The time is ripe to look inward and focus on the state’s lesser-explored tourism products, believed Gujarat’s key tourism policymakers and senior industry insiders. They shared their thoughts in the recently organised webinar titled ‘Future of Tourism Post COVID-19′ by FICCI Gujarat State Council. Here are some edited excerpts from the proceedings:  

The government’s specific strategy, mounted on “a war-footing,” under the leadership of PM Modi, had worked well to arrest the transmission, Jawaharbhai Pethaljibhai Chavda, Gujarat Tourism Minister, said, comparing India’s fight against the pandemic with the rest of the world. He lauded frontline warriors such as health workers, government staff, law enforcement, and such, for their concerted effort in curbing the spread of the virus.

The central and the state government had restricted movement to impede the virus’ spread, but it had adversely affected businesses across sectors, the minister admitted, noting that the tourism sector was no exception. “The prohibition imposing travel through trains, roads and national and international flights have severely affected the tourism industry, hotels, restaurants, and other such industries concerned with tourism have suffered huge losses,” Mr Chavda said.

Government packages have offered the much-needed relief

He suggested that the revival measures announced by PM Modi and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, such as economic packages, policy tweaks, and “pledges of Atmanirbhar Bharat and ‘Vocal for local,'” had brought back some normalcy to businesses. “It is expected that total normalcy will prevail within a few months,” he asserted.

The minister admitted that the tourism sector’s challenges were far from over and tourists were apprehensive about their safety, owing to transmission concerns. Therefore, tourists were refraining from travelling as much as possible. The onus was on industry stakeholders to assuage their safety and well-being concerns, he said. Economic and health emergencies were interlinked, and it was vital to reduce travel restrictions and win consumer confidence, he believed.

The central government, the government of Gujarat and various industry associations had issued several guidelines on social distancing, hygiene, etc., he said. He advocated making sufficient arrangements to ensure tourists adhered to the prescribed procedures. “It would be fruitful in the revival of the industry,” he suggested.

He believed that the recession was not going to remain forever in the tourism sector, and it was a temporary phase. The tourism industry was going to win the consumers’ trust, positively impacting businesses, he said. The minister forecasted a few more months of hesitancy from consumers but believed that the domestic tourism segment was going to witness a notable improvement.

The state government had devised concrete plans to develop Gujarat as an attractive tourism hub to strengthen the sector and create employment opportunities, the minister said. He shared that the government had taken several initiatives to launch tourist facilities and allocated significant sums for them. “The government of Gujarat has also announced a special relief package to boost the state’s economy in the face of the current epidemic, which would have a direct and indirect impact on the tourism industry,” Mr Chavda noted.

He lauded the tourism sector’s “far-reaching role” in the revival of the Indian economy and said that the impact of COVID-19 on the industry was being felt on the economy. He believed that a cumulative effort involving all stakeholders was going to revitalise the sector, moving it faster towards normalcy. He assured of all government support to take necessary measures on the same.  

Time for Gujarat tourism to become vocal for local: Jenu Devan

Gujarat’s tourism needed to focus its energies on creating traction for “hundreds and thousands of unexplored local destinations,” Jenu Devan, (IAS), Managing Director and Commissioner of Tourism, Gujarat said. He batted for going local, suggesting that the state tourism department was promoting such destinations, using social media platforms and digital marketing. “The focus is especially on the larger cities of Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara, Rajkot and Sanand. We have almost identified such locations around these cities,” he shared.  He noted that the department of tourism was pushing for the idea of taking pride in local destinations.

The state tourism department was equally focussed on ensuring the adequate fulfilment of the sector’s employment potential, he said. He added that the department was keen on training those who had lost their jobs during these times to enable them to “tackle the situation” effectively after the unlocking was complete.

State tourism’s expectations from the industry

The industry had several expectations from the government in subsidies and other concessions, he said, noting that the government too had expectations from the industry. He said that the state’s travel trade fraternity had been keen on selling outbound as Gujaratis were known for their penchant for travel in India and abroad. “It is high time that we should promote Gujarat now as the state has many unexplored places. Tourists, particularly now, would prefer travelling to places that are less frequented and Gujarat offers many such locations,” he iterated. He shared that the government was planning on promoting such destinations and locations, also creating necessary infrastructural facilities. “We are doing everything within our right to ensure they become good tourist destinations in a short span,” he argued.

However, he asked industry stakeholders to ensure the products reached the final consumers as “tour operators and travel agents were the intermediaries,” responsible for creating awareness among travellers willing to explore such locations. “We want help from the travel and tourism industry to promote them and ensure it reaches the right people,” Mr Devan said.

He also requested stakeholders to share with the government such unique and lesser-explored products that could be marketed during these times. He assured stakeholders of promoting them through digital media platforms and Gujarat State Tourism Corporation’s website, which offered more expansive reach than stand-alone platforms used by travel agents.

Focus on sectors with a niche appeal

Mr Devan suggested that sectors, such as adventure, eco-tourism and bird watching, to a certain extent, were the immediate focus of the state government as they had niche appeal, ensuring manageable numbers given the current situation.

Tourism numbers significantly plummet

The state did not even receive one lakh tourists in the past three months compared to the previous year when the numbers went pass 50 lakhs, he informed, underlining the impact 0f the COVID-19-induced disruption. He stressed that tourism had been one of the most impacted sectors, and Gujarat was no exception. He admitted that the hospitality sector was severely hit, and many had lost their livelihood.

He asserted that the state tourism department was “well-prepared” to take the state back to pre-COVID levels, but also asked the industry to appreciate the reality of the situation. He advocated taking a collective approach involving all stakeholders.  

Address demand and supply-side constraints to improve the sector’s fortunes: Vinod Zutshi

Vinod Zutshi, IAS, Former Secretary, Ministry of Tourism, GOI believed the lack of demand and supply in equal measure was a unique attribute of the COVID-19-induced disruption. “It is not the case in recessions where the supply is intact, and the demand falls. It is a demand-supply shock,” he explained. While the unlocking was already gradually underway, the fear of travellers had not yet been unlocked, he argued. The weakening of the supply side was indicative of a subdued industry. He batted for unlocking “as early as possible,” noting that the tourist turnout in the next six months was expected to be much higher than what it would have been in the corresponding period in the previous year. He expressed optimism on the future of the Indian economy, referring to the continual global investments trickling into the economy, even amidst the ongoing situation.

He suggested strengthening health infrastructure at destinations, ensuring compliance to health and safety protocols through public awareness and revitalised SOPs, besides closely monitoring the ongoing situation. He also asked for alleviating the fear psychosis among tourists, listing out measures to address the demand side issues.

On the supply side, he believed that the industry needed fiscal or monetary incentives, packages and liquidity, and all kinds of relief measures that could be provided by a state government. 

A tourism advisory council led by tourism minister would enable the sector: Dr Jyotsna Suri

Dr Jyotsna Suri, Chairperson and Managing Director of Bharat Hotels Limited suggested the tourism minister for constituting a tourism advisory council under his leadership, with representation from related departments and industry stakeholders. She believed that such a measure would ensure effective implementation and monitoring of policies and programs.

She shared that FICCI had requested for some relief measures from the Gujarat state government, such as the waiver of statutory dues, SGST, excise fee and, if possible, a bailout package to protect the employment of the sector’s workforce.

She believed that the state of Gujarat was richly endowed with a gamut of tourist offerings and provided much to various hues of travellers. She advocated undertaking a “strong and positive marketing campaign” to bring confidence among travellers.

Dr Suri expressed concern about the lack of revenue, which impeded providing wages to employees. She argued that the last-ditch option was to lay-off employees, and having such large numbers of them without employment was going to be equally challenging. “It is a very gloomy situation. We do not really know which way to go,” she wondered. She added that the industry also needed to be mindful of the government’s constraints as it did not have “huge coffers.”