While speaking to Debjit Dutta, CEO, Impression Tourism Services & Bengal State Chairman, IATO & ADTOI, it was interesting to know that actually, COVID-19 has given the tourism industry an opportunity to focus on sustainable tourism products considering the emerging market demand in the days to come.
As we all understand now that in tourism it is going to be a major challenge for us in the new normal. Now people are desperate to travel but they are not totally confident to travel. Debjit says, “Whatever new trends we have seen and understood in the last couple of months, is because of COVID-19 and there are going to be four major impacts on the tourism business. First is, people will create demand for clinically fit travel which will be mandatory from now on and will persist as a trend even after the pandemic, secondly because of the limitations people are exploring nearby destinations. So, these are the big areas of focus for the travel industry. Third is that, though travel will be expensive, luxury will become kind of pocket-friendly and travellers will be able to afford high-end properties at a lower price, and last but most impactful will be responsible tourism becoming the future of travel because of many factors.”
People are actually looking to travel to nearby destinations for short holidays because of the limitations and restrictions due to the pandemic. Now, this is a very big opportunity for the local stakeholder and the host communities as intrastate travelling is increasing and which is very good for the local destinations as nearby cities are emerging as the primary source markets and this is a kind of positive impact of COVID-19.
“Anywhere, close to the metro cities or big towns, travellers are looking for unexplored destinations and small character properties with mature rooms which offer very clean and sanitised stay and of course, less crowd. So this is a big area of opportunity for the industry and this trend will actually continue in the future because earlier a large number of travellers used to consider weekends and vacations travelling to far off states or out of the country. Since this trend is evolving and continuous it is very good for businesses to explore some underdeveloped regions or areas which have not been explored by the general tourism communities,” assures Debjit.
However, Debjit also remarks, “I would say it will not be that good for tour operators because, at this age of internet in tourism, most of the travellers do not tend to take support from a tour operator or an intermediary because of their understanding that the producer is next to your house and you don’t need a third-party to get to the producer’s courtyard especially when you are talking about the local products or a nearby destination.
So, most opportunities could be lost and they should thus tread with caution and it should not be their only option.”
Presently, intrastate travelling still has limitations because of the confusion in knowing a particular state’s travelling rules as they are constantly changing because of the uncertainty of the pandemic. In India, the primary challenge is that we don’t have a uniform rule in terms of rules and restrictions and all these things vary from state to state and further restrict the will to travel.
Also, after unlocking, there is no confirmed news about each state’s tourism offerings and this is a big bottleneck to promote domestic tourism pan India. “If we can find a mechanism where we have a uniform ‘One India Standard Operating Protocol for Tourism’ applicable to all the states then it will be easy for the industry in which tour operators will benefit from domestic travel and that would certainly increase with people getting used to the new normal. Those who are used to getting outside and exploring other cities will continue to travel and explore and tour operators can exploit this potential,” says Debjit.
Talking of inbound tourism, Debjit says that it is going to be a big challenge and is not going to be happening very soon until and unless a vaccine is available in the market. Debjit points out two primary reasons for India not being a viable destination during such times. “In India, we have always been promoting faces more than the places. We are selling our people, cultural diversity, our festivals, our bazaars, etc which are generally crowd pullers and have shades of over-tourism and its side effects. Here again, not all foreigners are comfortable with these aspects or may not be on their wish list now. Most of them will be keen to stay away from the crowd and consider some natural destination which can add to their adventure and fun. So ultimately, these are not the right products for global markets in the present scenario and it is very important for India to change its brand positioning statement.”
Continuing on the second point, Debjit states, “India is not counted among the top destination in the global chart in terms of cleanliness and hygiene despite having top attractions and diversity in the world (which creates interest for inbound visitations). It looks like we are not that focused on the global market game to be considered as a safe, hygienic and tourism responsible country and this is coming as a bottleneck in terms of inbound tourism.”
Debjit is keen that the industry players focus on the concept of 4 R which is Review, Reset, Restructure and Revive and he has been telling people for the last few months to use these aspects in the business. Adding to this, he shares more, “I think it is once in a lifetime opportunity for the industry, I will explain why? What has happened is till date there has been a change in the industry in last 10-12 years due to digital development the industry is less of selling experiences and more of trading, so quantity has taken over the quality and to ensure quantity, we have all come up with trading tricks. However, such business models do not allow you much scope to keep a sustainable reserve for such unprecedented crises and that is what exactly happened. Now, the industry is certainly realising the mistakes they have done like working with narrow or literally no margins, and how bad it has become for the overall health of tourism in the country. That was a transformation then and now again we are going through a transformation because of the impact of COVID-19 and this is the one time opportunity, in-fact a lifetime opportunity for us to Review, Reset, Restructure and Revive, so we can look forward to a sustainable tourism business post-COVID”
Thus, focusing on being a responsible traveller or a travel operator following Sustainable Tourism practices with Fair Trade Policies can make a positive impact on the destination and help business models to survive and continue in the future. Another outcome of the pandemic is that we all are beginning to get to know that there are many unexplored potential places for tourism but we have never been able to distinguish because of the lack of market awareness or lack of market demand for such places until now.
Debjit mentions his own experience, “We are associated with the community tourism initiative in Sundarbans that has 6 rooms and I’ll tell you that I had more clients from abroad or other states than we had from Kolkata. Now, we have the opportunity to sell these to domestic tourists as now people are looking for somewhere to go and they are quite surprised that such a place exists. Even, I have come to know about many destinations which earlier I did not give much thought about. Local market exploration has become big due to pandemic and it will be helpful for a lot of small destinations and the local communities. It has the potential to change the economy and in India, we have plenty of such beautiful destinations close to cities and towns.
On the same lines, Debjit is working on an exclusive section on their website that gives you details about unique experiences one can enjoy in West Bengal and North East India He has done a web series for India Tourism Kolkata on different kinds of experiences and the first one was on RANBARIS (Heritage Stays in South Bengal). It is popular with foreign tourists and gives great opportunities for inbound players. Once, he did a show on RANBARIS and the viewership went up more than 10000 and everybody had so many queries about the place as people never knew that such kind of properties still exists for stay and fabulous experiences.
“Similarly, in a second episode, I did on Heritage Tea Trails and have highlighted 6 tea garden properties where people can go and stay for a holiday. There was a lot of appreciation from viewers as once again they did not know that there are so many tea gardens and bungalows in North Bengal for holidays and vacations,” informs Debjit.
Presently, for their projects, he has shortlisted 50+ unique destinations in Bengal offering homestays which he is eager to develop and promote with the industry. He says it is quite surprising as earlier he didn’t have the opportunity to focus on most of those destinations as the market demand was only for some prominent destinations like Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kolkata, and Sundarbans. Popular destinations in Bengal must be less than 10 but now he has another 50+ to add.
“So from 10+ destinations, we can work out to 60+ which is indeed a phenomenal growth and this could hold true for all the states in India. Thanks to COVID, remote destinations without the crowd and natural stand-alone properties are the new demand of the people and we can develop or en-cash on such properties,” adds Debjit.
On a final note, Debjit says, “So I urge tour operators now that it is high time to understand the change and adopt appropriate strategies base on the upcoming market demand. Responsible travel is the future of tourism and sustainability will be the name of the game. So we all have to get ready and work to deliver such products and services and it is certainly going to be a great restart instead of all the limitations and challenges.”