Regional is King! Whether it is between Singapore and Malaysia, or within ASEAN. Or, within Europe which accounts for more than 70% regional traffic. It is equally true of the GCC countries with Dubai getting more than 70% of its traffic from within.
Regional is more reliable, more trustworthy. Take South Asia as a region. In lifestyle, in expectations, in travel habits, whether it is food, or drink, we are in a way a common people.
Regional is more last minute. People have gravitated to taking more holidays but of shorter durations. Therefore, short-haul travel is preferred. Comfort availability has improved dramatically, not just in hotels but in local transport, airports, etc. When you find low business periods, you can tap regional like you tap domestic. We understand and appreciate newspaper headlined stories talking of unrest or social disturbances.
There are some good pointers, some struggles ahead, as we think of regional tourism within the South Asian region. Important that we recognise both.
Factors that hold Promise
- Natural Travel: Much regional travel is already happening. We can call it natural travel. That which will happen between good neighbours. Visiting friends and relatives, visiting for medical reasons, for work, for education. But less for leisure. This will keep growing. Indian inbound arrivals from within South Asia were as much as 29% of its total visitor count way back in 2018. How this has altered post covid, I cannot say, but my suspicion is it must be back to pre-covid, if not improved further.This traffic is peculiar. A large part of it does not utilise the structured part of the established tourism network. No hotels, no tour operators, no tourist transport. Some of it is by road. It has by passed for the larger part, the interest levels of the tourism community in India. It is there, this Natural Travel, that we mention, and will grow. This must be equally true of many other regions. The last I knew many Singaporeans cross the border into Malaysia, only for the day, to buy cheaper goods.
- Connectivity: It was never this good. With the arrival of private airlines in India, we have been able to make the growth a couple of times fold. In some cases, five to six times in the last few years. Going forward, more new city pairs would help, some help from airports (which remain congested at the major metros, and therefore smaller ones could provide new energy), tier 2 and tier 3 would be next steps. At present, on some days, the price of the ticket is very high, and a big deterrent.
- Awareness: There is awareness, by and large, of the tourism product. Though in many cases, it remains restricted or is not updated. Which could help, when recognised and acted upon. Like in the case of Nepal, what the destination is today in terms of pilgrim attraction, and MICE and holidays is relatively unknown. So much has changed in Kathmandu in recent years, this new narrative needs to be told. Nepal, for instance, is yet to open adequately to well-heeled Indians. The new spruced up look at Pashupathinath is a most exhilarating experience; standard of local transport has improved manifold; cuisine offerings are international and Thamel is a new experience.With the advent of hotel chains spreading their wings, there is greater familiarity of where to stay, increased the comfort level for all of us. In Kathmandu, you have a Vivanta, Radisson, Fairmont, Hyatt, and so on. This helps the traveller book. It has increased the sense of shared ownership among both the industry and the end consumer.
- Social Media: This is a new avenue and offers unlimited opportunity for marketing and advertising. Targeted outreach, to special interest groups, at less cost than was possible in print, and a good penetration in most key markets within South Asia.
The Problem Areas: The Constraints
- Traditional Markets: We have traditionally looked at Europe and US, as key markets as these have been higher spenders and used the five-star hotels, which have been the key stakeholders in India’s tourism business. But much of this is changing. These same five-star hotel groups have added mid-market properties as well. In fact, India’s mid-market is growing faster than the five-star category. There are also stand-alone chains, specialising in three-star hotels, some with 60 plus properties.
- Domestic is Big: During Covid and post covid, domestic was the knight in shining armour! The traffic that was bottled for two years plus, that was raring to go, found refuge in going domestic. International flights remained closed, domestic opened in phases. To begin with, as the world opened, it was overnight or week-end tourism that flowered most. It was what was dubbed significantly as aas-paas tourism. Close by, to destinations most preferred by road. It was also economical as a full family got bundled into a single car, as against flying which was then only opening in phases, was considered unsafe and in the first stages seen only fit for essential travel. It was a natural coming together – only domestic, more economical, shorter trips, family travel.Within our region, this is possibly true for all our countries, with domestic growing in each of us. As in India, so in Nepal, Bangladesh and also in Sri Lanka. Domestic is being lured like never before. In the lobby of many of the deluxe hotels in Kathmandu, I find a local wedding taking place, a young couple from the interiors visiting for a week end. It is commonplace in South Asia. There are promotional packages over holidays.In many cities, where there was little or no foreign tourism, Indian tourists have started paying rates that were unimaginable till now. In towns like Mussoorie and Rishikesh, imagine rates of `30,000 and more, and there are no rooms! So, for leisure, there may be a roadblock, that is increasing domestic tourism demand, to our efforts to grow regional.Aggravating the problem is the mis-match in demand and supply. Domestic demand is outstripping hotel room supply, and will remain so for the next few years.
- Profits Dictate Business: Another new emerging concern is the question of sustainability and profitability, that serve as litmus tests to whatever the industry is doing. Government play has diminished or disappeared altogether. No longer is flying the flag any consideration. Air India is now in private hands. It has stakeholders, namely the TATA group, for present, but soon when it becomes profitable, one can expect it to go public and get listed. So, being profitable is extremely important for survival. Gone are the days when we could ask for free tickets for promotion.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Navin Berry, Editor, Destination India, has been in the business of reporting on travel, tourism and hospitality for almost 5 decades. He has published titles such as Cityscan, GoNow and India Debates; founder of India’s first inbound tourism mart that became one of the biggest in Asia.