Government inaction forced 50% of tourism industry professionals to leave the sector: George Scaria

Government inaction forced 50% of tourism industry professionals to leave the sector: George Scaria

The Covid-19 pandemic has crippled the Indian tourism industry at large, leaving several companies across size without business, many people jobless. How the industry is trying to revive itself? What’s the way forward? What’s the government doing to aid the recovery?

It’s been a fortnight since the world has ushered in the new year 2021, after a devastating 2020. The last year of the last decade has witnessed havoc across all the sectors due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With the lockdowns across countries, Covid-restrictions; humankind has witnessed something never before.

The travel and tourism industry is among some of the key sectors that have been severely impacted due to the pandemic. According to estimates, the pandemic has cost the global tourism industry has nearly $935 billion, while in 2019, the global travel and tourism industry contributed $8.9 trillion to the world’s GDP.

Every year, the Indian tourism industry attracts a huge number of tourists from within the country and abroad as well. The pandemic certainly put a stop to that with the nationwide lockdown, travel restrictions, etc. This led to not only loss of business but a lot of unemployment as well.

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The Indian tourism industry is one of the largest industries and accounts for 6.23% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and provides employment to 8.78% of the total population. In FY2018, the sector generated around $275.5 billion dollars of revenue with an annual growth rate of 9.4%.

The crippling pandemic has caused nearly Rs 1.25 trillion revenue loss in CY2020, which is a 40% decline over CY2019. According to a study, the impact of the pandemic on the tourism industry was around 50% during January and February 2020, while it was higher at 70% in March, following the suspension of international flights. During April-June, the Indian tourism industry lost nearly Rs 69,400 crore revenue, registering a 30% year-on-year loss. If the official report has to be believed, the Goa tourism industry alone suffered a loss of Rs 2,000-7,200 crore due to the Covid crisis.

Partners in Crave spoke to George Scaria, Managing Director, Keralavoyages India Pvt Ltd, a Travelife Certified Tour Operator to understand the current scenario in the Indian tourism industry, how the sector is walking the revival path, and what’s ahead for it.

Edited excerpts.

Q. Kerala has been one of the key destinations in India for wellness tourism. In the post-lockdown phase, how the industry is reviving its business? (If at all)

This is a difficult question. Because when we assess Kerala as a Wellness hub in Tourism, there was a huge inorganic growth that took place in the sector during the last few years. We could see a high percentage of commercialisation evolved in this sector. This is mainly because of the lack of a proper monitoring system in Kerala as a whole in Tourism related businesses. This is not a sustainable model.

When it comes to Covid era, it will be critical to allow the unprofessional and unlicensed centres to provide services to tourists as a high standard hygiene protocol are to be ensured at these centres. I have my apprehension on the Tourism Department letting loose such things to the whims and fancies of the stakeholders.

In my opinion, Kerala is still in its lockdown phase as far as tourism is concerned apart from some Keralites travelling within Kerala. Especially when it comes to Wellness clients, most of them are from abroad. The central government has not yet announced the reopening of borders, Visa resumption, and resuming International flights.

Without these things, we can’t expect much towards a revival mode in any tourism sector including wellness. Medical visas are not a solution as it requires certain formalities which may be utilised by some seriously ill people but for wellness, we have mostly normal tourists who club a wellness program along with their holiday.

Tourism industry

Q. What kind of plans, offers are the Kerala tourism industry is dishing out to get back the attention of tourists?

Nobody knows. Unfortunately, an entity like Kerala Tourism Industry is not existing. We never had unity among the stakeholders and it’s a ground for the giants, medium, small and micro players. Moreover, we don’t have a regulation to have a uniform nature in tourism. So how can we expect the Industry comes out with something to promote tourism? Every stakeholder does what he feels right for him and nobody can stop them.

Without implementing a sustainable business strategy, no industry can succeed in the long run. We talk a lot about Sustainability for fancy, but we did not see that practiced. If Kerala was a sustainably developed destination, Covid’s impact must have been much lower than we have it now.

The best marketing attraction Kerala Tourism can bring now is to rebrand Kerala as a sustainable destination and promote it globally. But for this, there should be a government with the guts to implement stringent sustainability standards in Tourism in Kerala. Unfortunately, this is not a priority of either the Government or the Tourism Department.

Tourism industry

Q. After recording ‘zero revenue’ in 2020, what’s your outlook for the Kerala and Indian tourism industry at large, in 2021?

It’s good to see that at least some people understand that Tourism in India recorded zero revenue since April 2020 and it goes on still. But our Central Government or India Tourism never tried to understand this and it may be the reason that absolutely no financial stimulus or even a plan for the future is not announced.

Kerala Travel Mart Society and few tour operators had filed a Writ Petition in Kerala High Court urging the Government to address the concerns of the business owners in Tourism but even after two months, Central Government Counsel could not even file an affidavit on what are the plans for survival and revival of the tourism industry.

I strongly believe that tourism will bounce back in the next two years and if we plan well in advance, we can capitalise on the opportunity. But the way things are moving doesn’t give hope that we will be able to catch the bus. Basically, the Government should have taken care of the survival of the industry which contributed 10% of the country’s GDP and 50 million employment. Due to the inaction of the government, now 50% of the tourism professionals have shifted to other areas and they will not come back. Such a moral shock they had in India.

Secondly, a big chunk of MSMEs will vanish too. The funny part is that even after 8 months, the Finance Ministry has not assessed the losses or the possibility of survival for now and revival for the future as far as Tourism is concerned. Banks have completely discarded the Industry and not giving any additional working capital facility for Tourism stakeholders. So there is a basic question: If nobody survives, then who will be left to revive!

Tourism industry

Q. How do you see the government helping the Indian tourism industry to walk the revive path? (If at all)

Absolutely zero. I don’t think a State Government can do many things about this. At least in Kerala, the Government turned up with some assistance for guides, Houseboat owners, tourism employees, etc. But a loudly announced Tourism Assistance Loan for additional working capital in association with SLBC, backfired as no banks are giving additional loans to Tourism Industry saying an excuse that there are no sales since April and no projections are given for the future too.

I don’t understand the language of the banks. Globally there are no sales in Tourism since April and how do they expect that to happen in India? Unfortunately, the State Government could not do anything towards this arrogance of the banks in the State.

In my opinion, the Central Government and RBI are the agencies to address this issue. They should have analysed how the banks behaved since April especially towards the tourism industry. In spite of many representations and media articles, they are not willing to do a study. Now they are expecting the Industry to bring GST to their kitty as soon as the business opens. The Government is going to see the pain soon as many lost their jobs and many of the entrepreneurs are gasping their last breath in business.

Q. Vaccine tourism is something the industry is talking about recently. Do you see India taking a major role in this from 2021 onwards? What would be Kerala’s role specifically?

I personally hate such opportunism. Tourism is a sacred term where we need to honour our commitments by delivering the best experience on a destination. This will make the traveller happy and will come back and refer to friends and families. This should be a sustainable way of marketing a destination.

How can we promote vaccine tourism when none of us even know the quality of our vaccines or the assurance of protecting a human being from Covid? Can we just presume that a foreigner will be willing to take a vaccine, especially a newly introduced one, in a foreign country like India? Will Indians go abroad for getting vaccinated when we have it for a cheaper price?

So I still don’t understand what these people are intending by Vaccine Tourism. From my experience in living in Germany for many years, I am sure these people will not be ready to get vaccinated in India. There can be exceptions, though. You might have noticed that many are not willing to take a vaccine at all as they don’t trust it.

If vaccine tourism becomes successful, then more people will start believing that the Covid-19 itself is the biggest scam ever and everyone wants to make money out of it.

Kerala spa ayurvedic centre

Q. Kerala government has just allowed the opening of spas and Ayurveda centres at hotels that play a key role in the state’s wellness tourism map. How do you see this helping to revive the state’s tourism industry?

Such things may create news hype. Nothing beyond that. We should understand that the real customers for such high-value spas and genuine Ayurveda Centres are foreign tourists. What is the meaning of just announcing that Spas are open without the borders are not opened or the international flights are not available? We will have to wait until the Central Government announces its policy on the resumption of Visa and International Scheduled flights.

Secondly, the State Government should analyse whether they have a proper system to monitor the safety and hygiene protocols at these places. At present, there is absolutely no mechanism available.

Tourism industry

Q. The pandemic has caused several job cuts in the tourism industry? What’s the present state of jobs in Kerala and the Indian tourism industry at large?

The saddest part of the Pandemic. In Kerala, we boast to have around One million employees directly engaged by the Industry. 75% of these poor souls might have either lost the job or not getting salary (Both are the same in effect). And out of this group, at least 50% will never go back to Tourism as the demoralisation they faced is such a huge one. Even the Tourism Institutions are not getting students for their courses as the youth sees no future for tourism.

When it comes to India in general, 50% might have lost jobs and another 30% will be left to stay at home without a salary. It was a pity when the giants in the Industry sent their employees even from the month of May. How can an employer say that? If a business doesn’t have sustainability at least for six months during a pandemic, what kind of business strategy we have? This is so sad. But such giants are smarter as they had no expenses since April or May and once the business is open, they will be the first ones to boom because they have kept their reserves safe.

This may be the reason that even there is no big cry from the industry to non-availability of bank finances or another economic stimulus. For an outsider, it looks like the Indian Tourism Industry is immensely rich and not even pushing the government for a stimulus package.

I was shocked to read the statement of Central Tourism Minister at BRICS Tourism Ministers’ Conference. Hon. Minister said that India is working closely with the industry and has already made available a stimulus package for the Industry especially to retain the employees. Anyway, nothing has reached Kerala yet. I am not sure whether such a stimulus is available in other parts of India.

Tourism industry

Q. In a lot of sectors, the Covid safety rules are on paper, but not being maintained in reality. In your opinion, what’s the real picture in the tourism industry?

Very good question. The tourism Industry has nothing much special on this. I will give an exception to a few organisations where they do an amazing job on maintaining protocols, at least on guest check-in, etc. But I clearly have a disagreement on what most of the hotels did during the peak push on Dekho Apna Desh. There were continuously blackout dates in many hotels during Christmas and New Year. How they have done the sanitisation and other hygiene protocols when they had back to back check-ins? And with a much lesser staff?

So this is all in the papers and not in action. And nobody checks. This will be a major point of concern when we have foreign tourists start coming. They will not accept such lazy approaches. I personally have witnessed that many hotels don’t even insist on wearing masks inside the property. This is dangerous especially when there is a big crowd gathered from different places.

We have a clear protocol on how a taxi vehicle should be equipped, what percentage of seats could be occupied, and so on. Even at airports, it’s a regular scene where the vehicles carry more than their seating capacity and no masks, etc. Sometimes the local police utilise this opportunity to collect fines but still, they allow such vehicles to continue travelling. How can this ensure safety protocols? So India is as usual. Incredible!

Also Read: What’s there for in Gujarat Tourism Policy 2021-2025?

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