In the beginning of the year, travelling was not considered to be a distant dream, a wishful adventure. But, as the months progressed and countries came to learn more about the nature of the virus that caused the pandemic, it became clear that 2020 would be remembered as the year where the act of moving from one place to another would prove to be dangerous for the health and safety of people — an antithesis even.
While many things changed this year — from how we greet people in public to personal hygiene — the global travel industry has been the one to have been hit the hardest. For the large part of the year, travelling was stopped. Countries shut their borders, itineraries changed, tickets were cancelled, and an emotional and financial mayhem ensued. In India, for instance, there was a complete lockdown. Meaning, people had to stay put for months, just so they could keep themselves and their loved ones safe. Flights got cancelled and the railway network remained shut, as doctors, scientists and other health professionals tried to understand the virus and find ways to treat people.
In the latter part of the year, some restrictions were removed, and now travelling has started happening again, albeit slowly and cautiously. But how much of the travelling rules have changed, and just how apprehensive have people become in the last few months?
Srivatsan Sankaran, a 30-year-old Chennai-based travel photographer and the founder of Madras Photo Bloggers, tells indianexpress.com that while it doesn’t bother him as much that travelling has changed because of the pandemic, he is “extremely cautious to limit human interactions, however unavoidable it is”.
“I have been in the photography field for the past eight years and have spent a significant amount of time covering places across India as part of my projects. At the moment, my professional commitments require me to travel. The unlock phase has resulted in an ease of travel across [state] borders. After all, we live only once and so, I think time is precious for both personal as well as professional undertakings. So, if one is diligent to follow all the necessary precautions and avoid crowded places, they can travel hassle-free and stay safe too,” he says.
Srivatsan took six trips between January and March, but only two trips between April and October. “I prefer hilly areas, since they are less crowded and relatively safer. Currently, I am planning to take a winter expedition to the Spiti Valley, although it’s proving to be slightly challenging due to the many hurdles put forth by the pandemic. That said, I am quite optimistic that it will materialise soon,” he says, adding that as a traveller, he prefers trains, since they are “more convenient” and also give him the “chance to make a lot of enduring memories, alongside fellow travellers”.
In India, there are many travel-starved people like Srivatsan, who are looking to get started again. In fact, a recent survey from digital travel company Booking.com made some predictions for the coming year. As per its findings, 63 per cent of Indian travellers are excited about travelling again, while 63 per cent indicated they are more appreciative of travel now and will not take it for granted in the future. Additionally, Indians are even ready to take on safety and hygiene challenges, with 86 per cent of the respondents saying they will stay more precautions and will look to the travel industry to help them gear up for this new normal, and 77 per cent suggesting they will only book a particular accommodation which has clear health and hygiene policies in place; 79 per cent are in favour of accommodations that have antibacterial and sanitizing products.
As such, a large chunk of the onus falls on travel companies with which people make bookings, to tailor a safe and pleasurable experience for them.
‘Travellers need reassurance’
Hari Ganapathy, the co-founder of Pickyourtrail — an online DIY holiday booking platform started in 2014 — says that they were an outbound-only travel company before the pandemic, but have now added domestic staycations and global products to the mix. “We felt the audience we had built would seek out 4/5 star resort-like accommodations when things opened up and so, we built our PYTDeals platform offering deals of up to 70 per cent on luxury properties. Our plans to go global were also accelerated by the pandemic. As you can see, the pandemic is at varied rates of growth across countries and we believe that in the next six to nine months, countries will open up in a discerning fashion and not throw blanket decisions,” he says.
Hari goes on to say that safety is paramount. “The role of a travel curator is now extremely crucial given the lack of clear information and element of uncertainty. Travellers need reassurance and connections with other travellers now more than ever. We currently let travellers going to resorts share their experience with fellow travellers and that hugely helps us not just allay the fears of the new traveller, but also win the trust within the community.
“The other key thing is flexibility with respect to cancellations. We strongly urge and recommend all travellers to pick the most flexible price options so that in case of any emergencies or change in plan, the monetary impact is not that huge,” he comments.
Agreeing with him, Shikhar Chadha, the CEO and founder of The Tarzan Way — a travel company — tells indianexpress.com that they, too, have accommodated the many changes brought about by the pandemic. “We’re launching caravan/RV-based experiences, which will be a way to promote travel in the COVID-19 world considering social distancing. We would be putting an emphasis on road trips, using self-drive vehicles, so that’d be added along with the RVs. Secondly, we’ll be promoting unique and remote villages untouched by the crisis. While there has been reverse-migration, it’s also an opportunity to tap these villages, communities, and towns which have been untouched by the whole situation and start promoting — also since users are choosing experiences over destinations.”
Personalised experiences for travellers
Many travellers, when they book through an agency, want them to provide an experience which caters to their taste, and is highly personal. Amid the pandemic, however, are they able to enjoy this luxury?
Chadha says that while creating a highly personalised experience, companies need to keep in mind the traveller’s purpose and what a particular location may have to offer. “We ask a user a few basic questions to get an idea of what they would want, and our AI-based software gives out an itinerary based on these answers. Few things that we have to know before we can actually make an experience are: location (it could be beaches or mountains, or specific cities), activities/places of interest (what the user wants out of that trip), and budget and time, since not all users have the time or money to experience everything; we try to accommodate any kind of budget and whatever the time constraint, to provide a seamless experience,” he explains.
The rise in popularity of RVs/caravans
As Chadha mentions, caravan/RV experiences are finding many takers these days. Campers, as they are also called in some countries, are already quite popular. But in India, people are gradually coming to love them.
“For most of the travellers in India, a caravan is something they would love to experience at least once in their lifetime. In other countries, people don’t just rent out caravans, but buy them as their go-to vehicle for travelling. In India, we lack the basic necessities for caravans, like dedicated parking and rules for cooking in the car. But they have everything you would need to live and travel without even getting out. The comfort is unmatched, you have the convenience to go anywhere and everywhere, and the safety cannot be compared with any other mode of travel. I would say, it brings a ‘cool quotient’, too, making it desirable,” Chadha says.
A caravan is essentially a “car on steroids”, he says. It has a kitchen, a bathroom, chairs that double up as beds, and obviously, wheels to take you to places. You can park your vehicle at any suitable location and relax. You can even make food in the motorhome, sleep, and just enjoy life away from the city and the pandemic.
Hari says that in India, while it is great to see the pickup, the overall infrastructure like camp sites, power sites to charge them are important. “India has some amazing routes where you can drive around and tent, to soak in nature. This is a great trend that will surely pick up in the years to come.”
Nitesh Chauhan, the founder of Jugni, a Delhi-based organisation that specialises in personalised travel experience for women from all around the world, is optimistic about the future of travel, even if right now things look uncertain. “Nothing is permanent, in my opinion. So, this [pandemic situation] will change, too. But, I think instead of travelling with strangers in a group, people now want to be in the company of their friends or family members. Now, they are also taking ‘workation‘ packages, which allows them to book a property for a few days, sometimes even weeks. And while the demand for travelling has not decreased in any way, the type of travel has changed,” he remarks.
Hari, however, disagrees. He believes the demand for travel has decreased. “What we would like to believe is that the worst is over us, the newness of the pandemic is now gone. Right from personal hygiene to medical protocols, there is a lot more know-how that will come in handy as we face the pandemic in the months to come. There is a huge pent-up demand and we believe that once there is more clarity on quarantine measures, visibility of a vaccine, people will travel out a lot more confidently.”
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