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India’s domestic tourism boom sparks opportunity for sustainable growth

With Domestic Tourism giving some leverage to businesses and with more drive and determination, the timing has never been better to position local brands, destinations, and attractions for success when this crisis is over. TTJ gives an industry outlook from few tourism and hospitality stakeholders as to how they look at the potential of the sector in the ever-changing COVID-19 scenario. Their views are comprehensive with many domestic tourism aspects put together, and it makes an interesting read. The best part is to get to know that Indians are ready to explore their own land like never before. Read on!

– Prashant Nayak

Prateek Hira, President & CEO, Tornos; Director, River Rhapsody

No doubt that these are the toughest times that the industry has seen but then there are two ways to see it, one, that we are doomed and we can only sulk; two, we are on learning and re-engineering sabbatical and we have to refresh and revive with the newly acquired knowledge and skills during this business break. At my company, we did just that. We have been studying, gaining knowledge, fine-tuning products, and re-energising the team to perform much better and with full zeal, once things open up. ‘Renewed Preparedness’ is what we called this strategy. The ultimate aim is to revive much sooner than one could think. The day we were allowed to open offices, we opened up ours, knowing that there would be no business but the idea was to come out of the boredom, get into a routine and plan well for the times ahead. Our revival strategy primarily focuses on the extension of our business, exploring new opportunities, and creating more revenue heads. The idea is to place the eggs in many baskets, multiply revenue heads, include new avenues and extend the market so that the business revives faster and losses incurred in the financial year 2020-21 and possibly the extended losses till the first half of 2021-22 are recovered sooner. 

Domestic travel is one domain that is being seen as a saviour for now and people have started exploring new destinations, adapted to slow travel and are looking for immersive experiences as was the case earlier with the inbound markets. This shows that domestic markets have matured and have a great potential to drive the growth of tourism in the country.

We as a company have realised the potential of domestic travel and have forayed into tailor-made domestic programmes including some immersive experiences for which we are known for. Our new venture River Rhapsody which operates day boats sets up river-side camps, organises water-sports and river events are primarily focusing on the domestic market. Under this company we will have parallel market penetration, catering to both, domestic as well as inbound.

In my opinion, it’s time we don’t classify ourselves in brackets of domestic and inbound separately but be open to cater to both the markets with equal zeal as that will not only support business now but will also generate better revenue in the future and bring us out of the doom faster.

The states of Himachal and Uttarakhand are doing really well and have had good captive tourists on weekends and holidays. The trend of travelling on weekends has caught up after the hotels were allowed to open. Destinations close to metros and urban business cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, etc are doing well on weekends when people in large numbers are moving out to holiday in nearby destinations, large self-contained resorts outside these have become quite popular with city dwellers. One of the reasons is good road connectivity, large well-spread resorts and accommodation options in all categories at these places.   

Demand for Kashmir has gone up suddenly, and it is doing quite well despite all the negative publicity that surrounded it for quite a long time. People are looking for well-spread natural environs where they can unwind. Demand for concrete heritage is not so much visible as it was in the past. Hills, beaches, farms, wildlife, water bodies have become an attractive proposition for domestic travellers. ‘Nature’ is the keyword of tourism for now and it promises umpteen business opportunities.      

Ayodhya is one of the newest destinations which has created just the right buzz and the world is looking forward to it. The government is investing quite aggressively to transform this almost forgotten but essential pilgrim city in India. Ayodhya is a city that has lived Hinduism beyond the brackets of religion, as a way of life and very unpretentiously.

The much-awaited development of Ayodhya is now becoming a reality, and people of Ayodhya can look forward to economic well-being, employment opportunities, and social inclusiveness in times to come. Uttar Pradesh Government plans to surpass Mecca’s and Vatican’s annual footfall of more than 20 million visitors and to cater to this traffic, Ayodhya is being re-planned and restructured.

The new international airport, modern railway station, bus terminus, parking bays, four and six lanes of highways all are being done in a time-bound manner. From world-class five-star hotels to budget accommodations that will serve a cross-section of visitors will be a major fillip to the tourism in Ayodhya. Then, there are upcoming resorts and boutique properties that are yet other opportunities waiting in Ayodhya. Many countries are even establishing their temples, memorials, and religious-embassies in Ayodhya and this apart from Indian states that will have their own government guest houses to cater to their residents.

In my opinion, to get the most from it as a tourist destination, the government should involve tourism and hospitality experts to work in coordination with town planners and architects. Ayodhya has all the potential of becoming a world-class tourist destination in the coming years, and there is so much buzz already around that people are waiting in the wings to reach and experience Ayodhya in its newest form.    

Domestic Tourism is being seen as a new saviour of the industry and one that will be an essential service offer for all operators, which can keep the cash flows of the company going even during the toughest days such as the ones we are experiencing now. Also, domestic travel will help operators to evenly spread their businesses throughout the year and not only be dependent on the seasonal character of inbound tourism. The road travel trend has caught up quite well. Earlier we were contemplating five hours of travel time to be comfortable for travellers but the real trend is quite different and people are comfortable travelling by their cars for even ten hours at a stretch. This shows the desperation of travel when travel is restricted. Indian summers will see an upswing during summer vacations after the examinations, which this year are slated for the month of May and apart from cooler and natural environs, even cities in the north and south will do well. Religious tourism is on the rise and the air traffic is picking up slowly and steadily, this means travel by air to distant destinations too will be back. It will not be a surprise to even see Goa and Rajasthan being sold out again in summer, quite the unlikely character of the two destinations otherwise. Hill states of Himachal, Uttarakhand, Kashmir, and North East will be the favourite destinations for domestic travellers and the improvement in the infrastructure of these states will only pave the way for a tourist boom in these in the near future.

Tourism is coming back and as an industry, we need to be “Tourism Ready”. Having little or no-business is no excuse to be lethargic, it is rather an opportunity to better equip ourselves with knowledge, plan businesses, re-establish, refocus and expand business horizons to enhance revenue when tourism returns.

Rajeev Kale, President & Country Head – Holidays, MICE, Visa, Thomas Cook (India)

At Thomas Cook India, our strategic focus was given to product development. From the early days of the lockdown, we realized that we had to quickly adapt to the new normal and create products and services in line with the requirements of the COVID-19 era.

The consumer wish-list had changed and our teams worked basis the same to create easy to book, practical holidays such as workations, staycations, drivecations, and affordable luxury holidays. We focussed on quick breaks to counter the stresses of work from home and home chores and at convenient short drivable distances/within their city of residence. We invited our customers to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries with our specially designed holidays.

Today, in the face of limited international border reopening, domestic tourism offers a significant opportunity to the travel and tourism industry. Indians are displaying a keen and growing interest in domestic travel with 52 per cent of respondents of our Second Holiday Readiness Report (December 2020) indicating their preference for a Domestic holiday in 2021.

Domestic destinations are currently seeing strong demand. Indians are showing encouraging trends of wanting to discover incredible India and our Hidden Gems product is doing well. There is so much India has to offer: from Kashmir’s tulip gardens, Lonar Lake – an astronomical marvel created by a meteor and just 4 hours from Aurangabad, awe-inspiring Living Root Bridges – a must-visit in Meghalaya. Spiritual Tours and our rejuvenation & wellness breaks are also popular – especially in these challenging times. A unique River water cruise –Antara – is also a new concept that Indians are showing interest in.

Some of the popular search terms on our website include holidays to destinations such as Goa, Himachal Pradesh. Other trending terms include short weekend breaks and more recently we have seen a growing interest in Ladakh holidays for our Bike trips.

Like Kevadia (Statue of Unity) in Gujarat, Odisha’s Muduligadia eco-village is a great example that can be replicated. Given the increased focus on domestic tourism, investments in eco-tourism attractions and infrastructure, especially in the new normal of travel will be beneficial.

At Thomas Cook India, we are already witnessing the rise of the sensitive traveller, a traveller who respects his eco-system and will seek deeper enriching travel experiences. With news on the vaccines and growing customer confidence in travel, we are seeing encouraging growth in demand, and this is not restricted to the summer vacation period alone. Our Holiday Readiness Report (December 2020) reveals a significant increase in consumer confidence in travel: 89 per cent of respondents displayed keen interest to resume travel and 67 per cent of respondents are willing to travel in the next 6 months.

With pent-up demand, Indians are using every opportunity to travel – for short breaks, weekend trips, celebrating a special occasion, etc. The work from home model is a great opportunity and India’s young working professionals and millennials are making maximum use of this – exploring their bucket list locales India while ensuring that they are connected to work via Wifi.

Daniel D’souza, President & Country Head, Leisure, SOTC Travel

As the vaccine rollout accelerates, homebound Indian travellers are eager to plan their holidays in 2021 after having skipped them last year. Reinforcing our commitment to consistently provide value for our customers, SOTC has introduced Summer Holiday Sale that offers the best deals such as free flight tickets on summer holiday bookings, full holidays at half price, etc. Travellers with pocket-friendly budgets can now avail of our value packages to a wide range of domestic and international destinations.

India has emerged as a favourite holiday destination and Indians are eager to explore the beauty of the country and discover the diverse travel experiences our own country has to offer. They are eager to explore the local cuisine, offbeat experiences, wellness experiences, culturally immersive activities and outdoor activities. Staycations, workstations across exotic locales are preferred in India that offer meticulous health and safety measures.

The pent-up travel demand due to the lockdown has resulted in a new-found interest in Destination India. Consumers are moving away from crowds/traditional tourist spots while seeking to discover India’s untold stories and traveller secrets. To tap into this demand for non-standard/unique journeys, SOTC introduced India’s Hidden Gems. SOTC’s Hidden Gems incorporates a handpicked selection of Exquisite Locales: From Khajuraho, Rishikesh, Udaipur, Munnar, Jawai Sagar, Manali, Coorg, Kollam, Thekkady, Pachmarhi, Kabini, Bandhavgarh, Lalsot, and Goa. Exceptional Experiences included: a jeep safari amidst the lush plantations of Kolukkumalai, Munnar – the highest tea estate in the Western Ghats, a royal 4-course dining experience set against an evening bonfire at the luxurious Amritara Pali Jawai Sagar, picturesque coffee and spice plantation tours in Coorg aboard a specially designed jeep, an exclusive, private, night drive and stargazing experience in a gypsy at Pachmarhi, a unique bush-dining experience in Bandhavgarh, a vintage car drive around Udaipur’s picturesque lake, mangrove walks in the Sundarbans biosphere or the heady adrenalin rush of bungee jumping in Rishikesh, etc.

India’s hidden gems also include India’s Grand Canyon – the Gandikota Hills in Andhra Pradesh, Magnetic Hill in Ladakh, Chenab Bridge the world’s highest rail bridge, the world’s largest sundial in Jaipur, Varanasi – the world’s most ancient living city, Dal Lake’s floating post office, the Lonar Lake an astronomical marvel – created by a meteor, awe-inspiring Living Root Bridges in Meghalaya, and much more. For wellness and rejuvenation, India’s choices are plentiful: Kerala’s Ayurveda, yoga in the Himalayas to Tibetan medicinal therapy in Uttarakhand.

With this year offering many weekends that can be clubbed with other holidays that make weekends longer, we are observing a rise in inquiries for destinations like Goa, Kerala and Himachal. Travellers have shown a strong preference for short solo trips and short trips with friends or family during these holiday weekends.

In the absence of their annual summer vacation and short breaks this year, Indians are opting for a longer duration of stay – with 74 per cent respondents preferring a holiday of 4-10 nights – SOTC’s Holiday Readiness Report (December 2020). There has been a rise in local tourism, offbeat places, and wildlife tours. Demand similarly increased for drivecations and rural getaways to experience the local culture. From exploring the local cuisine to finding offbeat experiences at every destination, millennials wish to explore the unknown and are keen to escape city life for more glocal experiences. Owing to the pressures of lockdown, customers have shown a strong sentiment and preference for outdoor experiences.

Mehul Sharma, Founder & CEO, Signum Hotels

The COVID threat is still looming and international travel continues to look bleak. At Signum, we are countering this with aggressive domestic marketing to tap small events, weddings, conferences, outdoor catering, private catering at residences, etc. Essentially, we are focusing on taking the services to the doorstep of our customers offering them a fully customised, safe and hygienic experience in the comfort of their own homes.

The business has definitely shrunk by about 50 per cent and there is extreme pressure on rates and earnings. Cloud kitchens have been opened at all our hotels and are contributing to survival.

Customer behaviour has certainly changed and safety, health and hygiene have become the priority for guests. A guest would call 5-6 times to ensure all facilities available and hygiene practices being implemented at the hotel. More guests are scanning TripAdvisor reviews to build confidence before booking a hotel. And in a way, this is also good for us as hoteliers as it keeps us on our toes to ensure we are delivering against all commitments and as per the expectations of our guests.

Religious tourism must be aggressively looked at tapping the domestic potential. Destinations like Ayodha, Tirupati, Shirdi, and Mathura, etc. hold tourism potential and should be paid more attention in terms of developing infrastructure and facilities. Also, religious locations that attract hyper-local visitors must be aggressively focused upon.

March to June, domestic bookings to leisure destinations will move in the right direction. There is a spurt of travel to destinations like Gulmarg, especially with the early onset of summers while Goa may take a backseat due to extreme weather. The business, however, is expected to remain low for other business and city locations.

Rubin Cherian, General Manager, Novotel Hyderabad Airport

Novotel Hyderabad Airport is strategically located in close proximity to the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport and is also in the midst of all the latest investments that have been announced in the business, aerospace and logistics port. Hyderabad is surrounded with a plethora of off-beat destinations which if marketed in the right light have immense potential, especially in today’s world as travellers are looking to explore unexplored spots.

The team at the hotel is extremely agile and keeps a hawk’s eye on the developments happening in the periphery of the hotel to leverage all the possible business opportunities emanating from them. While the international travel restriction has been extended till March 31, 2021, it is quite encouraging to see that domestic corporate MICE is gradually gaining pace supported with weddings and social events.

We at Accor have also launched various travel campaigns which have garnered great response and have given the necessary travel push. Winter is the new summer campaign that is ongoing and offers a 20 per cent saving on stays, dining and spa experiences, and a 30 per cent discount for our ALL members (loyalty).

The hospitality industry has had a facelift in past one year and has witnessed complete metamorphism. Health and safety along with niche experiences top the lists for all customers. Guests need an extra level of assurance, hence communicating the steps taken by the brand is extremely critical and equally important is the consistent execution of all processes.

COVID-19 was one of the biggest catalysts to embrace digitalization. Coupled with the All Safe label, we have also gone contactless in our process, the entire guest journey is mapped and all the touchpoints right from the check- in to ordering of food or other services have been digitalised to reduce touchpoints 

India is a hidden jewel and yes there are lots of destinations that the Government can invest in terms of infrastructure, cleanliness, restoration, etc to make our great Country a haven not only for international tourists but also for foreign investments. I think rather than investing in hundreds of crores and making statutes of various famous personals, we should invest that money into modernizing and securing our Country.

Everyone is keen to explore the prospect of travelling and enjoying a leisurely stay, the domestic leisure travel seems to be an emerging trend in the industry. We are witnessing positive outcomes lately and are confident that better things are coming ahead for the industry.

The business sentiment for the hotel is improving with each day and we forecast to have a healthy mix of corporates, crew, MICE, social events, and weddings. Novotel Hyderabad Airport is one of the hotels which offer an expanse of open door and indoor venues which are perfect for gatherings ranging right from 10 to 1500 guests. Also with the luxury of spaces available with us, we are able to exercise social distancing norms to its full potential.