`This could be the year of ‘Staycation’ for domestic tourists’

Ruper and Olga Marari Villas

Kerala needs to promote itself as the safest and most hygienic tourism destination in India. Some tourists may see Kerala just as any other Indian state, but we should show them the distinction, says Rupert Evers and Olga Ostapenko, Operators of Marari Villas, Alleppey. Excerpts from an interview:

Q: What will be the future of travel and tourism after Coronavirus?

After the coronavirus episode we may see a completely uncertain world. International travel may be obliterated until a vaccine is developed and that will take at least 12-18 months, plus time for distribution and administration of a vaccine to the majority of the global population! The economic recovery of the various source markets is equally important for any tourism to flourish and the unique global economic recession that has begun will impact various individuals/industries/countries very differently, which may change our source markets post-corona virus.

There are 2 separate markets that will be relevant to us as small hotel operators in Kerala and will need them to be considered separately – domestic Indian travel and international inbound travel:

Domestic: We expect business travel to restart soon but there will be a delay for leisure travel as it will depend on how risk-averse travelers are. We expect that virus hot spots will linger in various Indian districts/states that may delay the opening up of the entire rail/flight network. States may insist on flight restrictions from certain cities.

International: We expect there will be a potentially long period of uncertainty whilst there are recurring second and third waves of the virus around the world. There will either be a rolling list of countries that are restricted from entry to India (as we had in February/March with China, South Korea, Iran, Italy) or repeated stages of a complete block on entries (as now during the lockdown). All of that will make international travel, in particular, very risky and travel insurers are likely to restrict coverage that may deter people spending large sums on ‘big-ticket’ travel whilst the risks are too high.

However, hopefully there will be pent-up demand for travel as people all over the world are confined to their homes for months on end. If Europeans and Americans miss their summer holidays due to lockdowns, then there should be an even greater demand for winter-sun holidays (assuming flights operate by then, borders are open and insurers provide coverage).

Q: Do you think wellness travel is going to boom following Coronavirus? People may want to de-stress themselves.

Wellness tourism may do well if it is correctly positioned and message communicated. For wellness tourism to do well, travel confidence needs to be high. Small hotels may have an edge over the larger ones as they shall be able to offer a safe retreat/cocoon to their guests with more personalised, private service. Smaller properties also tend to attract more independent travelers, compared with large resorts that have many package tourists who rely on tour operators. Adventurous travelers are less risk-averse and will hopefully therefore be less likely to avoid long-haul travel to India in the medium term.

A period of 14 days is an ideal minimum package for wellness retreats, so ‘quarantine stays’ in one location with minimal travel will be a good option for a safer
way to travel.

Q: What kind of losses do you think the industry will end up with, for the year?

It is extremely difficult to predict as so much depends on how various cities/states/countries manage the virus, as well as other factors mentioned above. We are currently not expecting any guests until at least July-August and are budgeting for no foreign guests until at least October. In that case, we predict minimum 30% loss in annual turnover. In case we are unable to open until January, then we may be looking at minimum 60% loss of turnover in 2020-21 compared to previous year. Occupancy is likely to be much lower than previous years and rates may have to be reduced, so loss of turnover may be even higher than this.

We are reducing overheads to a minimum wherever possible, but there will be additional expenses for interest repayments on any new loans.

Q: What do you think are the steps that the industry can take to minimise the damage caused?

At this stage cost containment could be the only way to minimise damage whilst there is zero income.

There will be severe damage to foreigners’ psychological perception of India if the virus is not managed well here. If India becomes the next global hotspot, then we expect western media will, sadly, focus on issues of slums, poor hygiene, ill-equipped hospitals, etc. (as they have done with the migrant labour crisis during Lockdown). This will further reduce the number of foreign bookings in the medium term. American culture, in particular, is more sensitive to fear and that will have an impact on bookings. The industry must therefore focus on rebranding Indian tourism as a safe, hygienic experience.

Kerala is doing a fantastic job of leading the way in dealing with Covid-19 in India, but it also has high risks with numerous OCI/NRI/overseas returnees and reliance on foreign tourism, which inevitably increase the risks of imported infections. We need a way to enable tourists and returnees to come to Kerala, whilst minimising the risks of infection spread as there is a fine balance between supporting maximum economic activity, whilst minimising infection spread.

Q: In the wake of this epidemic, what kind of training do you think should be imparted to employees in the hospitality industry, with regard to hygiene and safety?

One suggestion is to make productive use of the lockdown time for staff training. This can be done online from home via phone/tablet/laptop. Most staff have a smartphone now. This would be particularly useful for small businesses that can’t afford professional training and it will help with the rebranding of Indian tourism as a safe, hygienic experience. Topics could include: Food hygiene, housekeeping for virus control, health & safety at work, personal hygiene and F&B service hygiene.

Q: Can you throw some light regarding the course module; especially how the entire course should be packaged?

This is something that will need to be done urgently in order to make use of the lockdown time, which may only last another 1-2 months. There are already specialised training businesses providing online course content, so hopefully Kerala Tourism/KTM can make arrangements with existing providers to provide an urgent large-scale rollout to the industry for free or at base price. Small businesses will not be able to afford to pay for training in the current economic climate.

Courses need to be adapted to be suitable for small hotels/serviced villas/homestays as some content will not be relevant (e.g. information about large hotel departments and staff hierarchies, etc.). The courses should be approved by a respected body such as Kerala Tourism/FSSAI/KTM/NRAI/FHRAI, so that they have more significance and value. Content needs to be simple to understand and relevant to small business operators/staff who may not have higher education.

Users can do a simple online test after completion of the course and receive a certificate that can be displayed at their property, as well as a soft-copy certificate that can be displayed on their website, so that potential guests have more confidence in making a booking. The whole system can be used for marketing ‘Corona-Safe Kerala/India’ to the rest of the world.

Q: Can you list the top three challenges in front of you to win back the confidence of the guests?

It will be critical to communicate widely that Kerala/India is clean and safe as tourism restarts. Some tourists will feel safer in larger, branded hotels that they consider have higher standards of hygiene and rigorous Standard Operating Procedures, which will have further impact on the recovery of smaller businesses.

Tourist perception of safety when travelling by train/plane/taxi will be critical. There are already suggestions of alternate empty seating on planes to maintain some social distance, though this may not be financially viable for airlines. Maybe airlines will develop other solutions like full face masks that cover eyes/nose/mouth and other PPE to minimise travel risks and increase the traveler’s confidence.

Providing flexible booking policies that allow free date changes and convincing guests that a business is financially stable will be necessary to give guests confidence to make an advanced payment. The option for a business to hold a guest deposit payment for an extended period, rather than making a refund, will greatly assist cashflow problems.

Kerala has a high proportion of retired foreign tourists, particularly in winter high/peak season months. This niche market will be particularly careful about traveling as they are more prone to infection and complications, so they may reduce long-haul travel until the risks have subsided substantially.

Another problem for Kerala is that it is not understood by foreign tourists to be a separate state with different standards of hygiene, welfare and governance. It is considered as an integral part of India and will be ‘tarred with the same brush’ in foreigners’ eyes. This already reduces the tourism potential of Kerala and will be enhanced in a post-coronavirus world of cautious travellers.

Q: What are the new packages that beach locations like Marari can offer to guests this year?

Marari is a beach location and we consider that it still offers one of the best ‘undeveloped beach’ experiences in Kerala. The beach is many kilometres long with a low density of tourist accommodation, so it is virtually empty for most of the day. This offers an ideal ‘isolation’ experience that will be safer than densely populated town/city locations for nervous travelers.

We have been promoting a ‘Clean Marari’ campaign for a few years. Sadly, progress has been limited to a few hotels/homestays that clean the immediate section of the beach in front of their properties. It will be imperative now to show the world that Marari is the ‘cleanest beach in India’ if we are to appeal to the reduced number of travelers.

Long stay ‘isolation’ holidays of 14+ nights may be an option, particularly if the State Government enforces minimum quarantine periods and restricts movement between properties, like it did in March. Beach locations are ideally suited to long-stay holidays for foreign tourists and Marari is a great location to make day trips to Fort Cochin, Kumarakom and Alleppey backwaters.

Q: Do you think jobs losses and wage correction are inevitable?

Yes. Sadly, job losses and wage correction are inevitable.

All parts of the tourism supply chain and all stakeholders need to be flexible and offer discounts / reductions / subsidies if the whole system is to survive the greatest economic shock in 100 years (if not ever)! Staff salaries, landlord rents, utility company bills, government taxes, supplier charges – all need to take responsibility and share the load, so that we can get back to business, rather than end up bankrupt. Reduced salaries need to be allowed, despite calls from Labour Offices and Governments not to do so. The only thing that can prevent redundancies or furlough (leave without pay) now is government subsidies for salaries, as already promised in most developed nations. It is simply not viable for businesses to pay full salaries for an extended period of time with no income!

State and Central Governments will desperately need the tax income and employment capacity of tourism, so it should be in their interest to support subsidy programs and aggressive marketing campaigns to ensure the industry survives.

Q: Do you see domestic tourism doing well this year?

There is great potential that the whole Indian tourism industry should seize now. This could be the year of the ‘#Staycation’ for domestic tourists and we should all focus our marketing efforts on this. Kerala Tourism and Incredible India should develop marketing campaigns accordingly.

Much will depend on the viability and traveler perception of the safety of train, air and taxi travel. Kerala should also focus on markets within driving distance (such as Coimbatore, Madurai, Bangalore) as guests will feel safer traveling in their own cars.

There is a great risk that domestic tourism shall see limited recovery if people are afraid to travel. A proportion of the domestic travel market are still relatively new to leisure travel and are more apprehensive about spending money if they perceive a risk. Many domestic bookings are for shorter stays, which will not be possible if Governments insist on 14/28 day ‘quarantine’ within a property. New consumer behavior shall be visible and tourism businesses will need to respond quickly to new requirements.