Post COVID, North East Tourism: Opportunity to Stand Out

by Nishi Daas, Founder Director at Anvayins

Among the various businesses and sectors that Covid-19 has ravaged, the tourism industry stands out as one of the worst affected. An industry that contributes to more than 9% of the country’s GDP and 8% of its employment, the virus-created health crisis has dealt a body blow to the nation’s economy. For North-East India, the impact has been particularly severe as tourism, together with agriculture, tea and oil is one of the major contributors to the region’s economy.

A sharp jolt to the dream

The Indian tourism sector has been witnessing a dream run over the last few years. The volume of domestic and foreign tourist visits has been increasing at CAGRs of more than 6% and 11%, respectively over the last three years, which has set the country well on its mission to become the fourth-largest travel and tourism economy in the world in the next decade.

In the eastern frontiers too, improved connectivity and infrastructure have raised interest among travellers for North-East India that saw arrivals grow at a CAGR of 10-12% during the same period. The region has been fast becoming one of the most exciting destinations to explore, not only amongst Indians but also foreigners.

Unfortunately, the dream has received a sharp jolt by the marauding virus, and the outlook appears anything but encouraging over the next year or two.

  • There would be job and salary cuts across industries that would cause budget constraints among travellers.
  • Those who manage to keep their jobs will be working harder and longer to make up for lost time and perhaps even to stay relevant. Furthermore, employers may refuse holidays to their employees for reasons other than medical exigency.
  • Once the crisis is dealt with, schools and colleges will open after a long break. Parents would hate to disturb their children as kids put in extra effort to catch up for lost time.
  • People would postpone discretionary travel plans even if their chosen destinations offer solitude as they would be wary of crowds at transit hold areas like airports and rail/bus stations, as well as at the various modes of public transportation.
  • Air connectivity that was improving significantly to many parts of North-East India may witness disruption as airlines prioritize services to more profitable sectors to mitigate financial distress caused by the pandemic.
  • If at all people travel, they will choose destinations that are only a drive away from their cities of residence.
  • Foreign travelers can be expected to put their India plans on hold until the risk of infection is substantially lowered.

It’s a knock-out punch

The impact of the slowdown will be particularly debilitating for people in North-East India.

Loss of Livelihood: Given the fragile economy and its large dependence on tourism, the loss of revenues is likely to cause severe financial distress among people. Owners of commercial vehicles, restaurants, homestays, hotels and resorts, who have financed their assets through debt, would find themselves at the edge of insolvency.

Loss of momentum: The pandemic could not have come at a worse time. Just when the region was starting to witness steady growth of 10-12% per annum, it has had to face double setbacks, first on account of the CAB agitations a few months ago and now the devastating pandemic. The most damaging impact will be the loss of confidence and sense of despondency among participants, particularly the last-mile service providers whose livelihoods depend critically on the industry.

Think out-of-box to stand out

Tourism bodies of different states have already embarked on various initiatives to support the industry and direct business to their regions at the earliest possible. These include hosting webinars, running social media campaigns, sending promotional mailers among other marketing tools. Given the expectation that foreign tourist arrivals will be down to a trickle in the near to medium term, most of these initiatives target the domestic traveller.

Simultaneously, industry bodies have been making representations to banks and other lending institutions to ease repayment terms for existing borrowers and extend fresh lines to alleviate the liquidity squeeze.

North-East India, that accounts for an aggregate of only 0.6% of the entire tourist footfall in the country, will have to plan differently and come up with innovative ideas to beat the publicity blitzkrieg of its larger peers. North-East India, that accounts for an aggregate of only 0.6% of the entire tourist footfall in the country, will have to plan differently and come up with innovative ideas to beat the publicity blitzkrieg of its larger peers. For starts, the promotions should highlight not just the exquisite natural beauty, unique natural formations and rare species of wildlife found in the region but also fascinating and untouched socio-cultural practices of various communities, all in solitude that is rare in the country. 

The tourism council, in collaboration with registered tour operators, could launch a programme that offers attractive deals to clients for travel at a future date by issuing vouchers or coupons against payment of an advance. The scheme should generate a lot of interest as North-East India is already on the bucket list of many travellers.

The monies so collected could be distributed amongst last-mile service providers registered with the industry body. Such an initiative could reap many benefits for the industry – alleviate financial distress among those affected at the bottom of the chain, lock-in customers for travel to the region, instil confidence among the stakeholders to name only a few.

The initiative will also be an excellent opportunity to register all the participants in the industry, which could be a big step towards setting up an organized structure in an otherwise largely unorganized sector. Variants of this plan are already being deployed in other industries like restaurants, handicraft etc. With proper planning and coordination, there is no reason that it cannot be successfully executed in the tourism industry.

Great opportunity to press the RESET button

The government could use the period of inactivity to train people – improve story-telling abilities of tour guides and travel partners, behavioural etiquettes of drivers and waiters, and emphasize the importance of hygiene to restaurants, homestays and hotels. Initiatives like clean-up of tourist spots, and putting up of information boards at places of historical, cultural and mythological significance could also be undertaken. This would not only prepare the region well for tourists when they decide to travel, but it will also create a sense of optimism in the minds of people in the industry.

Humankind has the ability to convert every calamity into an opportunity if there is alignment of objective, and determination and discipline among the stakeholders. Proactive measures will not only help the North-East tourism industry out of the present crisis but also has the potential to catapult the region into the forefront of India’s tourism map. Comprehensive planning, efficient coordination and smart execution is the need of the hour.