The coronavirus pandemic continues to hit hard all sectors with travel and tourism being the hit hardest. Also, with international tourism falling by around 80% in 2020, domestic tourism seems to be one way to stay afloat.

UNWTO highlights the potential of domestic tourism as a way to boost economic and tourism recovery in destinations around the world. They explain that as global travel restrictions begin to ease, destinations all over the world are focusing on the growing domestic travel, with many offering promotions for travelers to meet and visit their own countries as an ideal opportunity for destinations and tourism businesses – in both developed and developing countries – to recover from the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Domestic tourism is helping to soften the blow, at least partially, and governments around the world have taken strategic action to restore and re-activate the sector, while protecting jobs and businesses. Many countries are also now developing measures to build a more resilient tourism economy post covid-19. These include preparing plans to support the sustainable recovery of tourism, promoting the digital transition and move to a greener tourism system, and rethinking tourism for the future.

States have realized the need to prioritize products and destinations that would be of interest in the target market and ensure that these deliver value for money. New segments such as rural, wellness, tribal, adventure, MICE and religious can be developed with a strong focus on the new norms.

India has a robust domestic market which could soften the impact as compared with nations that rely largely on international tourists. India receives 10 million foreign tourists and around 26 million Indians travel abroad each year, spending an estimated US$25 billion. There is a need to incentivize domestic travel to retain these high- spending tourists, which should not be difficult given the international travel restrictions in place.

Current scenario

The revenge travel behavior has kickstarted in the India market, with 2020 being a silent year for avid travellers. In the travel world, social distancing has now become the new mantra. People are now looking at unexplored and less crowded destinations, which naturally provides social distancing, for their next vacation. With very limited international tourism opportunities, travelers are looking at visiting never before heard of destinations within India. Popular leisure destinations are witnessing the usual traffic, but the unexplored markets are now the number one choice destination for travelers.

In a major step, The Ministry of Tourism (MoT) and its field offices has been organising and supporting different tourism promotion events under ‘Dekho Apna Desh’ Campaign showcasing various Domestic tourism assets and products of the country with aim to create awareness among the stake holders and citizens.

Speaking about the potential of domestic tourism, Arvind Singh, Secretary, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, said, “India has a robust domestic market which could soften the impact of COVID 19 as compared with nations that rely largely on international tourists. Post lockdown and as the control over the spread of pandemic is achieved, it is widely agreed fact that domestic tourism will recover faster than international tourism.  Dekho Apna Desh is an initiative of the Ministry of Tourism; the initiative is in line with the appeal of the Prime Minister made from the ramparts of Red Fort on 15th August 2019 in his speech asking every citizen to visit at least 15 destinations by the year 2022, to promote domestic tourism in India which is intended to enhance tourist footfalls in places of tourist interest so as to help develop the local economy.”

However, are destinations prepared to serve the increasing numbers? Are these hidden gems well connected along with accommodation options for travelers? Which are the potential hot destinations, unexplored by major travelers? Can circuits be developed to promote these destinations?

SATTE, South Asia’s largest travel and tourism exhibition which was recently held at India Expo Mart, Greater Noida organised a session titled ‘Domestic Tourism: Exploring unexplored’, to discuss the strategies in promoting domestic tourism and ground realities of the smaller and hidden destinations in terms of infrastructure development and connectivity.

The session was moderated by Himmat Anand, Founder, Tree of Life Resorts and witnessed an eminent panel including Rupinder Brar, Additional Director General at Ministry of Tourism, Govt of India; Jenu Devan, Managing Director & Commissioner of Tourism, Gujarat Tourism; MP Bezbaruah, Former Secretary-Tourism, Govt. of India and Secretary General, HAI; and PP Khanna, President, Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India (ADTOI).        

Look Northeast

The Northeast region of India is still pristine and unexplored. One of the major challenges remains accessibility and perception about the destination. The government has been focusing to develop the seven Northeastern states, but on ground the development is happening at snail’s pace.

Speaking about the challenges in establishing Northeast as a popular tourism destination Bezbaruah, explained, “The Ministry of Tourism has a tagline which says, Northeast is a paradise which is unexplored. I have discussed the challenges in a few meetings before covid-19 pandemic, that how long will it remain unexplored. It has been 20-25 years; the ministry is focusing on promoting the Northeast. There is a serious problem of perception. Fortunately, the geo-political situation around with the neighbours, things have improved a lot. The political issues in the Northeast has come down by 80-90 per cent. This is a good situation for tourism to flourish in the region. Second major issue is connectivity. Connectivity to Guwahati is excellent, but to other Northeast states the connectivity is poor with no airport or helipads. The UDAN scheme changed this to an extent in 2018-19. Due to less connectivity, road travel is the major mode in Northeast. One of the biggest challenges is lack of wayside amenities. Beyond metro cities, accommodation is another major challenge in most of the places. Infrastructure development and PPP is required to grow tourism in Northeast.”

To tackle these challenges the Ministry of Tourism has created a small focus group recently which recently concluded its first meeting.

Brar said, “There are no real-time dialogues, which is the major issue. Everyone talk about the potential of tourism in Northeast but there is no real action on ground. Last month with the approval of the Secretary Tourism, we have created a focus group to actually deliver results. The first meeting of this group took off with 14 participants from the Ministry and the local offices. We have noted down very doable things in the first round. In the later stage we will include other stakeholders as well. Routes need to be connected and accommodations are a major issue in the Northeast. We need to create more and more content to tackle the perception issue. We have discussed with associations that can every month one association organize a reasonable mid-sized event in one of the seven Northeast states? The association can pick the buyers and sellers and the products they want to sell, Ministry will come with financial support and support of the media. UDAN already has a major focus to develop the Northeast connectivity.”

Seven states in the Northeast should come on a common forum and develop a unified strategy to develop tourism in the region. Also, the ministry should collaborate with the Northeast Council to further effectively tackle the challenges.

Bezbaruah added, “Ministry should work with the Northeast Council to develop tourism in this region. We had developed a website for the Northeast Council, which is now almost defunct, this should be revived. We should have a dynamic website for Northeast which should be linked to incredible India website. Also, all the Northeast states should come together and develop a single strategy to grow tourism in the region. Prime Minister has announced a lot of infrastructure in the Northeast and this includes roads, accommodations and further connectivity.

Collaboration is the key

Khanna said, “Synergy is very important to develop domestic tourism in the country. OTAs are a major challenge as they are into unethical practices as they are undercutting the market. We have a good synergy with the government and under the new tourism policy there needs to be a uniformity and a level playing platform for tour operators and the OTAs.

In the last few months, Gujarat has become the hotspot for Association conventions. Gujarat Tourism is partnering with Associations to promote Kevadia as a tourism destination. Gujarat is also looking to partner with nearby states to create itineraries to further tap the domestic tourism segment.

Speaking about the plans, Devan stated, “We wanted to focus on holding more conventions in Gujarat and promote Kevadia as a tourist attraction. So, we have partnered with associations to organize their conventions in Kevadia. MICE tourism was not happening in a full-fledged way in Gujarat despite having excellent infrastructure. Now more and more events, conferences, weddings are happening. In terms of itinerary, 10-15 years ago the tourism corporation had developed an itinerary which started from Ahmedabad to North Gujarat and ended at Udaipur or Jaipur in Rajasthan. These itineraries were very popular and attracting a large number of tourists. This was discontinued due to some reason. Now we have restarted one itinerary to see the impact of it. We have started an itinerary in coordination with the Somnath Trust, which starts from Ahmedabad to Somnath and ending at Diu. Similarly, we are also focusing on travellers coming to Udaipur and Daman & Diu, to attract them to Gujarat. We are now trying to club one more state to our itinerary to attract more domestic tourists to the state.”

State Initiatives

Destinations like Odisha are looking to introduce new products including glamping and caravan tourism, where social distancing can be maintained easily. In an earlier interview, spokesperson from Odisha Tourism, said, “Over 185 crore people travel within the country each year, it is a huge number as compared to the inbound. All the stakeholders and tourism boards need to work hand in hand to tap the outbound travellers into domestic. Every destination should ensure safety and security which will be a key influencer. For Odisha we are focusing on quality tourism, last year we started high end glamping in Konark. This product witnessed an extremely positive response, and we will be expanding this product to many other destinations in Odisha. We will also look at Caravan tourism as people will look at this segment due to social distancing. We are also developing palaces in Odisha for hospitality, which will be a unique experience.”

The Goan economy is heavily dependent on the tourism and hospitality industry. To further restore tourism, the state is reinventing its strategies from time to time. Marketing and technological trend changes, Covid-19 may be a blessing in disguise to take us to the next level.

Spokesperson from Goa Tourism earlier said, “Though it is an unfortunate event for the globe but has opened our eyes and has made us aware about safety and hygiene and healthy practices. We have taken a step and engaged KPMG to come out with a vision document on how we should go ahead, and we have done an extensive survey with all stakeholders.”

Goa is now promoting the Hinterland and eco-tourism aggressively. Also, the state is looking at clean tourism and high-end tourism. We will look at targeting domestic tourism aggressively soon. The state is also aggressively pushing content on its social media handles.”

Similarly, Maharashtra Tourism has taken an aggresse approach on their digital marketing strategy and is looking to revive local tourism and weekend travel.

The state has received protocols from the Minister, and also engaged with KPMG to prepare guidelines for wayside amenities, adventure tourism and cruise tourism as well. Maharashtra is now promoting unexplored destinations in the state and request all citizens to travel to these less crowded destinations to revive tourism.”