A child wearing a protection mask and gloves is seen at Indira Gandhi International (IGI) airport (Representative image: Reuters)
By many accounts, the world appears to be at an inflection point in its fight against COVID-29. Over the past few months, we have simultaneously witnessed two dominant trends — the rise of new variants of concern, and rapid vaccination in several countries. In the ensuing face off, most recent evidence points to a scenario where the vaccine would be partially effective by reducing hospitalisation and mortality, but it would not wipe out COVID-19.
In such as case, the world would have to gear up for a new COVID-19 normal like the Singapore model where we would need to live with the prospect of the continuance of COVID-19, but mitigate its impact through vaccination and by taking the necessary precautions.
One of the prominent issues that the world is confronting now is vaccine inequity which would result in an asymmetrical recovery among nations with significant economic implications. Developed nations which have been able to rapidly vaccinate their population would achieve optimum levels of productivity early on, while nations with limited access to vaccines would have a delayed recovery leading to widening economic disparities.
This is likely to be reflected in the travel and tourism sector also with travel groupings like the EU Green Pass where nations are lifting restrictions for travel among themselves based on vaccination coverage and the containment of the virus, thus enabling free travel to jump start their tourism sectors. The fond hope that travel recovery would be agnostic, in the sense that those who are vaccinated would be able to travel freely, irrespective of the country that they belong to, lies belied in the current situation.
A Bold Approach
The COVID-19 second wave unleashed by the Delta variant in India has not only caused considerable disruption to India’s plans to open the travel and tourism sectors, but has also resulted in a perceptional bias on the safety of the destination.
However, considering the high sero-prevalence, reduced case load, and rapid vaccination in the recent past in India, the time is right to kick start the travel and tourism sectors through a well thought out strategy. Delay to do so might result in the progressive destruction of the industry which can only be rebuilt at a great cost over an extended period of time, and hence calls for a timely and bold approach.
India receives about 11 million international tourists every year, but over 24 million Indians travel abroad every year spending an estimated $25 billion. India should tap into this purchasing power to get the fly wheel of domestic tourism turning quickly. If India succeeds in getting its domestic tourism moving, that will create the requisite confidence for international tourism to take off.
The most important element is to enable travel in a predictable and hassle-free manner. A National Committee with the Ministries of Tourism, Civil Aviation and Health along with representatives from the states and industry should be set up to prescribe and harmonise travel restrictions across the country. Fully vaccinated persons, whether international or domestic, with a valid certificate should be allowed to travel unhindered while following due precautions such as wearing face masks, social distancing, etc. Most countries are doing away with the requirement of quarantine for fully vaccinated citizens returning from overseas which obviates the disincentive to travel abroad. If tourists are coming from a country of concern, an additional PCR certificate within 72 hours of their travel can be sought.
India should vaccinate hospitality staff on a priority and seek to achieve full vaccination of the entire population in critical tourism destinations.
Destination level safety and hygiene protocols should be revised in line with the new COVID-19 normal and implemented in earnest. Specially designated hospitals that tourists can approach in the event of their falling sick would be a confidence booster, like Egypt has implemented in key destinations such as Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh.
While the difficulty to travel abroad under the present circumstances would make domestic holidays a clear choice, incentives should also be offered to mobilise domestic tourism. Countries such as Spain are providing cash subsidies to promote domestic travel. In India, the government had some time ago incentivised the leave travel concession (LTC) policy with cash advances to enable domestic travel and could perhaps now allow employees to avail LTC of the future blocks in the present. The LTC can also be incentivised for private sector employees through providing tax incentives for immediate travel. Similarly, MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibition) travel can be incentivised by allowing for direct tax benefits for corporates holding their events in India.
A new Incredible India international campaign that is hyper local and super targeted, using digital platforms, should be created to attract tourists from key geographies aimed at the relevant demography that has a propensity to travel to India.
In addition to the free e-tourist visa that the Government of India has announced for the first 5,00,000 international tourists, the Ministry of Tourism could set up a mechanism to incentivise tour operators from identified international markets to bring in groups to India by offering them an incentive of about $50 per passenger to get the momentum going.
The tourism sector remains hugely undercapitalised and is performing at a fraction of its potential in India, and the pandemic gives us the opportunity to re-envision the sector to focus on rapid growth within a sustainable and responsible framework to truly make it an engine for economic growth and development.Follow Moneycontrol’s full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic here