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Sustainable tourism will need to become our new normal

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how interconnected we all are. We have realised that our actions have an impact. The steps we took were hard, to protect ourselves but we were all united in making sacrifices for the greater good of the people around us. I am now more encouraged than ever that our community will acknowledge the responsibility we all have to promote and respect sustainable travel practices. However, in order to reach there, we have to invest in creating greater awareness and better resources for the travelling community.

-Biji Eapen, President of IAAI and the Chairman & CEO of Speedwings Travel & Cargo

These are unprecedented times; while we have faced many virus diseases in the past like SARS, Chikungunya, Zika, Ebola, and Nipah, none has had such wide-ranging impact on our lives as the novel coronavirus. The global travel and tourism industry, especially the Indian hospitality sector has been hit very hard by this pandemic. In my 40 plus years in the airline and travel industry profession, I have never come across a pandemic of this magnitude that was able to handicap the travel industry worldwide. There is no playbook to navigate COVID-19. This ‘new’ normal has made us reconsider how to safely continue doing the work that we do best. 

Recovery and getting back a sense of normalcy will take time. While travel will eventually resume, it will look and feel different. Our safety and that of others will be the priority. Leisure travel may resume slowly. From airlines to hotels, social distancing will be the norm. The travel industry will also need to innovate and change practices to support tourism in the future. Additional hygiene and safety protocols will be introduced across the board. Airlines and hotels may need to support flexible cancellation and rebooking policies. Tour packages will need to be redesigned to make sure travellers and local communities stay safe and healthy while still ensuring memorable travel experiences.

Responsible and sustainable tourism becomes even more important in the post COVID-19 era. Travel experiences will look different in the foreseeable future. Travellers and the tourism industry will need to be thoughtful, careful, and innovative to ensure safe, responsible, and sustainable travel. Responsible tourism is vital in reviving the travel and tourism industry from its current financial crisis. Sustainable tourism will need to become our new normal, and we all need to make a conscious effort to learn what it is and our role in supporting it. In a nutshell, it is about travelling well while practicing the social distancing guidelines, being responsible, doing the least harm to ourselves and to others, while still allowing ourselves to experience the best our world has to offer.

As travellers, we will want to consider the effect that our travel would have on places with a highly vulnerable population or constrained healthcare system and make decisions accordingly. The pandemic has ravaged many communities globally, and we can play a role in giving back to those communities that have allowed us transformative travel experiences for several years in the past. One way to do that is by supporting local businesses like local hotels and restaurants. Above all, we will need to work in partnership with and respect the guidance issued by the communities we travel to.

Similarly, tourism industry professionals will have the responsibility to make sure that health and safety standards, crisis management and preparedness plans, robust communication channels, are all in place to facilitate safe and rewarding travel experiences for customers.

There are a lot of interesting studies, articles, and thought leadership pieces that have been published on this topic. Some of these share information on the impacts of our dramatically changed travel patterns on industry and destinations, some include suggestions of proactive approaches, and some provide market insights. I encourage the travel and tourism community to actively educate and update themselves on current trends and make a commitment to be champions of sustainable tourism. As far as domestic travel is concerned, this includes actively partnering with central and state tourism departments to align on guidelines and promote social awareness norms for potential tourists.

In the past, the travel, tourism and hospitality sector generated 9.2 per cent GDP in India. Now, it may take months or years to recover from the devastating impact of COVID-19, but the travel and tourism industry will play a pivotal role in the recovery of the economy and our local communities across the world. However, for this, the key concerns that need to be looked and addressed are stated below.

1. Until there is a clear cure or vaccine, the public will be always concerned about general or essential travel. While, we may need to live with the coronavirus, our readiness to do so will depend on adequate knowledge, readiness and confidence in the health infrastructure to manage potential medical issues.

 2. Unemployment and the financial recession are likely to discourage potential travellers.

3. International tourism will be more difficult to revive since there are several travel restrictions in place for countries with higher infection rates. Several countries including India, have imposed mandatory two-week quarantine for travellers entering the country.

4. Airline and transportation fares are likely to increase if they function at 50 per cent capacity or less, to consider the guidelines of physical distancing.

Now, with international travel restrictions, it is more feasible to promote domestic tourism and offer sustainable tourism within the country while properly following the social guidelines. Domestic tourism, if promoted right, can be done on a substantially lower budget and can aid the revival of the travel, tourism, and its ancillary industries. Sustainable and responsible tourism can slowly but surely overcome the current issues we face. But we will need to do this in partnership with the government, healthcare sector, and our local communities.

Sustainability and survival should be the ultimate target and in order to reach there, the travel and tourism industry has to do a lot of homework. Up until the usage of masks, gloves and social distancing are not over, passengers will be sacred to travel and this is an unprecedented phenomena throughout the world. In terms of convenience and cost, undisputedly, international travel will become costly due to the additional precautionary hygiene protocols, which will be in place for a very long time, and many travellers may find that unsustainable. Most of the passengers and tourists will prefer to visit places which are less crowded, clean, hygiene and safe.

The IAAI (IATA Agent Association of India) is working on a unique initiative to getting travellers in India comfortable with travelling again once the industry opens up for business. We will be launching a ‘Public Awareness Mission’ with the tagline – ‘Consult Your Travel Advisor, Not Internet’. IAAI has formed a working group to spearhead this task and is currently in the process of soliciting the patronage from international organizations like ASTA, PATA, ECTTA as well as the national and international media.

One of the initiatives that IAAI is offering, in collaboration with Speedwings Aviation Academy, is a COVID-19 guidance course for airline, airport and ground handling operators. These are the new guidelines issued by IATA and ICAO in partnership with the WHO.  This is currently being offered free of charge for all airline professionals using IATA’s Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR).

When travel finally gets back on track, IAAI envisions a shift in public opinion about travel and tour agents and particularly the travel advisors, who are still the heartbeat of the industry, as countless passengers who planned their travel online were essentially left to fend for themselves when domestic and international flights were halted. As we regain normalcy, passengers are going to demand the safety, security, personal care and attention, and the responsiveness from the travel advisors will make all the difference. Finally, I presume that the good and golden days will come back to the traditional travel agencies and tour operators.