Poor air connectivity to Thiruvananthapuram is stumbling block for Kerala’s medical & leisure tourism: Raj Iyer of UDS Group

Raj Gopaal Iyer UDS

Raj Gopaal Iyer, CEO of UDS Group of Hotels, believes Kerala should have the right marketing strategies to showcase medical and leisure tourism. The state government should come up with a proper agenda/plan to submit before the Central government, thereby helping employees retain their jobs, he says. But the biggest problem he believes is the poor air connectivity to Thiruvananthapuram, with tourists ending up spending more on airfare than accommodation. Excerpts:

Q: When we spoke a few weeks ago, the coronavirus crisis was on its ascendency. But now we are in a phase where the virus is spreading at an accelerated rate. How will this impact the hospitality sector’s calculations? 

As we all know we are passing through an unforeseen situation. The damage to humankind is huge, affecting all means of livelihood globally. Currently the hospitality industry is going through massive losses and we will take some time to recover. Eventually, we can attract both domestic and international tourists if we have the right marketing strategies in place as far as both leisure and medical tourism are concerned. We all know Kerala tourism has lots to offer with its wide range of choices. The state stands as a preferred destination for many.    

Q: How can we ensure that the losses due to the pandemic are contained? What steps can be taken in this regard? 

We should make sure Kerala sets a benchmark in providing the best care in hygiene and safety along with the best service in travel and hospitality. There should be a huge campaign which should go around globally making citizens aware of the do’s and don’ts related to Covid-19. Already Kerala is seen in the media as being the role model in controlling the virus.

But I would say the major issue is still the flight connectivity especially to Thiruvananthapuram. Clients spend more on the flight fare rather than on their accommodation and leisure. Kerala is the best place for ayurveda and hence domestic charter flights can be planned to Kerala for leisure and medical tourism. Kerala tourism should start a campaign in both domestic and international media platforms to promote the state, where one can experience several aspects in one place.

Q: The state and central governments are yet to announce any concrete steps to support the tourism sector. How disappointed are you by this?

Restrictions were imposed on travelling which badly affected the tourism industry. Since the government was prioritising basic needs of the people, tourism/hospitality was given less importance. I feel the Kerala tourism department has to come out with a proper agenda and plans to submit before the Central tourism ministry. Many countries have already come out with attractive packages to motivate the investors, but we have not. The backbone of the industry has been broken due to lack of funding or support from the government. The hospitality industry will be having the maximum number of unemployed people in the coming days.   

Q: What is the morale of the employees? How badly are they affected? 

Employees are the backbone of any organization. Every organization is worried about retaining their employees.  The organization depends on them. However, existing players in the industry are in difficulty as they have to pay back loans and maintain the property. The state government should come out with an interest free loan that can be paid back in easy instalments for the hotel employees, so that they can manage their expenses to survive the coming months.       

Q: There is a big focus on domestic & regional tourism now. What is its potential in the current scenario?

It’s important to bring in MICE tourism, destination weddings and medical tourism for quick recovery from the losses incurred. More government-based meetings, conferences and seminars will boost the destinations as Kerala will be an ideal destination for people to relax and attend business/official meets. Kerala Tourism should plan to advertise in each state in their local languages by showcasing  special packages to attract tourists.

Q: At UDS what steps are you taking to make sure that tourists continue to see the property as a preferred destination?

 UDS operates properties in Kovalam, Thiruvananthapuram and Alleppey with an inventory of more than 350 rooms and all our properties are different in style, uniqueness and ambience. The location, service and facilities make UDS properties a preferred destination for travellers around the globe. Better health, hygiene and safety are the new normal for customer care, right from the time of check-in till check-out. The staff is trained to handle guests with care and follow the new procedures.   

Q: Do you see greater demand for ayurveda and wellness, in the current situation? 

Yes, I do. Ayurveda/medical tourism can attract both domestic and international travellers. We had few drawbacks in the past when we allowed travellers to choose our neighbouring destinations for ayurveda treatments. This is the right time to strongly promote it well and make Kerala a preferred destination for ayurveda.        

Q: Do you think the hospitality sector needs to be better represented at the government level to win over benefits? If so, how do you think it can be done?

There should be one voice, a single window process, where the issues faced by the hospitality and travel industry can be addressed directly to the state or the central ministry. The government is still not fully aware of the difficulties faced by the stakeholders, and many hotels are not even able to pay 50% of the salary to their staff. It’s time for the government to support the stakeholders by giving them financial benefits so that employees can be retained by paying salaries on time.