Quarantine. No Quarantine. A 7-day Quarantine. A 14-day Quarantine. With each state coming up with different norms for quarantine, people no longer have the desire to travel, and this could be bad for the country’s economy and stability.
In an interview with Voyager’s World, Vijay Mohan, President, Tours and Travels Association of Andhra, not only sheds light on the harsher policies haunting the Indian travel trade but also shares solutions that could be easily implemented, which would build confidence in people to travel soon.
Here are the excerpts…
There’s been a lot of back and forth discussions among the travel trade fraternity about resuming domestic tourism operations. What have been your observations so far?
Initially, our travel agents were happy with the government’s move to resume airline operations, but slowly we realized that almost all flights had only one- way ticket passengers and the whole process looked like people who were stranded were taking their journey back home.
Each state with its own set of quarantine regulations has had an impact on passenger traffic. Some states have opted for a seven-day institutional quarantine plus a seven-day home quarantine or 14 days home quarantine. This will affect all travel plans in general. Airlines will be forced to cancel their flights as there will be no loads within a weeks’ time.
The Central Government should decide on one uniform policy of quarantine instead of enabling the states to specify their own quarantine and self-isolation rules for arriving passengers. It is time for the Central Government to step in to discuss the revival of the travel industry and to create a much-needed stimulus. If not, nothing will move forward.
With respect to travel, how would you define the ‘New Normal’?
‘Social distancing’ will become the new normal. The airlines, trains, and bus check-in and boarding formalities will be adapted with social distancing in mind. Protective barriers have already been installed at each check-in desk to provide additional safety measures for passengers and employees during any interaction. Gloves, masks, and hand sanitizers have to be made mandatory for all employees at the airport. Passengers must also be required to wear their own masks when at the airport and on board the aircraft while following social distancing guidelines. Hotels will have mandatory mobile check-ins and check-outs using Bluetooth, RFID technology, cashless payments will come in.
What must be done to step up the regulations in a manner, it creates confidence among the people to travel as they did earlier?
The innovation from Emirates had changed the very aspect of how tourism will move forward and they have shown us how to make the skies safe to travel.
Problem 1 | Flights: I think we now have a solution to these. Emirates Airlines has been conducting an on-site rapid Covid-19 test for passengers. The quick blood test was conducted by the Dubai Health Authority (DHA), and results were available within 10 minutes. I think global airlines should all follow this and I think even domestic airlines in India should also follow the same and this would get back tourism to where it was very fast.
Likewise, the best thing to do would be to introduce rapid testing, as it would guarantee that no passenger is carrying the COVID onto the flight. Once the skies are labeled safe, everything from airlines, hotels, domestic tourism, and outbound tourism to inbound tourism would all revive.
Rapid testing can change the whole perspective. We don’t have to worry about being quarantined. Destinations and countries don’t have to worry about anyone entering with a COVID. Governments have to understand that testing charges will be much cheaper than the cost of losing tourism and global tourism would revive fast.
Problem 2 | How safe is the destination we are traveling: Countries like Vietnam and Cambodia have opened its doors for international tourists into their country and Vietnam Tourism has launched a communication campaign “Vietnam NOW – Safety and Smiling” – a tourism stimulus program with preferential packages for domestic and Asian tourists. Other countries like Bhutan, Laos, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, Fuji, Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar, Macau, and Thailand are also closer to opening up for tourist and I think that this is the biggest news coming in for Tourism. Even European countries like Croatia are planning to open up for tourism, but one of their biggest concerns would be the tourist who could be potential COVID carriers and the only savior would be the Rapid Testing, and all governments should immediately think of implementing this at all the airports.
A lot will depend on how safe the destinations are. Once you receive news that a particular country and destination is safe, people will look to travel to that country. Some countries are taking steps to introduce Rapid Testing for all arrivals. This could also be a big step forward to ensure that there is no transmission of new cases in their countries. Countries that depend a lot on tourism will innovate themselves to restart tourism and get back tourism in the next couple of months.
Countries like Singapore is already rolling out a full system using QR app, Trace Together, which may require a system of authorization on mobile phones for tracing either voluntarily or mandatory. Whilst there are significant privacy issues relating to data, there may be benefits for teams working together in environments such as hotels to be quickly alerted to someone experiencing symptoms.
Problem 3 | How safe is the hotel we are staying at: This will be another important factor and hotels have to make travelers feel that the accommodation is safe. The most important thing that the hotels have to do is keep doing frequent tests for its staff and reassure travelers that the hotels are safe. Hotel chains have begun revamping their existing service protocols and standards for guests. Some hotel chains have identified 200+ SOPs and touchpoints at its hotels where it will make changes to meet the new health and safety challenges.
Problem 4: Restrictions of travel and visas of each country and quarantine thereafter.
Once these are addressed, people will start traveling.
As a member of the travel trade fraternity, what kind of support do you expect from the government to revive the tourism industry?
Refund from Airlines: The government has to direct the airlines to refund the amount to our bank accounts and not credit shells or login Ids so that we can make the refunds to the passengers.
GST: We require a bailout package based on the GST each travel agent paid over the last one year. The government can determine the bailout and give that as an exception for future GST to be paid or GST paid for the period from April 2019 to March 31, 2020, to be credited back to the respective accounts of the companies, which could be used to pay the salaries and wages of the employees for the next one year. This exercise will help retain employees in the companies without layoffs because of no business for the coming period. GST tour packages need to be brought down to 2% on domestic tours so that domestic tours can be encouraged.
Salaries: Support fund for six months on the lines of MNREGA to support basic salaries with direct transfer to affected tourism employees.
Income Tax Exemption: The government must bring in an exemption up to Rs.50,000 in Income Tax for IT payers’ expenditure on domestic tours and this would also make people spend within the country and would also fall in line with the vision of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has asked Indians to visit at least 15 tourist destinations within India by 2022 and had said that there is a “huge” scope to improve India’s tourism sector. This will definitely benefit different employment sectors across India.
Inter-State Road Taxes: Inter-state state taxes should be exempt for a period of one year to promote domestic tourism, as per the current scenario. Tourists will definitely prefer to travel by their own vehicle for the sake of the safety of themselves and their families.
Declare Tourism As An Industry: Travel and tourism should be declared as a separate industry. States have been declaring Tourism as an industry, but have not passed on the benefits that other industries get, especially with regard to licenses, cost of utilities, such as power, water, conversion of land, etc.
Promotions: Extensive domestic tourism promotions should happen post-COVID-19.
Give us a brief profile of Tours and Travels Association of Andhra that you are currently heading. Amid the Covid-19 crisis, what are your primary goals to revive tourism?
At Tours and Travels Association of Andhra, we have 324 members, and we have divided the state into four Regional Chapters: Vizag, Konaseema i, Amaravati, and Rayalaseema. Each of the chapters has its own President and Secretary.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, we had about 40 knowledge sessions about various destinations that would open up fast for tourism post the crisis. We also had sessions to educate our members on how to sell Andhra Pradesh as a destination, which has remained our primary goal. We have trained our members on various circuits and itineraries in Andhra Pradesh, which include pilgrimage sites, three Shakti Peethams, beaches, wildlife, tribal tourism, caves, adventure tourism, and more.
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