The resumption of scheduled international flights is a major milestone towards normalcy
JEAN-NOEL RAULT, General Manager. Indian Sub-continent, Air France-KLM
India is an interesting market for both our leisure and business customers, adds Chacko. “Our promotional activities will concentrate especially on the opening of the Mumbai route with celebration locally and in Helsinki. Our Mumbai route offers good connections to major European cities, such as Paris and London, and to several cities in the US. Naturally, the closing of the Russian airspace has had an impact on our operations. We are preparing for a prolonged Russian airspace closure and adapting our operations with many determined measures, including opening new routes, as in Mumbai.”
Arguably the largest international aviation operator in India, Singapore Airlines is once again seeing strong demand from India. “The resumption of scheduled commercial international passenger services from India has been a welcome and positive development for Singapore Airlines, as it opened up our entire global network to Indian travellers after a two-year hiatus,” says Sy Yen Chen, general manager, India, Singapore Airlines.
“India has always been a key market for the airline, and one of its fastest growing pre-pandemic. We are hopeful that this trend will continue. Having said that, market feedback indicates that the current outbound traffic from India comprises primarily pent-up leisure traffic, while business travel will take longer to return to pre-pandemic levels. We continue to remain nimble and will adjust our capacity to accommodate the demand from the market,” he adds.
SIA has already deployed the largest aircraft, the A380 services from both Mumbai and Delhi to cope with the demand, adds Chen. “In January this year, we also launched our new Boeing 737-8 product from Hyderabad, Kochi, and Kolkata. With the introduction of this new aircraft to our fleet from India, we now offer fully flat beds in Business Class on all our services from India to Singapore. This reflects our commitment to providing best-in-class products and services to the India market. As more borders reopen, we are leveraging our partnerships with several international tourism boards to promote seamless international travel to and via Singapore, and the response has been very positive so far. Along with special fares to several destinations across our network, we are also running a limited-time family summer holiday promotion with Singapore Tourism Board and our travel experience platform, Pelago.
SIA operates 65 weekly flights to Singapore from eight cities across India. In addition, SIA’s low-cost subsidiary, Scoot, operates 33 flights from six cities across India, of which just one city is common with SIA. For India, SIA group is operating about 70 per cent of our pre-Covid capacity, with plans to increase flights further in the weeks and months ahead as demand grows, says Chen.
India’s airlines are also speedily restoring their global network, even launching new destinations. “We have been getting good response to our services across our international network, and we hope that it continues to increase,” says Deepak Rajawat, chief commercial officer, Vistara. “The demand and load factors are consistently improving which is encouraging.”
We are optimistic about the healthy revival of outbound travel from India to the Czech Republic in the near future
ARZAN KHAMBATTA, Global Head Tourism Services - VFS Global
Having said that, the rising fuel prices, coupled with geopolitical tensions and falling value of rupee against dollar, has been posing a challenge to the recovery of the industry, adds Rajawat. “Since the recent resumption of scheduled international operations, we are operating flights to and from nine international destinations including Paris, Frankfurt, London, Kathmandu, Singapore, Dubai, Dhaka, Colombo and Bangkok. Also, we have scaled up our frequency on several routes, including Delhi-London and Mumbai-Singapore, to daily flights. While we temporarily discontinued connectivity to Colombo, we have started operations between Mumbai and Male from 25 May onwards. We are also on course to induct a mix of narrow-body and wide-body aircraft and have a fleet of nearly 70 aircraft by 2023, which will allow us to further expand our global presence.”
Rajawat says that while the war in Ukraine is not directly impacting its flight routes, “it definitely has a severe impact on the entire industry due to the rising ATF prices. Jet fuel makes up 30-35 per cent of an airline’s operating cost, which has been rising at an alarming rate due to the current geopolitical environment. While the rising demand for air travel has helped in coping up with it to some extent, it is still a challenge to the recovery of the industry.” Meanwhile, IndiGo is flying to about 25 integrational destinations, while SpiceJet has resumed flights to 14 and GoFirst to about 11.
Wooing Indians, again
Following the announcement on the lifting of ban on scheduled international air services, we have seen a huge pent-up demand for travel into Australia, with the Australian High Commission witnessing a bounce-back in Indian visitor visa lodgings back to 2019 levels says Nishant Kashikar, country manager (India & Gulf), Tourism Australia. Qantas’ direct services into India, the non-stop capacity on the India-Australia route has increased by 137 per cent, as compared to pre pandemic levels. Recently, Qantas announced its first direct route between Sydney and Bengaluru scheduled to commence from 14 September. This is in addition to a codeshare agreement with IndiGo, which will expand Qantas’ reach across India.
With airlines set to reinstate their full flight services to Malaysia soon, it is only a matter of time before the arrivals would return to the pre-pandemic level once again, says Sulaiman Bin Suip, director, Tourism Malaysia. “There is direct air connectivity with Malaysia, with five airlines – Malaysia Airlines, Malindo Air, AirAsia, IndiGo and Air India Express flying to Malaysia from multiple Indian cities, offering 76 weekly flights with more than 14,000 seats, making Malaysia an appealing and attractive destination. The flight frequency is 40 per cent (summer schedule) of what existed in pre-pandemic. We are pushing airlines to increase and are hopeful that more flights will be added from Q3 onwards.”
Reopening of air travel has resulted in an uptick in consumer confidence, feels Daniel D’souza, president & country head, holidays, SOTC Travel. “We are witnessing significant travel appetite with a surge in queries for April-June by over 200 per cent versus February-March. Our forward bookings are positive and our online searches are seeing a jump of over 130 per cent with short haul destinations driving key demand for near term travel and upcoming extended weekends.”
Recently, Qantas announced its first direct route between Sydney and Bengaluru scheduled to commence from 14 September
There are even incentives and freebies on offer. Earlier this year, Vietjet offered promotional tickets from R0 for six routes connecting India and Vietnam. Emirates, which reintroduced pre-pandemic flight frequencies to its destinations in India from 1 April, operating 170 weekly flights to nine cities in India. It announced that its customers can avail of a complimentary stay at JW Marriott Marquis hotel or the Hilton Garden Inn on their journey to Dubai for travel between 20 May and 30 September! Emirates also brought back its Airbus A380 on a daily basis between Dubai and Mumbai in March 2022.
Revenge spurs demand
International travel has been gaining back its momentum to positively impact the revival of the travel industry, says Rajeev Kale, president & country head, holidays, MICE, Visa, Thomas Cook (India) Limited. “Europe (Switzerland, France, Italy, Austria) tops the leaderboard with a 3x growth in queries; Dubai and Abu Dhabi are also seeing a 40-50 per cent growth in demand; Turkey and Egypt are up by 40 per cent. Short haul destinations in particular are seeing the maximum uplift with Thailand up by 2x week on week, followed by Singapore and Indonesia; also, destinations like Maldives (30 per cent), Mauritius (35 per cent) and Malaysia (25 per cent); the US (for visa holding customers) are creating a strong demand pipeline as well.
“From 26 April, fully vaccinated travellers to Singapore can experience near pre-Covid level situations in the city,” points out G.B. Srithar, regional director, India, Middle-East & South Asia, Singapore Tourism Board. They can enter Singapore without any pre-departure or on-arrival Covid tests. The impending summer holiday season is set to see a high travel demand from families and leisure travellers to book their vacations in Singapore. To welcome back family travellers, we have worked with Singapore Airlines and our destination partners to launch an exclusive campaign: Enjoy your family times now in Singapore. Indian family travellers can enjoy Singapore’s reimagined experiences with an exclusive deal of 50 per cent off fares for children below 12 years of age. It’s early days yet to estimate, when travel numbers reach pre-pandemic levels but given the strong Indian outbound travel interest to Singapore, it will be among the top tourism recovery source markets.”
"We are witnessing a significant uptick for closer to home destinations offering Indian travellers with visa-on-arrival and simplified health protocols, says D’souza. “Dubai/Abu Dhabi (Yas Island), Oman, Maldives, Thailand, Mauritius, also Nepal and Bhutan lead customer preferences. Additionally, customers with valid Schengen/ the US/ the UK visa can apply for an e-visa for Turkey.”
Since the reopening of Malaysia’s international borders, which coincided with the resumption of India’s scheduled international flights, India is among the top four visitor source markets, says Suip. “Our travel agents and airline partners tell us that there is a massive upsurge in enquiries. India is a mature market, and we believe outbound travel will rebound quickly. There are some exciting new products in Malaysia waiting to be explored. The newly opened outdoor theme park, Genting SkyWorld, the refurbished Sunway Resort in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s latest premium beach destination – Desaru Coast and a magnificent new attraction, the Merdeka 118, the world’s second-tallest building.”
We have been getting good response to our services across our international network, and we hope that it continues to increase
DEEPAK RAJAWAT, Chief Commercial Officer, Vistara
Maldives was the top destination during the last two years for travel deprived Indians. “India has been the largest tourist source market to the Maldives for the past two years with 291,787 Indian tourists travelling here in 2021,” points out Thoyyib Mohamed, CEO & MD, MMPRC. “That number contributes to 22 per cent of the total market share of arrivals for the year.”
Like all other sectors, luxury travel, too, has been impacted by Covid, agrees Arun Ashok, Regional Head India & Middle East, Luxury, Escape. “The results are clear in the numbers – the share of international holiday package sales has almost doubled for this month, compared to the last 12 months. Popular destinations such as Dubai, Maldives and Thailand are close to pre-pandemic levels whereas long-haul destinations like Europe and Australia still have some way to go. We expect a return to normal by next summer. Like all other sectors, luxury travel, too, has been impacted by Covid – average monthly revenues had dropped by 30–70 per cent during the peak of Covid waves. However, trends from the last two years suggest that as soon as one wave of Covid wanes and people are ready to book again, they are willing to spend more money on luxurious holidays, possibly making up for the lost opportunities.”
With this surge we are sure to reach pre Covid footfalls earlier than expected, asserts Liam Findlay, CEO-Experience Hub, Yas Island. “India is one of our largest focused source markets. Our confidence in the market reflects with the recent launch of our marketing campaign ‘Yas Hai Khaas’ with Bollywood’s most boundary-pushing star, Ranveer Singh. The campaign went viral soon after its launch and was well received with exceptional engagement across social media. With over 70 million views across Yas Island’s social channels as well as achieving 80 per cent of 2019’s website traffic in the first 10 days of the video launch. Yas Island also hosted the IIFA Awards, and we hope that its global appeal will encourage visitors to travel to the destination.
The international outlook from India is positive, agrees Chris Heywood, executive vice-president, global communications, NYC & Co. “India has remained in New York City’s top 10 international source markets in 2021, mainly based on the VFR segment, visiting friends and relatives. With the re-opening of air travel, especially before the peak summer season, encouraging long-haul destinations, based on a solid economy, disposable income and aspirations of a growing middle class only accelerate the positive development from India. We have seen strong arrival numbers, solid pent-up demand with a very flourishing NRI and student community. With 3 million Indians with a valid US visa, we greatly look forward to welcoming Indian visitors back this year and beyond.”
Maldives is always a favourite destination for tourists
Meanwhile, Elliott Ferguson, Destination DC President and CEO points out that prior to the pandemic, India was DC’s third largest overseas visitor market with significant potential. “Washington, DC received over 132,000 Indian visitors in 2019, which unfortunately fell about 95 per cent in 2020 when the pandemic hit. Fortunately, per our latest data (February 2022), India recovery is forecasted for a competitive growth outlook in 2023. Overseas visitation to the U.S. is not expected to fully recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2025, but we also know that people are ready and willing to travel, and we are hopeful that remaining engaged in the India market will help us stand out against competitive cities.”
Even as Europe struggles with visa backlogs, the tourism boards are ready. “With the resumption of international flights, we are optimistic about the healthy revival of outbound travel from India to the Czech Republic in the near future, says Arzan Khambatta, director, Czech Tourism India & the Middle East. “As of April, international travellers are no longer required to show any Covid proof upon their arrival to the Czech Republic.”
Enticing the desi tourist
In 2022, the Indian outbound is a valued customer, especially tourism heavyweights China and Russian tourists are MIA, for different reasons, and tourism boards are working overtime to lure the outbound Indian. During the past two years of the pandemic, we have worked tirelessly with our partners in Germany’s inbound tourism industry and the Indian travel trade to prepare for a successful restart, says Romit Theophilus, director, India, German National Tourist Office.
“Activities include the virtual empathy campaigns for end customers during the lockdowns, as also the investments in digital transformation, the positioning of Germany as a sustainable destination in the Indian market and the ongoing exchange of knowledge with the travel industry. This is accomplished, for example, through market insight webinars, Germany Travel Mart 2022, speed networking and many other initiatives. The demand for Germany is picking up in India.”
Australia is going all out to lure Indians. In regard to visa facilitation, the Australian High Commission has introduced Visa Application Charge (VAC) waiver, which will allow travellers who have obtained Visitor visas (Subclass 600) that have expired or are due to expire soon, between 20 March 2020 and 30 June 2022, to re-apply for a future Visitor visa, free of charge before 31 December 2022, points Kashikar. “The Australian High Commission will also offer a personalised visa service for large corporate or incentive groups who intend to visit Australia. Furthermore, Australian visa applications can only be lodged online as per the convenience of the applicant, at a time and location of their choice, without the need to appear for a personal interview or submit biometric information.”
Australia has gradually relaxed its entry requirements and all Indian travellers need to enter the country is a valid visa, vaccination certificate with just two doses and a digital passenger declaration (DPD) to be submitted 72 hours prior to departure. On arrival, travellers need to undertake a self-monitored Rapid Antigen Test (RAT), within 24 hours of entry.
India is one of the top Asian destinations for us and we hope to increase flight slots in the future to daily operations in Delhi and Mumbai
DESMOND CHACKO, General Manage, Finnair
In order to drive visitation to Australia and capitalise on the pent-up demand, we are exploring and pursuing cooperative partnerships with leading tour operators and online travel agents. points out Kashikar. We are also facilitating partnerships with our key airlines like Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Malaysia Airlines. We recently launched our Virtual Travel Fair, Discover a Great Deal More, to provide Indian travellers with the opportunity to explore attractive deals on holidays to Australia, for a limited period. In addition to special airfares from six carriers, travellers can also view competitive prices on holiday packages and other tourism products and experiences.
As Australia gears up to play host to the much-awaited ICC Men’s T20 World Cup, from 22 October to 13 November, “we are keen to leverage this mega event as a contextual media and PR opportunity to showcase the best of Australia’s attractions and experiences to a nation of cricket enthusiastic travellers,” adds Kashikar.
Maldives continues to be bullish on India. “As for our marketing strategy for India, we have carefully curated campaigns with travel agencies, tour operators, and airlines and other agencies,” says Mohamed. “We have maximised efforts to market the different segments of tourism that the Maldives has to offer which the Indian travellers may seek. Last year alone, we held 26 activities targeting the Indian market, this included participation in in-person events such as the MILT Congress, online fairs such as SATTE, and destination roadshows in India. While the government targets 1.6 million tourist arrivals to be achieved this year, we are hoping India would remain as the top source market and we would receive as much or even more than the total visitors we received from India in 2021, which is 291,787. Incidentally, 2022 marks the 50th anniversary for Maldives tourism.
Czech Tourism perceives India as one of the most important growing source markets to Central European destinations like the Czech Republic, says Khambatta. “We aim to showcase the destination’s plethora of attractions, diversity of offerings for discerning travellers for an elevated holiday experience in the Czech Republic. There are multiple activities planned to promote the destination to both trade as well as customers.
In the following months to come in order to maintain a strong growth trajectory, the destination will be promoted through various activities including sales visits, training, familiarization trips, joint co-ops with various travel agents, exciting contests and a ton of other promotional activities.” The capital of neighbouring Austria isn’t as sure yet. “India opened international travel only a few months ago,” Isabella Rauter of the Vienna Tourist Board remarks. “And we hope to get better visibility of the Indian tourist inflow in the coming quarters.”
Just before the announcement of lifting of the commercial flight ban, ‘our India team met with key and strategic partners in Mumbai and Delhi to cohesively work on the re-opening of the market and to promote Yas Island as a preferred destination for holiday,’ points out Findlay.
India has remained in New York City’s top 10 international source markets in 2021
CHRIS HEYWOOD, Executive Vice President of Global Communications, NYC & Company
Nearby Ras Al Khaimah, which has been a case study in successful Covid-19 management with a robust plan set in motion in April 2020, becoming the first in the world to offer free return PCR testing for all visitors at the height of the pandemic. “Ras Al Khaimah is resilient and thanks to our concentrated efforts and adaptability, we have returned to almost pre-pandemic numbers, having welcomed approximately one million visitors to Ras Al Khaimah in 2021,” says Iyad Rasbey, executive director, destination tourism development, RAK. “We have increased our activities in India to promote our destination in-market and grow all travel segments from leisure, families, business to MICE and weddings. We also recently conducted two roadshows in Delhi and Mumbai, two key cities for us. From India, we receive interest from three main sectors including leisure travellers, destination weddings and MICE.”
Super-organised Singapore has a whole lot of new attractions to offer. Visitors will also be now able to experience a reimagined Singapore with new and added attractions and seamless safety protocols, says Srithar. “New attractions include the Museum of Ice Cream, open-air panoramic SkyHelix Sentosa and Adventure HQ – Singapore’s first and largest multi-installation adventure centre. The hosting of Formula One’s only night race will return to Singapore during 29 September-2 October. We have stepped up our efforts to engage our audiences in creative ways to offer glimpses of Singapore’s art, culture, food scenes. We kick-started our SingapoReimagine Reopening campaign in Chennai, with a collaboration with St+art India Foundation for a cross cultural art installation called ‘Dreams from the Futures’, created by Indian artist Osheen Siva and Singapore’s Tina Fung. Recently, we collaborated with Gin Explorer’s club for a special experience zone at the Gin Festival in Delhi, to offer the audience a slice of Singapore’s burgeoning gin culture.”
“We are reaching out to the travel trade industry through a series of roadshows, says Suip. We conducted a six-city roadshow across major cities in India and the response from the industry has been tremendous. In Malaysia, we have looked at every facet of the traveller experience and created measures to ensure that their health and safety are paramount. We have ensured that our flights, entry points, hotels, resorts and attractions follow strict SOPs and meet the highest standards of comfort, health and safety. We have also been disseminating information on what’s new in Malaysia, the latest safety measures, and entry SOPs through digital media and will conduct familiarization trips.”
Promotional campaigns have found a new life. India is a very important market for us and to create a distinct voice in the market, NYC & Co hosted its first virtual sales mission in February this year with a detailed webinar update on various new developments in the city and multiple face-to-face meetings to review business opportunities, says Heywood. “We recently announced a new ‘Get Local NYC’ campaign. In December last year, we also launched The Asian Experience in NYC, a resource on NYCGO.com celebrating the City’s diverse and vibrant Asian community including India, to bring distinctive cuisine, music and style to NYC’s streets and continue to add new content over time. In 2019, New York City welcomed 336,000 Indian visitors. Our 2022 forecasts show a recovery of over 50 per cent this year with 181,000 Indian visitors projected to travel to NYC, up from 93,000 last year.”
Visitors will also be now able to experience a reimagined Singapore with new and added attractions and seamless safety protocols
G.B. SRITHAR,, Regional Director (India, Middle East & South Asia), Singapore Tourism Board
“We promote tourism’s standing as an inherently peaceful activity, with the ability to bring people together, and its importance as a symbol for openness and tolerance,” says Theophilus. “Which is why we have chosen this moment to relaunch our German.Local.Culture. campaign. By providing a wide range of inspiration for travellers in the Indian markets, the campaign also promotes Germany as a destination for longer holidays for the culturally minded, for families and for people who like to get active.”
Not quite ‘all-clear’
“Although simplified travel protocols are an opportunity, one of the challenges the industry is facing is that though destinations have opened, not all carriers are running at full capacity and we still observe a demand and supply gap,” admits D’souza. “The surge in demand has led to an impact on processing time/ visa delivery. Despite the uptick in demand, the French consular team in Mumbai continue to deliver visas in three days.”
Theophilus admits that the process for applying for the visa can take up to one or two months in some cases. “Even after submitting your documents, it will further take two weeks for the visa to be issued. The visa issue seems to be a staffing issue, being faced by many European countries.”
One of the biggest challenges we foresee in reviving tourism from India is regaining the confidence of inbound travellers, points out Ashok. “India boasts of one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and there are rules and restrictions in place for safety against Covid, but travellers would need time to adjust to the new normal and feel confident enough to travel to India.”
“One challenge we are experiencing is limited appointment slots for travellers seeking new B1/B2 Visas, which is hindering opportunities to get first-time visitors to the region,” acknowledges Ferguson. “We’re also navigating limited seat availability on flights and increased travel costs, as pricing is up worldwide.”
Kale sounds a hopeful note. “There is a phased restart of scheduled commercial aviation with capacity constraints, hence a resultant demand-supply gap. Even though supply is not yet back to pre-pandemic levels, newer destinations are seeing demand and our data indicates a positive forward pipeline for this year.”
“I am not surprised that travel has returned,” says Brian Chesky, CEO, Airbnb. “When things are taken away from us, if they are truly meaningful, they will come back. Travel is one of the most important meaningful things in our life.” As good a reason as any for the unexpectedly rapid recovery it is seeing.
Ras Al Khaimah has strong credentials in MICE space
Awaited: The return of MICE
While business travel remains the most adversely impacted segment within travel, almost similarly impacted MICE is seeing tentative movements to return, especially of incentive travel. The past few months have witnessed increased demand for MICE owing to easing of restrictions and reopening of borders, says S.D. Nandakumar, president & country head, B2B & foreign exchange, SOTC Travel. “The positive news on reopening of India’s international skies has played a key role to inspire movement among corporates. Companies that had put their plans on hold have also begun reinitiating their corporate travel and we have received confirmations for multiple corporate groups, travelling April onwards for both domestic and international short- and long-haul destinations. Over 85 per cent of our corporate movement is incentive driven and we have multiple groups ranging from a size of 40 to over 4000 lined up from varied sectors.”
“Post pandemic we are seeing a huge pent-up demand for MICE travel and Czech Republic is one of the ideal MICE destinations for them,” says Khambatta. “According to ICCA records in 2019, Prague ranked ninth place with 138 meetings. We are in touch with various MICE agents and Corporates to plan their next MICE travel to the Czech Republic.”
Ras Al Khaimah has strong credentials in this space, having already hosted several large in person events including the recent Arab Aviation Summit 2022 and the Global Citizen Forum 2021, bringing together over 400 guests from across 32 countries, says RAK’s Rasbey. “We have a strong pipeline for the rest of the year and anticipate increased interest in our Emirate, especially with easing travel restrictions in India.”
“For Meeting and Incentive (M&I) trips, the doing away with the on-arrival test will have a significant impact for group movements from India, points out STB’s Srithar. We are already receiving many enquiries ranging from small, medium to large M&I groups. Our incentive schemes – Business Events in Singapore (BEiS) offering funding support to large M & I groups for third party costs and INSPIRE offering smaller groups complimentary experiences from dining to thematic tours – are aimed at enabling corporates to host their M & I programmes in Singapore giving their delegates memorable times in the city.”