The COVID situation is unrivalled and unlike any other disaster in modern times. Within the space of months, the framing of the global tourism system moved from over-tourism to non-tourism and there is much evidence that COVID-19 is different and transformative for the tourism sector.
The Coronavirus pandemic has brought travel and tourism to a near-standstill, and no one can predict when it will restart for sure. The situation is still worse, as several state governments have imposed localised lockdowns to curb the spread of infections. Even if the vaccine is readily available by mid-2021, the economic recovery will be slow and uneven with employment and financial stability. In the current scenario, it is even harder to predict when economic activity could return to pre-virus levels, primarily because of the health crisis and the government’s timid fiscal response.
Present situation in the Indian aviation industry
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the aviation industry due to travel restrictions, flight cancellations and airport closures worldwide. COVID-19 has put the global economy to the test, with air transport being undoubtedly the hardest hit sector by the pandemic.
Domestic flights are making a slow recovery, despite the growing number of cases in India. Operational restrictions are relaxed, and major airports such as Mumbai and Kolkata are allowing more flights daily. Since the resumption of domestic flights on May 25, the average occupancy rate or passenger load factor (PLF) of domestic flights stands close to 50-60 per cent and gradually pick up as states ease travel restrictions.
The new revised civil aviation guidelines for quarantine and general health protocols for flying within the country implemented to surge air travel as the festive season closes in, may create more confidence in travellers. The permission to serve pre-packed snacks, meals and beverages on domestic flights depending on the travel time is also expected to generate more confidence in passengers. Besides food, DGCA also allowed the usage of the in-flight entertainment system on international as well as domestic flights, wherever available.
However, the growth of the aviation industry is likely to be a lot much slower in the next few years that too, depend on assuming a vaccine is available in the next year.
Changing tourist attitudes and importance for domestic tourism
It is very clear that the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the national lockdowns unambiguously forced 1.3 billion Indians to stay indoors. Indian economy crippled with the recession. Millions of jobs lost and has shattered people’s livelihoods, shops, eateries, factories, transport, services and business establishments.
The pandemic is also likely to have an impact on tourist attitude and behavioural nature, impacting the resumption and recovery of domestic and international tourism. The world will never be the same before. The new travel normal is a shift to driving rather than flying. As a rebound in travel and tourism, people will start slowly and stay closer to home. Most people may feel a little hesitant to board an aircraft. This means that people may gradually opt for nearby attractions in a neighbouring state and prefer a couple of days’ stay at a sanitised rental property. In other words, travellers prefer domestic destinations reachable by car and stay at private rental properties instead of crowded hotels and resorts.
Revenge tourism is what people are talking about, but such spending describes the huge buying desire by people whose pockets are flush with cash after weeks of lockdowns. It will just be a temporary phase. 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, travel and tourism trade organisations, and our local communities. And the government and tourism organizations should come out with a package of ‘holiday bonuses’ to its nationals to encourage them to travel within the country.
Till we restore confidence for people to begin travelling once the COVID-19 pandemic finally diminishes, domestic tourism only will work out. Passengers will be cautious of long-distance travelling and thus domestic tourism is expected to play an essential role in leading the initial recovery phase. Protocols of social distancing, sneezing, wearing a mask, washing hands, sanitation, and minimum interactions need to be followed everywhere. Health and hygiene are of crucial importance to restore the traveller’s confidence. And, when we do open now, it will be under new operating procedures in the absence of a vaccine. When people feel more comfortable and confident in health and safety, they will start going on longer routes.
The industry faced similar challenges in the past, including the 9/11 attack and the 2008 financial meltdown, SARS, Nipah but we overcome all these. Once medicines and vaccines are made available, people will continue to fly internationally in great numbers, and leisure travel will be less affected.
Anticipating international travel
We have to see that Europe was at the forefront to open its borders and territories for tourists as post-COVID strategies. As the second wave hit, bars started shutting down, Spain declared a state of emergency, and Germany provided soldiers to help, and Italy started mandating masks. The Czech Republic celebrated the ‘Farewell COVID’ party in Prague in June, seems painfully naive now that the country has the highest infection rate in that continent. Such irresponsibility is because of some stakeholders or self-made touristic promoters may have become immune to their doctrines and do not care about the sufferings of others.
If we look at international tourist arrivals, it is expected to drop up to 80 per cent in 2020, and tourism spending is not likely to return to pre-crisis levels until 2024—the forecasts to put 120 million jobs at risk. Reopening tourism-related businesses in a way that is safe to the tourists, and economically managing its recovery should be the primary requirement and to be coordinated at a new dimensional level.
While international travel will become possible again, new travel requirements probably are imposed, like, proof of mandatory vaccination, quarantining upon arrival. And, as all these come with increased cost and hassle for travellers, domestic travel will pick up more quickly than international travel because it is not subject to the above restrictions.
Role of Technology during COVID
Technology has made a material impact on aviation patterns. The new nature has changed the life pattern business too. Many business people conditioned to use virtual meetings such as Zoom, Microsoft, etc. The new platforms of Virtual Meet & Virtual Expo solutions help businesses without travelling.
Technologies now play a significant role to increase hygiene. Touch-less seats that connect to Bluetooth on mobile to lower car seat back or fold out the tray.
Touch-less lavatories; regulated boarding procedures so people aren’t falling over each other in the aisles and at airports, facial recognition technology and tracking through customs and boarding, so customers and staff aren’t touching the same boarding pass.
Is there hope for the Travel Agent?
Ultimately, the post-corona will create significant challenges for the survival of Travel Agents in India. As the uncertainties continue, recovery of the travel and tourism sector may take a long time. Airlines, both domestic and international, through Vande Bharat Mission or air bubble agreements, are freely operating without much competition in market price. Despite the regulatory directives, travel agents are deprived of their commission or remuneration for services rendered to the carrier.
However, with this pandemic outrage, the travellers are now left with a shift in trust that is to depend on a responsible intermediary – a travel consultant (rather than relying on the online or web-based robotics systems), who will be accountable for safety, security, quality in services and activities including financials.
Thus, I feel that traditional travel and tour agents will get the upper hand. Potential travellers want assurance on safety to travel, flight availability, specific destination, security, health and quarantine, and finally a reassurance – Can I get a refund if I need to cancel? As in the case of airline ticket refund issue, travel agents and tour operators are approachable, accountable, and reliable and trustworthy. It is a new beginning for the travel and tour agencies to coordinate and work together to rebuild the tourism industry. The post-corona travel will be an age of sanitised travel with stringent regulatory formalities and regulations.
Change to be united
The new manner in which we go about our life shall still require a substantial livelihood for all stakeholders to survive. To create a new kind of perception to solve our problems, we need unity. It implies cooperation amid diversity and the accord should be the exclusivity of the Trade Associations working with ‘commission’. First, we have to sort out matters together for the welfare of the entire ‘commission agents’ community. We have already taken the initiative and let us get inspired by the words of Henry Ford, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” So let us unite and make a change to our existence.
About the author: Biji Eapen is the National President, IATA Agents Association of India (IAAI) & CMD- Speedwings Aviation Group.