Travel and tourism are the frontline sectors that have been afflicted first by COVID-19 since late January this year. According to The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), "The punishing impact of the COVID-19 crisis has led to over one million jobs already being lost every day."
The Indian government has admitted that the tourism "industry is being badly hit" following the pandemic. Crippling the travel sector leads to a ripple effect that trickles down from the fuel-guzzling jet-setter to the local craft sellers at Agra or Mahabalipuram who sell their wares for few tens of rupees. Today, industry experts repeatedly warn that the travel and tourism sector "will take the longest time to revive".
While there is much noise over demands for relief packages and support from the government, it is clear that the money is not going to come by for a while.
Now that this is our reality, we at Lonely Planet, the global guide for travel for over 40 years, are gearing up to face the new normal. We are keenly observing how governments and private sectors in various countries are coming together to face the challenges imposed on travelling.
Before the pandemic hit us, the good news was that India gained foreign exchange earnings from tourism of ₹1,94,881 crore with an annual growth rate of 9.6 % according to India Tourism Statistics, 2019. The compound annual growth rate in FTA (Foreign Tourist Arrivals) in India 2019 was 10.89 million (provisional) with a growth of 3.2%. Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai constituted the three major metropolises that received high numbers of foreign tourists. Today, all three states face public health challenges due to COVID-19.
The mantra for the travel industry in India is to survive, revive and grow. It must devise strategies to ensure coordinated travel health across various levels. It is not only waiting for borders to open or air travel to resume to full capacity, but requires for supply chains that are well-oiled and segue into each other - hotels, resorts, guides, cab and taxi operators, shops and services and others. Let us address some short-term and medium-term solutions for India's travellers.
Travel can never be stopped. It will limp back slowly but it is best to begin with immediate geography. Tourism boards across the globe are pushing for inbound tourism. This will also help local economies and their affiliated sectors. Travelling within the country and closer to home will gain ground.
There has been a continuous increase in domestic tourist visits in India in recent years. The top five states in domestic tourist visits in 2018 were Tamil Nadu (385.9 million), Uttar Pradesh (285.1 million), Karnataka (214.3 million), Andhra Pradesh (194.8 million) and Maharashtra (119.2 million). These five states accounted for about 64.7% of the total domestic tourist visits in the country. We must now also endeavour through aggressive media campaigns to invite travellers to visit locations that are not marked by busy travel footprints.
Indian travel industry guesstimates that the sector will see a revival in January 2021. Being prepared before travel and tourism picks up again is a key factor. The focus should be on safety first. We need to work on a travel safety manual and guidelines, both for service providers and travellers. This should come well before the much-awaited vaccine. Beyond buzzwords like 'humanise your travel', 'build deeper emotional connections', 'empathy for customers', the safety manual is the most important document to communicate with and comfort the traveller. Most important is that people across travel and tourism supply chain maintain hygiene, safe habits and take adequate medical measures for good health.
Tourism bodies, private and government, need to quickly develop standards to ensure authentic information is available to counter fake and unverified news. Tourism boards across states must take stakeholders into their fold and keep them abreast of reliable information. The march forward must be to develop a collective, collaborative and reliable platform.
We must unlearn our poor travel habits and exercise individual and responsible methods while on our travels. From hotels and resorts to small craftspeople and wayside eateries to guides and monument keepers, each one must be vigilant about safety and health.
Social Distancing must be used. Indians tend to travel in groups or go on family vacations. We have observed interest gaining in road trips, which hopefully will pick up when the time is right. Trips that help maintaining social distancing such as solo travels, healthy pursuits such as trekking or hiking may gain ground over group travel activities.
And if your financial situation due to the pandemic is not conducive to impulse travel or family vacations, let's be imaginative and choose travel options of a different nature. Lonely Planet has launched globally its first-ever-travel-only TV platform for temporarily grounded travellers. Read books on travel, pick up free eBooks, try the new guide apps for gearing up for travel experiences in the absence of physical travel.
Just remember sending a loved one off saying "safe travels" must become your by-word in the new normal.
(The author is director and general manager of Lonely Planet India).
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.