Travel and tourism: Disrupted, rebooted, and reorganised


While travel may perhaps become more meaningful, the industry itself will go through rationalisation

Shutting shop hadn’t occurred to me even as a vague possibility in the three decades that I have spent in the travel industry. Driven by the government directive to lockdown the country, I had to take the tough call of closing my office down, temporarily, and asking the staff to go on indefinite leave in March 2020.

It was a heart-wrenching time for my business partner and I, with whom I had co-founded ‘Panache World’, a boutique travel company that specialised in customised trips, an enterprise we built brick by brick over the past 19 years.

That was the beginning of a nightmare that lasted 75 days, during which time almost all countries across the world had closed their borders and grounded aircraft, bringing travel to a grinding halt. The consensus was that the travel industry, which was the first to shut down and hardest hit, would be the last to revive.

If one is to draw an analogy to a travel scare of the scale as the present pandemic, the closest would possibly be 9/11, which happened almost a couple of decades ago. Yet, then, the recovery was relatively swift as the travel industry bounced back in a calendar quarter. It has since continued to thrive and pre-COVID-19 contributed to 10% of the world GDP, employing 330 million people, and was worth $9 trillion.

Calls of despair

During the lockdown, I received many calls of despair from stakeholders in the travel industry, seeking answers, a path forward. As president of the Karnataka Tourism Forum, I was often asked to throw some light and provide guidance. Not having experienced anything of this nature before, I could do little but share my hope that the situation would improve and give a ‘guesstimated’ timeline of when I expected things to get better.

The gloom was grounding, humbling, and anguishing. Employees dependent on monthly salaries to meet expenses saw their incomes reduce, and in some cases stop. And while their incomes may have stopped, not so their expenses. Sadly, I heard of many seeing their businesses dwindle away. They were forced to give up their offices, let go of their staff and seek alternative means of income or resort to borrowing to sustain themselves.

Fragmented industry

The impact in India has been particularly harder to deal with because the tourism industry is fragmented and made up of a longtail of small businesses, many of which are not registered as MSMEs. The government, even if it willed and attempted, could not ascertain potential beneficiaries and dole out relief financially.

The Indian travel industry is tough, but it had its resilience tested to extremes. The lockdown did lift eventually in June and businesses started opening up gingerly, as did my office, but the fear prevailed for months that followed with the dreaded cases of infection surging unabated.

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‘Leisure Travel’ is discretionary and travellers continued to refrain from venturing out. It was not until almost half a year since the lockdown had passed that the first brave hearts attempted driving trips in the cocoon of their cars for weekends in hotels and resorts that offered natural distancing such as independent cottages or villas. Gradually, flights opened up as did people’s willingness to travel.

At large, having our lives disrupted, rebooted, and reorganised, we have now lived a time frame that will get to be known as pre- or post-COVID. Some things will never go back to the way they used to be, and generally there will be a caution that this generation will live with going forward.

As international borders start to reopen ever so slowly, the travel industry will also go through rationalisation. For instance, with the advent and adoption of ‘Zoom’, business or corporate travel will practice fiscal feasibility and curtailment.

On an optimistic front, travel may perhaps become more meaningful. Travelling only for enjoyment or escape from daily life will become a conscious thought. A deeper knowledge of the destination, its people, and its history will seem more pertinent when planning a trip.

Connecting with the experiences, the places and people we interact with will become more fulfilling and rewarding, to us, individually. Sharing stories of your experiences so as to inspire others will make your travel worthwhile. It is going to be about giving meaning to your own life … and in a way to people around you who you care for and inspire you.

Sanjar Imam is the president of the Karnataka Tourism Forum and the founder-director of Panache World.

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Sagar Biswas

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