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Road To Recovery

May 29, 2020 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Partial opening of India’s domestic aviation on Monday, after 62 days of lockdown has brought-in anxiety as well as hope for travel and tourism industry that will have to traverse a rough, long road to recovery.

Suman Billa,  Director- Technical  Cooperation and Silk Road Development, UNWTO, said during a webinar: “Tourism supports the whole ecosystem and because of its inclusive nature, has the flexibility to bounce back reasonably faster. But Covid-19 pandemic is going to put pressure on business as it lingers longer. India has had a long and resilient  domestic market and that will come of help now. International destinations will also come online as restrictions ease in a phased manner across the world, with host nations having thier own health advisories.”

81,000 passengers flew on 6 airlines to different destination in India in two days of reopening and are advised of varied  quarantine periods (home quarantine if tested negative on arrival) depending on the destination and the State’s rules in which they arrive in.

Ajay Singh, Chairman and  Managing Director, SpiceJet  airlines, feels that restart of flight operation has come at a right  time, beyond which it would become hard to continue in business, after two months of being grounded. He said:” We are optimistic that more travellers will prefer air travel for its safety and quicker reach than road and train travel.”

Suman Billa

The pandemic might have created contrasting scenarios.

Andrew Ward, Vice President Marketing & Customer Experience, Jazeera Airways, said:”The turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic will result in the emergence of a combination of ‘travel uncorked’ and ‘fear of flying’ in consumer behaviour, depending on the market and airline customer profile, as flights re-start and countries open up their borders again. One thing I have seen over the years is that travellers forget quickly – especially the bad stuff about their flying experience.”

‘Travel uncorked’ will be a high demand scenario, which the Chinese are already calling as revenge spending or revenge travelling by those people whose pockets are flush with cash after weeks of lockdowns. Mr Ward said: “This could well be a typical response across the world. In this scenario, the pent-up demand bursts open as people invoke their right and desire to travel. In many markets the wealthier leisure travellers who have the disposable income (and have not been economically affected by the pandemic) will seek to getaway to their luxury boltholes. Likewise, the less affluent, but equally travel-hungry travellers – backpackers, experience seekers, independent leisure – will also contribute to ‘travel uncorked’.”

Andrew Ward

The leisure segment that may show slow signs of movement (and the consumers who have taken the biggest financial blow) will probably be the tour operator/value package holiday market. They are also the more risk-averse, less experienced travellers, who are likely to stay at home until life really does get back to normal. The cruise market – important for some airlines too – was the first to be hit (Diamond Princess) and will inevitably be damaged for a long-time due to the high profile negative news stories.

Leisure tours from India might begin by third quarter.

Veena Patil, Managing Director, Veena World, said:”It’s only the essential flying that has opened up. There’s confusion in people’s minds, which was obvious from chaos seen at airports. It will take atleast three months for the situation to stabilise. We expect the rebellion in people (to stay put) to come out by Ganesha Festival (22 August) as they get used to new procedures and way of living. Bookings might start coming by Diwali (festival of lights).” That is a three quarters stagnancy for a leading Indian tour company that has 20 offices with 1100 staff and an annual turnover of INR10 bn. It has 200 preferred sales agents across the country.

Meenakshi Sharma, Director General, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, said: “We’ll now emphaise on domestic tourism campaign, on which we had not traditionally spent earlier. preferred destinations will be safe, far-away and less crowded. We are working with state governments on this.”

International flight operations will depend on yet more complicated procedures owing to each country laying different rules for people from different regions of the world

Mr Ward said: “We could expect real movement in flights to start around July for many countries, and possibly sooner in China and South Korea. Some countries who have adopted a more stringent isolationist strategy would be concerned about second outbreaks and may have to re-close borders. Then there is the state of airlines and their ability to switch on capacity that is currently moth-balled. Staff lay-offs will inevitably impact the return to operations. Fewer ASKs (available seats) are expected which could be good news in terms of yields if demand grows quickly.”

Ms Patil said that they had to put on hold the tour bookings that they had recieved till first week of February. They handle half of their annual 100,000 tour passengers during the peak quarter of April, May and June, which was lost this year. Work from home staff of Veena World has managed to convince 20,000 people with advance bookings to let them keep their bookings to be utilised at a later, safe time.

Fear of travel will be evident for a longer period with some segments of travellers. Demand even when flying restrictions are lifted would remain sluggish. People will consider sitting in a metal tube within inches of each other a danger with the virus still out there.

Mr Ward said: “Wearing masks and gloves would not assuage their concerns. Airlines will have to keep their cabin interiors clean and in good repair.  The customer is now definitely in control of the inflight experience. No fancy food or great IFE is going to overcome their need to want to hermetically seal themselves off from their fellow passengers.”

Flying would only be a necessity and acceptable risk for some travellers like VFR (Visiting Friends and Relatives) and business travellers. Until there is a successful vaccine available and COVID-19 is reduced to the status of getting the flu. Under this scenario, demand would not likely pick up to pre-Coronavirus levels until Q2 2021 at the earliest. Airlines will need deep pockets (or government subsidies) to weather out that timescale.

Gaurav Sundaram, President, ProKonsul Consulting, said: “Business travel will see a slow revival. Normalcy is likely to return only  in 12 to 18 months. A lot will be contingent on medical innovativations related to vaccines as also government regulations related  to quarantine. Digital tech apps like Zoom will be used as an active substitue till it becomes safer and easier to travel.”

Veena Patil, MD, Veena World

Ms Patel said: “Domestic tours will be the first to happen along with short haul trips, may be to Thailand and Dubai. International tours may happen only by early next year. We will wait and watch the situation to get stable. Staff is our strength and is built with passion, so we’ll have no layoffs. Even the staff is understanding and we all are together in facing this difficult situation that we will surpass.”

Written by Anand & Madhura Katti

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