Just when social media had made #VacayVibes cool for Indians to pack their bags and explore new shores, with the assistance of an expanding e-visa and visa-on-arrival network, a pandemic hit the world. In times of #Coronavirus, when social distancing is no longer an introvert’s prerogative, the travel and tourism sector has suffered a nasty blow—irrespective of whether it is the traveller or travel service provider.
Customer needs to come first
Case in point is Mumbai-based Vishal Kadakia who was supposed to be heading to the European nation for ProWein, a renowned international trade fair for wine and spirits. But plans came to standstill when the fair was postponed and Germany put out a travel advisory against India. Kadakia, founder of The Wine Park, an importer of international fine wines, had to take to Twitter—the modern day grievance redressal system—against Etihad Airways when he had to pay charges for cancelling his flight to Germany.
His beef with the airline was simple: “Why are airlines penalizing travellers in a situation which is not in their control?” Etihad Airways, since, has amended its cancellation and refund policy. Spokesperson of another Middle East based carrier, Emirates has said, “We understand our customers’ travelling plans may change, and we are giving them the flexibility to reschedule their trips with no fees for change or reissuance up to 31 March 2020, and no fees for cancellation or refunds between March 7 and 31, 2020.” Etihad Airways and Emirates are important carriers connecting India to other parts of the globe.
Rohan Varghese, a frequent business traveller, has to deal with a ruthless travel advisory issued by Qatar, even before the pandemic got a toehold in India. “India was the fourth on their initial list of nine countries to be banned in Qatar,” he states incredulously. Vice president at Global Media Network, Varghese had to cancel his Doha trip along with Dubai. The airlines is still not issuing full refunds but rescheduling flights; in Varghese’s case post the month of Ramadan.
Tackling the situation
The urgency of the current global situation is not lost on anyone, but it is the implementation of regulations at the customer service executive level is a challenge. Tigist Eshetu, Regional Director India Subcontinent Ethiopian Airlines assures, “Our head office in Addis Ababa has set up a special team (command centre) that works round the clock to respond Coronavirus related inquiries in the best possible manner. Besides our office in all Indian stations are actively responding to passengers inquires consistently.”
Singapore Tourism Board has addressed dealing with Indian travellers via tour operators, travel agencies and other service providers in India. “We have conducted trade engagement sessions in many cities, including Ahmedabad, Chennai and Kolkata recently,” informs GB Srithar, Regional Director, India, Middle East and South Asia – Singapore Tourism Board. Considering that India is a big market for Singapore, Srithar adds that STB is also leading the Tourism Recovery Action Task Force (TRAC), which brings together key stakeholders from the private and public sector in Singapore to develop and coordinate the recovery strategies and plans for Singapore tourism. “These plans will be launched at an appropriate time. We are assessing the situation across all our markets, including India.”
The loss in tourism business has massive economic repercussions—according to a preliminary calculation, WTTC predicts as that Coronavirus will cost the tourism sector at least $22 billion and cut 50 million jobs worldwide. Varghese who works closely works with various tourism bodies in India and abroad has vouched for the losses, adding that are piling up in crores.
The trickle-effect on ancillary sectors is huge. An unsuspecting victim is the Indian weddings business—the big fat Indian wedding cannot be big anymore. Neha Arora, Director of Var Vadhu Weddings says, “Clients are postponing or cancelling the scheduled weddings or changing their scale from grand to simple and intimate weddings. Most weddings guests are avoiding the travel and everyone has their doubts on hygiene and safety. Wedding are all about families coming together and celebrating and that can’t happen if we are all worried about health.”
Nikhil Kapur, Founder Director, Atmantan Wellness Centre in a statement has said, “The hotel industry all over the world is facing a major backlash due to Coronavirus. While the hoteliers, restauranteurs, etc are cutting back on their growth expectations. As people are not traveling much, the hospitality industry has come to a major halt.” Hotels world over have quickly adapted to the change offering free cancellations and leniency with loyalty programmes, including IHCL, Marriott International and Hyatt. Even AirBnB guests and hosts can now cancel reservations with no charge or penalty under the company's updated Extenuating Circumstances policy.