The plane truth of how to land safely in the post-pandemic landscape.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
Travel: a word that has attained an almost fantastical status during the last few years. Now that the industry is once again proverbially and literally poised to take off, what exactly does that mean moving forward, for the country and for the world? As a country that was extremely reliant on tourism and other MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) business, is Thailand ready to receive visitors, and how have consumer demands changed? With the growing juggernaut that is the Indian economy, how important will it be to foster the special relationship between Thailand and India? Three Thai-Indian owners of travel agencies give their insights and advice.
Co-Founder, RedFox Event Co., Ltd.
As someone who’s been in the tourism industry for more than two decades, Pankaj Sawhney credits his travels around the world for the opportunity to work with different cultures, and with global companies for both outbound and inbound business. “I was motivated by the people that the tourism industry relies on,” he tells me. In 2018, he founded RedFox Event Co., Ltd., a start-up destination and event management company, which aims to bring business to Thailand from their core markets, encompassing South Africa, the UK and Ireland, the Indian subcontinent, and the ASEAN region. He gives us his expert take.
What were your personal experiences working in the travel industry during the last few years? How did you adapt your business and marketing strategies to get ready for the country opening back up?
The tourism industry in Thailand relied majorly on volume, most of which came from China, the ASEAN region, Russia, and India. The main share, however, was mostly from China itself, which was a huge issue for Thailand during the pandemic.
Our strategy during that time was to open up to more destinations – for example, we entered the Maldives, which was a hot-selling destination during the pandemic, and during the recovery period. We also transitioned into a tech company that provides products and services digitally. In the beginning of 2022, one of Thailand’s leading IT resourcing and technology solutions companies, ADI Resourcing and Consulting Group, founded by Amit Lal Singh, invested in RedFox’ company expansion.
In your opinion, what are some of the things about Thailand that inspire people to come here?
Thailand has unique charms and attractions which bring in people from all of the world again and again. Although e.g. Dubai and the Maldives were some of the first destinations to open after the pandemic, they didn’t get the tourist numbers that they expected. The simple reason is that people like diversity, which Thailand offers: from their culture, food, hospitality, value for money, accessibility, shopping, and a lot more.
Do you think the pundits are right about their timeline for the travel industry’s recovery?
I have been following some world economists, who say that in terms of tourism recovery, Thailand will see their 2019 numbers by the end of 2023 or early 2024. But I think recovery will be faster provided things don’t go wrong in Russia and beyond.
What do you believe post-pandemic tourism will look like in the country?
There is already a shift happening in customer behaviour, especially from India and the ASEAN region. Thailand needs to invest more in wellness tourism, and create more eco-packages and self-driving packages, as the roads in Thailand are great for driving. I think we should focus on giving experiences to our customers instead of just focusing on price and quantity. That is, create luxury products which attract the high-spenders segment, and experience-based products for the growing upper- and middle-class segment.
What should the country do to entice more Indian tourists and visitors in the future?
Thailand still needs to bring more products and services to offer visitors, especially Indians who always look for new experiences. Compared to our competitor destinations like Dubai, Vietnam, and Singapore, we are way behind in terms of attractions, even though we are seeing more and more hotels coming up in the country.
The last few years have given rise to increased digitalisation and other opportunities for the travel industry. What is your opinion on these changes?
Digitalisation is the only way forward in order to grow, and more tourism service providers are adapting, especially hotels. For example, the Marriott International group of hotels is adopting keyless check- ins, which means guest can check into their rooms using just their phone. This also help reduce carbon emissions by reducing the usage of plastics. Personally, we at RedFox will be moving more and more of our products and services onto digital platforms.
One of the areas that Thailand hopes to invest in more is the movie industry. How do you believe the travel industry should adapt in order to encourage more film and TV business?
This is another big-ticket revenue source for Thailand. However the challenge the movie industry faces is understanding the services required when it comes to Tier 3 or 4 cities. The tourism industry needs to keep educating different sectors on how to handle and welcome visitors. I also work closely with the Capability Devolvement Committee of the Thailand Incentive and Convention Association (TICA) – an organisation who works closely with the Thailand Convention and Exhibitions Bureau (TCEB) to bring more MICE opportunities to Thailand.
From personal experience, are travellers still very concerned about COVID-19? Or do they have a more relaxed attitude when it comes to travelling and putting together their itineraries?
It’s still quite a mix of attitudes. For example, Westerners are more relaxed, while travellers from Asia are still a little concerned about COVID, especially Indians, who are worried about who will take care of them if they catch it in Thailand. But by and large, I can see people are relaxing more.
PREECHA ‘VICKY’ CHAMPI
Founder, Destination Siam Group
Established in 2006, Destination Siam Group started life as a local tour operator targeting the South Asian market. Today, its founder Preecha ‘Vicky’ Champi tells me, it has transformed into a Destination Management Company (DMC) catering to 30+ countries, providing its service to almost 150,000 clients. Comprising of four sections, Tour and Travel sector, MICE expertise, destination weddings by The Wedding Galore, and the filming sector, the company also plans to start an OTA platform under the name BHARATCHOICE.WORLD, which they will use to target Indian travellers worldwide who require special care while traveling in Thailand. “In the near future, we’re looking forward to extending our market to the ASEAN region and the rest of Asia,” Vicky reveals. He shared with us his expertise, borne of his experiences.
How did the pandemic hit your business, and what were the ways that you had to pivot? Any opportunities that arose during that unprecedented time?
Before COVID, our business prospects were very promising, but after March 2020, there weren’t any tourists travelling to the country. At the time, we hoped that the pandemic would not last for too long, since we thought we had seen worse circumstances – SARS, Bird Flu, even riots. However, when the picture became clearer, we changed our strategy to cater more towards the local Thai and expat market, and focus more on local events.
Our first pilot event was a Sufi night at Pattaya, and we received very good feedback, which gave us more confidence to do bigger scale events. We then organised a huge Diwali Festival at Icon Siam in 2020. The footfall for the event was almost 100,000 people in three days, hence, we plan for this to be our yearly iconic event.
What makes Thailand such a unique and sought-after travel destination, in your opinion?
Thailand is very popular for its beach destinations, the famed Thai food and hospitality, as well as its value for money. However, Thailand is also infamous as a red-light district destination, and we must remove this perception to gain more opportunities in the family and couples segments, since those groups have a higher spending rate than others.
Thailand has been highly reliant on the travel industry, a big part of which has been travellers from India. Can you share with us some statistics regarding this, and how soon you foresee a recovery to pre-pandemic numbers?
From 2015-2019, the number of tourists entering Thailand increased from 30 million to 40 million – an incredible number considering that the country’s total population is only around 70 million! In 2019 alone, Thailand welcomed almost 11 million Chinese tourists, followed by Malaysian tourists at 4 million arrivals, and Indian tourists at 1.9 million, a 25 percent increase from the previous year.
Although all flights were cancelled after the first wave of the pandemic, by early 2022, Thailand and India had signed a bilateral Air Travel Bubble agreement to allow both countries’ airlines to fly between both countries with fewer conditions. Now, India has resumed all commercial flights from 27th March 2022, and we are expecting the number of tourists to return to the same levels by Q2 2023, when all regulations are expected to be lifted by July 2022.
What were the number of Indian tourists in Thailand in 2019, compared to projections for this year, and how can they make Thailand a more sought-after destination for travellers from India?
In May 2022, when Thailand announced that they were reopening to Indian tourists, the number reached 60,000 per month, the highest number of tourists from a single country at the time. Therefore, we expect the number of Indian tourists this year to reach 300,000 – 400,000 people. However, this will also depend on many other factors, such as gasoline prices, which have caused air ticket prices to soar by 10-15 percent; land transfer costs; and government to government (G2G) regulations.
One way that the government can encourage more travellers from India is to waive visa fees, along with extending the period of stay from 15 to 30 days to increase the number of tourists and long-stay visitors to the country.
Another scheme to entice visitors is growing the Thai movie industry. What are the unique opportunities that Thailand offers in that regard, and how will Thailand as a hub for films and TV series affect the tourism industry?
I strongly believe that movie culture is an incredible soft power tool to influence new generations. For example, since the James Bond movie scene that was filmed at Koh Tapu at Phang Nga Bay, the island has been called James Bond Island, and after The Beach (2002) was filmed at Maya Bay, it’s now the one of the most visited tourist spots around the world. In 2019, our company shot a music video for “Tera Ghata” at Koh Chang, and the song now has more than 1 billion views, and we sold a tremendous amount of tours to Koh Chang. It just proves that the Thai government should open up to shooting more movies in Thailand.
Thailand has now opened a one stop service for foreign teams shooting films in Thailand, but there are still some obstacles and hoops to jump through, which might take a longer time for approval.
KANWER DEEP ‘K.D.’ SINGH
Founder and President, TravelBullz Co., Ltd.
Founded by Kanwer Deep ‘K.D.’ Singh, TravelBullz is an online B2B destination management company that set up its operations in 2010. In the last 12 years, their source markets have grown from India and the Middle East to over 64 different countries. “We are a tech-driven organisation and one of the only ones in the world with a dynamic package-booking engine, combining all travel components like hotels, transportation, and attractions, to be booked with a single click,” K.D. tells me. He shares more of his insights into his business and the industry with Masala.
During the pandemic years, how did you adapt your business and marketing strategies to deal with the disruption to the industry?
We did what we do best, which is innovate. We focused more on the domestic market in Thailand, and on the Maldives as a key destination, as it was the only destination open for tourists around the world.
Digitalising helped us keep ourselves afloat, thanks to our amazing hardworking team who not only gave their best, but matched every single step of management’s innovation. Through this, we not only survived, but built our business in new markets, which have helped us to bounce back faster and bigger than pre-COVID numbers.
Another very important strategy was that we very consciously did not keep our office closed unless mandated by the government. Our teams worked remotely depending on how critical the situation was, and we continued to stay in touch with our supply chain.
What do you believe Thailand as a destination has to offer that attracts visitors around the world, especially ones from India?
Thailand as a destination has lot to offer to all segments of travellers, ranging from Thai hospitality, to the gastronomy choices, spa and wellness activities, shopping, water and adventure sports, and of course, its status as the perfect wedding destination. There is always something for everyone. Moreover, its proximity to India and the connectivity of the Thai-India airline network has helped the country to be the number one choice for Indian travellers.
Luxury resorts and wellness packages at affordable prices, when compared to some other destinations, have been a great pull for Indians and other short-haul travellers to come back sooner rather than later. Saudi Arabia resuming their diplomatic relationships with Thailand was extremely timely, and helped in increasing the number of tourists.
What are the post-pandemic travel trends that you foresee, and in your opinion, what kind of visitors should the country focus on?
My belief is that post-pandemic, the usual tourism segments will return to Thailand, but I do see an increase in the number of nights people are staying, especially from short-haul markets..
There will also be new and renewed interest in wellness and health tourism, and medical tourism. Eco-tourism is creating its own space in the market, and Thailand is continuing to make progress in this segment as well. As a country, we need to continue investing in all segments of tourism, including wellness, health, and MICE, along with other leisure and entertainment facilities.
Do you believe that we will see travellers from India returning in force this year?
I am very bullish that the country’s recovery will be surprisingly swift, especially from the short-haul sector. In 2019, Thailand received close to 1.9 million Indian tourists, and while we lost Q1 of this year to the pandemic, I predict that during the rest of the year, we will be able to bring back at least 50 percent if not more of that number. For example, TravelBullz has crossed our 2019 numbers for both May and June projections, with a projected over 6500 bookings in June, which is a record number for our company.
What can the government do to entice more Indian tourists and visitors in the future?
I believe the Ministry of Tourism, along with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), should take the following steps to help generate more incoming guests from the Indian subcontinent:
- Increase the number and capacity of flights from various cities in India, and match destinations like Dubai when it comes to connectivity to more than 15 cities in India;
- Make visa processing easier in India by standardising documentation and cutting response times to one day;
- Make visa upon arrival complimentary – this would lead to at least 20-25 percent increase in traffic, especially for small groups and MICE business;
- Travellers possessing valid visas for the US, UK, Europe, Australia, and Canada should be exempted from any visa requirements, as those travellers are usually high spenders;
- Aggressively market Thai destinations focused on scuba diving, bungee jumping, and other adventurous activities;
- Focus on promoting the luxury segment to discerning Indian travellers, including high-end villas, wellness, and culinary segments.
What are the opportunities in the post-pandemic landscape that the country should embrace, and which ones has your company taken advantage of?
Digitalisation has been a driver of growth for a lot of economies and travel destinations, but Thailand is still behind in this aspect. Industry leaders and segments of the hospitality industry have been shy of adopting and investing in new technology, thereby making some key products still dependent on human intervention. The country will need a special push from the highest levels of government for the public and private sectors to move with the times.
Since 2011, as a company, we have been at the forefront of the industry in terms of technological developments. Our business could only survive because we were digital in the true sense, and during the pandemic we further invested over USD 100,000 into tech development
Going digital helped us to make over 25000+ bookings during June 2020-Dec 2021, which not only kept our lights on, but kept the morale of our management team high. They could see that while others were simply trying to survive, we were making our selves future-ready for when the pandemic would end.
Have you noticed a change in attitudes in regards to COVID-19? How has this affected travellers
While COVID remains a concern, we have seen the perception and understanding of normalcy moving very fast. Travellers are far more relaxed now in preparing for their trips, especially for short-haul travel. The only factor they still consider is if their trip can be postponed if something goes wrong, and how they can avoid losing money if so. We have been very aggressively promoting force majeure clauses with our supply partners, with guarantees that in the case of force majeur, we will refund them 100 percent, or give them credit for future travel, if that is more convenient.