India’s Outbound Tourism Potential Still Waiting To Be Tapped: Vinay Malhotra, VFS Global
BW Hotelier talks to Vinay Malhotra, Regional Group COO – South Asia, Middle East & North Africa, and Americas of VFS Global, about the impact of the Covid-19 on the travel and tourism industry and the way forward.
The coronavirus outbreak is unavoidably impacting the travel industry and is hitting organisations hard around the globe. The pandemic is affecting the industry as a whole, but each sector has its particulars. BW Hotelier talks to Vinay Malhotra, Regional Group COO – South Asia, Middle East & North Africa, and Americas of VFS Global, about the impact of the Covid-19 on the travel and tourism industry and the roadmap to a better future of the sector. He also shares insights on how VFS Global is tackling the crisis.
In its space, VFS Global is a pioneer, with entire nations leaning on your company & its unique expertise. What has been the impact of the unprecedented COVID-19 led lockdown on your company and operations given that you are there in the world’s 2 biggest source markets: China and India?
Considering the fluid and uncertain nature of the COVID-19 pandemic globally, according to the directives by our client governments and/or the local authorities, majority of our visa application centres for 64 client governments across 146 countries of operation have suspended operations temporarily. Currently in China, Visa Application Centres in some cities are in the process of reopening, while in India, all our Centres remain closed till 17 May 2020.
What is your take on the current scenario in the global travel and tourism and how do you see it pan out in the short, medium and long run?
The travel and tourism sector is usually amongst the first to bear the brunt of shocks in any region, but equally, it usually tends to rubber-band back to normalcy after a dip. However, COVID-19 is an unprecedented pandemic which is still evolving, and no one can predict if/when the situation eases out or if there are new waves of cases.
Economists expect a full recovery of the industry perhaps in 2021 or even later. While the UN World Tourism Organisation too has estimated that international tourist arrivals could decline by 20 to 30 per cent in 2020, according to other reports, India may be comparatively at a good spot still seeing some economic growth. From experience, travellers from India are among the first to start travelling again. On the leisure front, VFR (Visiting friends and relatives) may still recover earlier as families would have been kept apart for the entirety of the pandemic and likewise for corporate travel as per the demands of the business.
Organisations in this sector will need to monitor this evolving situation and align to prepare for ‘the new normal’ that may emerge. Health will certainly be as important as safety!
In the aftermath of the COVID-19, how is VFS Global utilising the lockdown time planning a comeback and to re-energise its business model?
At VFS Global, in India and around the world, we are even more committed to leveraging on technology and operational excellence to ensure an enhanced customer experience in a post-COVID world. An important aspect of this is keeping our Visa Application Centres in peak readiness from a hygiene and safety perspective, as and when they reopen.
In line with the precautionary measures advised by the World Health Organisation and local health authorities, customers visiting our Visa Application Centres may be subjected to body temperature checks to assess their health conditions. Customers may also be required to wear a face mask and/or gloves. If customers are seen to be showing COVID-19 symptoms, including fever (higher than 38 degrees Celsius), cough and/or difficulty breathing, they may be requested to reschedule their appointments to another day.
Customers who wish to avoid visiting public places can also use optional services, such as Visa At Your Doorstep service for application submission, or courier service for passport pass-back, so they do not have to visit the Visa Application Centre.
Employees across our Centres are also maintaining preventive measures such as disinfecting high-contact surfaces, body temperature screenings, use of hand sanitizers, regular hand-washing, social distancing practices and may request customers to avoid overcrowding at the centres.
Communication with our travel partners and customers during the current constantly-changing scenario is a key aspect of the ‘restart’ process, and we are making sure to keep this communication regular and ongoing, through updated information on our website vfsglobal.com/covid-19 and social media channels.
With the critical Coronavirus crisis, how do you see the travel and tourism shaping up in the next five years?
The travel and tourism industry accounts for around 10% of global gross domestic product (GDP) and is directly responsible for generating one in 10 of the world’s jobs. Thus, while any impact on tourism will have a snowball effect on the global economy, the industry is also in a unique spot to help put the global economy back on its feet once the pandemic has passed.
As the world goes on a reset, a centred and balanced lifestyle will become the new normal, with health and hygiene considerations, even possibly wellness travel, becoming more important in the post-COVID world. From a visa application centre, an airplane, to sightseeing at a destination, people would look for an assurance that all touchpoints during a journey have adopted the health and hygiene aspect.
That said, people will be keen to travel as soon as they possibly can and this demand, along with a new dimension of health considerations, maybe a strong driving force for the sector to rally and show a positive trend in the times to come.
What according to you will be critical challenges in the near future in the outbound travel sector?
Every challenge or adversity can bring with it an opportunity. If there is a silver lining in this crisis, it is that travel companies can think much more boldly and expansively about the future, and perhaps act on a once-in-a-generation idea.
As the COVID-19 situation is contained and the travel resumes, it will be most important challenge for firms to get back consumer confidence. This is where technology adoption will play a major role. Companies may need to explore technological solutions that allow travellers to maintain social distancing norms as much as possible and at the same time, get a high level of service and personalised customer experience.
Do you foresee any changes in visa policy which may help in retaining the inbound and outbound travel economy?
We strictly abide by the directives from the client governments we serve and will implement any changes in visa requirements based on their instructions. If there are any changes in visa process required by our client governments, we will adhere to that and ensure this is reflected on our website and other key customer and partner touchpoints. In addition to updating our social media handles, we have set up a special COVID-19 page on our website (www.vfsglobal.com/covid-19) with detailed FAQs for travel trade and customers to answer any queries they might possibly have and to keep them updated on operational aspects of the visa process.
Given your rich and varied experience in the T&T industry, we would request you to suggest steps for the travel industry's recovery and what according to you is the roadmap to a better future of the sector?
From an India perspective, with a growing middle class, young population, and burgeoning tier II and III cities, the country has all the ingredients to remain as a major player in outbound tourism market. With just around 6% of Indians holding passports at present, there is a still huge market potential waiting to be tapped.
In the upcoming recovery period, as pillars of the travel ecosystem in India, travel agents too will play an important role in rebuilding confidence among travellers. Stakeholders in this sector will have to come together and work towards a common cause of stimulation of travel.
Two aspects will be vital to driving demand - constant communication with customers in light of regularly changing government advisories and newer travel trends, and ensuring health and safety is a priority for customers in the post-COVID world.
We may be entering a scenario where ‘touch-less’ or ‘contactless’ service is highly valued, and in this, technology can become the biggest enabler for companies to ensure enhanced customer experience, even in a time when a vaccine against Covid-19 is available.
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