More than two years after the Covid pandemic brought travel to a halt, India’s tourism and hospitality industry is now cautiously optimistic. Freelance journalist Rubina A Khan explains what drives optimism.
Tourism accounted for almost 3% of India’s GDP and generated around 100 million jobs in 2019.
But the sector was hit hard in India – as in other countries – when the pandemic hit. Only 2.74 million foreign tourists visited India in 2020 compared to 10.93 million the previous year, according to official data.
While the number of foreign visitors is still far from pre-pandemic levels, tour operators and hospitality industry executives say a resurgence in domestic tourists makes them more optimistic.
After two years of confinement indoors, Indians are now traveling with vengeance – the “revenge voyage”, as the phenomenon is called. And many, experts say, now prefer to travel within the country rather than flying to more expensive destinations abroad.
The industry is also taking advantage of new trends born out of the pandemic such as micro-vacations and workcations.
Deep Kalra, founder and president of travel website Make My Trip, says the industry began to see a recovery in the last quarter of 2020 and has been steadily recovering ever since.
“In fact, the last three fiscal quarters have been, operationally, the most profitable for our company,” he said.
Experts say the pandemic has presented Indians with an opportunity to explore their own country.
India has always been a popular tourist destination. From historic forts and stunning palaces to dense jungles, there is no shortage of options for visitors.
But with international travel halted for months, more and more Indians have opened up to the idea of vacationing in the country, says Vishal Suri, chief executive of travel company SOTC.
“The pandemic has given Indians a new appreciation for the outdoors,” says Mr Suri.
He adds that there has been a surge in demand for unexplored destinations – people are looking for ways to combine pilgrimages and spiritual journeys with exploring local cuisine, cultural trails and adventure.
The pandemic has also generated new trends such as staycations and workcations – combining remote work and vacations.
“Travelers are now extremely comfortable booking homestays that offer the exclusivity, privacy and comforts of home,” says Pradeep Shetty, senior official of the Federation of Associations of Hotels and Restaurants of India (FHRAI).
Make My Trip’s Mr Kalra agrees – he says people have warmed to the idea of traveling to India whenever possible.
“Even the frequency of travel has changed and become more regular. The annual break has now turned into a micro-vacation, with people taking more and more breaks in the form of multiple weekends and seasonal vacations,” he said.
Impact on the hotel sector
This change has proven to be a source of revenue for hotels in India, as people are now ready to use the money they would normally reserve for their international holidays at better domestic facilities.
Some luxury hotels have lowered their prices at regular intervals during the pandemic, leading to a surge in bookings and short-term revenue.
Puneet Chhatwal, the COO of The Indian Hotels Company Ltd (IHCL) – India’s largest hotel company which operates the Taj luxury hotel chain – says that after each successive wave of Covid, the recovery has been “stronger and faster”.
“ICHL occupancy figures today exceed pre-pandemic levels – a resurgence that is primarily fueled by domestic tourism,” it adds.
Raffles Udaipur – run by international hotel chain Raffles – is located on a private island and opened in August 2021, just months after the devastating second wave of the pandemic in India.
But the hotel has seen “healthy occupancy” every month throughout its first year of operation in India, said Puneet Dhawan, the hotel’s senior vice president for India and Asia. from South.
“While we have no pre-pandemic metrics to compare to, we have seen a steady increase in response to our property,” he adds.
Mr Dhawan says the hotel is preparing for an even busier year – starting with the winter tourist rush and the upcoming wedding season.
Mr Kalra says there are also other positive signs, such as the recovery in business travel – a trend that is expected to increase over the coming quarters, contributing to the overall recovery of the travel industry.
But despite the optimism, people in the industry say domestic tourism alone cannot bring the sector back to pre-pandemic growth levels.
In September, India’s tourism minister said the government was working to revive the tourism sector overall.
But foreign arrivals continue to be dismal – data shows they fell 44.5% in 2021 from the previous year.
“India has not launched a single campaign inviting the world to us. What we need is a stellar marketing strategy that entices travelers enough to choose us, especially the 60 million people who traveled to China and don’t now,” Dipak said. Deva, Managing Director of Travel Corporation of India, one of India’s best-known travel agencies.
He adds that the government also needs to reinstate its e-visa service – especially for countries like the UK from where a large number of tourists visit India – as the current procedure is too cumbersome.
However, Mr Kalra believes that domestic and international travel is “here to grow together, not against each other”.
“With international travel back in the spotlight, we are confident that in a few quarters, international travel will also be able to fully recover.”