each group,” adds Roy.

As 2020 gives way to 2021, most travel operators hope that even though the current year is a washout, they hope to see good business in the coming year.

“As destinations ease restrictions and with positive news of the vaccine, there has been renewed consumer confidence to travel in 2021. With distribution of the vaccine spread by the first quarter we estimate business pick up in coming quarters of 2021 with recovery towards the end of 2021 and full recovery by early 2022,” Daniel D’souza, president & Country Head, Leisure, SOTC Travel tells Media India Group.

As there was a complete lockdown on travel this year for many months, tour operators say that working professionals are now keen to utilise their pending leaves.

“Given that this year has been challenging and stressful for working professionals, in addition to pent-up travel demand due to the extended lockdown, customers are keen to utilise their balance leave – for a well-deserved year end rest/relaxation cum family bonding break,” Rajeev Kale, president & country head – Holidays, MICE, Visa, Thomas Cook (India) Ltd, tells Media India Group.

With people getting used to the idea of travelling amidst the pandemic, a few destinations have become the top preference for many. According to Thomas Cook, the top destinations of December include Goa, Kashmir, Rajasthan, Andamans, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, while international destinations of Dubai and Maldives lead the growth trajectory followed by Egypt; encouraging requests for 2021 include Turkey, Kenya and South Africa.

“While a combination of lockdown fatigue and announcements on the vaccine have ushered in positive consumer sentiment, the road ahead will be one of cautious optimism for the sector at large,” adds Kale.

Rise in consumer confidence

The Second Holiday Readiness Report (December 2020) by Thomas Cook reveals a significant increase in consumer confidence in travel with 67 pc respondents stating willingness to travel in the next six months while 33 pc indicated that they would wait for launch of the vaccine. The survey further revealed that 52 pc of respondents are likely to take a domestic holiday while 48 pc of respondents likely to take an international holiday.

Another key factor is that health & safety continues to take top priority in travel decisions with 93 pc respondents highlighting this as the most important factor while deciding a holiday.

Despite the positive signs of a revival, Roy calls 2020 as a pathetic year. “This year in a nutshell was pathetic. We have not seen this kind of a year in travel industry, even though travel industry is the first one to get affected with any kind of calamity or disorder. However, in the past its impact was limited. But this time it was the entire world that closed its doors to each other. So it was a major setback for us. And recovering from that is also very difficult,” adds Roy.

Jyoti Mayal, president TAAI & vice chairperson FAITH says, “Covid-19 has brought the world to a standstill and the industry is struggling with cash crunch & traveller confidence, the road ahead for the global travel and tourism sector appears uncertain. The vaccine is a relief but we cannot wait for it to be disseminated to recover. Travel restrictions are the main barriers in the way of the recovery of international tourism & the lack of coordinated response among countries to ensure harmonised protocols and coordinated restrictions, as well as the deteriorating economic environment.”

From hoping for a quick turnaround by early 2021, now most operators are resigned to see only marginal improvements in the business atmosphere for the first half of the year 2021. They believe that domestic travel will be the focus till the third Quarter of 2021. “Staycations will continue to grow keeping in mind the safety protocols. As President TAAI, I look forward to preparing comprehensive tourism recovery plans to rebuild, to encourage innovation and investment, and rethink the tourism sector to support innovation to ensure stronger sustainable long-term economic resilience. We also look forward to ease of doing business to safeguard our investments & our business,” she concludes.

The emergence of variants of the coronavirus and the reimposition of strict restrictions in different parts of the world are not the kind of news that the tourism industry had hoped to have as the world transitioned from a pandemic-hit 2020 to the next year. As of now, at least the first few months of 2021 appear to be as filled with uncertainty as most of 2020 had been. That is perhaps the worst kind of New Year that the travel industry could have envisaged. For now, their only hope is that the Indian government finally relents and does at least two things. Open up Indian skies for regular flights and remove local restrictions on travel. And open up its purse to alleviate the pain and suffering that tens of millions have been going through.

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