Tourism in India perceived as business of the wealthy but that’s not the reality, says Abad’s Riaz Ahmad

Riaz Ahmed

Riaz Ahmad, managing director of Abad Hotels & Resorts, has been in the hospitality sector for many decades, braving umpteen challenges. But even for someone like him, the coronavirus pandemic has presented an unforeseen situation. In this interview he talks about how his company is preparing for the future, keeping the interest of the employees in mind. Often the government ignores the sector as there is a perception that tourism is a business of the wealthy, he says. Excerpts:

Q: It’s great to see Abad group reopening its properties across Kerala. How was the lockdown experience at Abad group? What were the thoughts and concerns during the time?

A: As everybody else, we too had to shut shop during the past 3 months.  The initial period of disbelief turned to one of anxiety.  Survival was the first priority, for which we chalked out a roadmap. We had to collect the money owed to us by travel agents and tour operators.  We had to conserve as well as source finance to tide over the zero-income period.  We had to meet our payment deadlines to our vendors and suppliers, cut down on non-essential expenses etc.

However even during lockdown, portion of salaries had to be paid, electricity bills to be remitted and statutories to be complied with. Housekeeping and maintenance work had to be sustained to keep the properties fresh. Unlike during the floods and Nipah, which were localised and we could overcome them quickly, this being a global phenomenon, it is a long-haul journey.

Q: How does Abad plan to survive the crisis? What immediate measures will you adopt?

A: In spite of partial lifting of lockdown restrictions, we are facing the grim reality of very low or nil income.  Liquidity is a big concern, salaries are discounted, expenses curtailed and excess staff shelved.  Staff training is essential to handle guidelines and SOPs issued by the authorities. All sanitisation and precautionary measures have been put in place.  Initially we look forward to receiving guests from within the state, as well as business travellers, and keep our fingers crossed as to what is in store.

Q: How do you rate the responses of the Central and State government towards the demands from the tourism industry?

A: The state government has been more sympathetic to our concerns despite their limitations.  Some concessions in the electricity demand charges and interest free moratorium for payment of demand charges gave us some relief.  They are also coming up with low interest funding schemes through Kerala Bank for small enterprises. Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC) has also come out with some schemes for entrepreneurs. The Central government, however, has been a great disappointment.  The multi crore package was all “sound and fury signifying nothing”.  Hardly anything came out of it. Moreover, increasing fuel prices is hitting us hard.

Q: Do you think the tourism industry gets the importance it deserves in India? If not, why?

A: Tourism sector in spite of being the biggest employment generator, a huge contributor to the GDP of our country and a large foreign exchange earner, is not getting due recognition.  The huge borrowings to build properties and effort put in by entrepreneurs is not acknowledged.  Maybe, because it is perceived as a business of the wealthy, which is not the reality.

Q: In a post-Covid era, what changes do you expect to see in the travel and tourism industry worldwide?

A: Once the pandemic subsides, travel will bounce back.  Initially travel will be to short distances within the state or within the country.  Short holidays will be the norm. Emphasis will be on safety and security.  Properties that are geared to meet these requirements stand to benefit in the long run.

Q: Being a major hospitality player in Kerala, how do you think the state should prepare itself to meet the tourism demands of the new normal?

A: The most important aspect is perception. Our state government should concentrate on the cleanliness of  public spaces which include removing garbage on the roadside  and tourist areas.  As funds are scarce, rather than indulging in grandiose schemes, emphasis should be on clean environment, wayside amenities, hassle free entrances to attractions and enhancing experience at existing tourist destinations.

Q: With specific reference to Abad, what measures will your company take to safeguard its future in the long term, considering that the after-effects of this crisis may continue into the next year as well?

  A: Even during this lockdown period, we have been maintaining and upgrading our properties.   All pending work has been completed- upgradation of air conditioning system, elevators, toilets and room interiors and other facilities.  Training of our staff to new norms is progressing.  All requirements as per government SOPs have been put in place.  We look forward to receiving guests in a safe and more congenial atmosphere. 

Q: How difficult is it to keep the morale of the employees up? What can be done to make sure the impact on hospitality employees is limited?

A: The trauma on employees is as much as on the employer.  The fear of losing a job is like a Damocles’ sword hanging over their heads.  Though job losses are inevitable in these situations, counselling and reassurance are needed to lessen their trauma.  Employers face the trauma of sustaining their business and meeting their commitments.  Effort should be made to open the properties at the earliest, thereby instilling confidence. We have to learn to live with the pandemic.

Q: Ayurveda, yoga and wellness tourism may take off, due to the conditions prevailing at present. What are your thoughts on the same?

A: Kerala Tourism is a super brand and is well known for responsible practices.  The success of Kerala in combating the pandemic has been appreciated world over.  Moreover, Kerala has unique products like houseboats & backwaters, high ranges & tea gardens, forests & wild life sanctuaries, spice gardens, beaches all in close range of a 3-4 hours ride from each other, making it an attractive destination.  Our cultural art forms & culinary delicacies are a bonus.  On top of it ayurveda and wellness will play a big role, but as it operates on proximity, certain norms have to be put in place.  

Q: Do you think it will be possible for Kerala to initiate travel bubbles between Sri Lanka, Maldives etc to promote tourism?

A: This has been a point of discussions for quite some time.  The first step, however, would be a south India circuit combining temple and leisure tourism.