By RITESH SOOD || Business Head, Himalayan Saga
Himachal Pradesh is best known for its natural ambience and culture. Currently, the main locations being promoted in inbound markets are Shimla and Dharamshala, with Manali having a very nominal share. Primarily, the British Capital – Shimla, the Kalka-Shimla Toy Train and Dalai Lama Temple are being endorsed more in the international market.
Though Himachal has a wide variety of tourism products, we, as a state are missing out on something with regard to the international market or better said, for High End Tourism wherein we have lost a large percentage of good spending Indian tourists as well. Over the last 7-8 years, it has been recorded that Himachal has begun to lose its share and sheen in the international market.
Notwithstanding the challenges and threats posed to us by COVID-19, the possibilities and opportunities bring a ray of hope. There is a long path to be covered and we will have to rebuild a lot of things with a new perspective altogether. We will have to undertake several confidence building measures and renovation of available tourism products.
Post COVID-19, the perception of tourists for destinations will change. Foremost requirement will be availability of health facilities and hygiene. It will be imperative for Himachal to move swiftly and strengthen its medical infrastructure. It is sad that there is an absence of super specialty hospitals in our state baring Fortis in Kangra which came up recently. Our state needs to look into developing super-specialty hospitals in every main destination: Shimla, Manali, Dharamshala, Chamba. At other places like Tirthan, Kinnaur, Spiti and Lahaul, the need of the hour is a health center properly equipped to meet the requirements of COVID-19 cases and other emergency situations.
Himachal also needs to look into service of air ambulance and all weather evacuation from remote valleys and mountains. Specialty health and evacuation services are required minimum during summer months in remote regions when we see a lot of travel movement to these regions.
Post COVID-19, as an immediate measure we would also need to look into setting up some kind of mechanism on how sanitization of tourism facilities will be carried out and how to monitor all of it that is not limited to transport, accommodation, sight-seeing places, road side facilities etc. We will have to educate and train the staff who engage with tourists on a daily basis while providing various services.
There are several factors which help tourists in deciding on which destination they would like to visit. Availability of health facilities and SOPs (Standard Operating Protocol) followed by service providers will now start playing a crucial role in this decision making process. Hence we as a state would have to be proactive in our approach in this regard.
Post COVID-19 destinations which provide exclusivity, remoteness, nature and a personalized experience would gain popularity. I feel we as a tourism destination are in a better position to fit the requirement. However, in terms of tourism product we need to change our outlook from “What we have” to “What tourist requires” and try to design or if required redesign all our Tourism Products based on clients need. What meets the demand sells easily.
We first need to understand what kind of international tourists visit our state and what does they engage in here. I feel we lack a lot of data and understanding since there has not been any structured study or research conducted in this regard. Post COVID-19 I would suggest to have a detailed survey being conducted in Himachal to understand movement and consumption patterns of international tourists which would help in better policy, planning and designing of tourism products.
Majority of tourists coming to Himachal are long distance and there are few arrivals from neighboring countries. Post COVID-19 Long Haul Tourists will return only when there is some medication available. Hence, we will have to focus more on neighboring countries or Middle East and South East Asian countries from where short holidays would be feasible and reaching Himachal would be cheaper.
Chandigarh and Amritsar are the two main international airports nearest to Himachal and we should shift our focus to countries which are serviced by these two airports. Our state government if possible should try and collaborate with airlines from neighboring countries for promotion and increasing frequency which would help in bringing international tourists.
Excellent road connectivity to these two gateways of Himachal is almost there between Chandigarh-Shimla and Amritsar-Dharamshala. Post COVID-19 we need to push for excellent road connectivity within inner Himachal enabling all main destinations to be within 6 hours of driving time to each other or develop some interesting stop overs between destinations to break long journeys. Any road journey above 6 hours is a deterrent for international tourists. A small example would be to develop Rewalsar as an interesting option which would serve as a center point to break journeys between Shimla-Manali or Dharamshsla-Manali or Chandigarh-Manali or Shimla-Dharamshala.
Every product available in market has to keep reinventing itself to increase its shelf life. Its high time Himachal as a tourism product need to work on a new version of itself and present Himachal 2.0.
A small example is Manali as a destination is almost dead in inbound market. Manali’s strength is year round easiest access to snow but this strength has become its biggest weakness as reaching snow at Rohtang Pass for a tourist is the biggest challenge due to very high prices in peak season and unimaginable traffic jams and huge crowd. This demand of snow can be easily supplied if we are able to create alternate to Rohtang Pass and this can be easily done by allowing tourists in a strict regulated manner towards Hamta Pass and DeoTibba base. If we are able to do this, it would be Manali 2.0. Similarly, there is an urgency of launching Shimla 2.0.
Any product in International market needs to be presented as a concept and developed as a circuit. Post COVID-19 Himachal needs to work on developing few specialized circuits. Himachal has to focus more on its Himalayan heritage and culture clubbed with nature and solitude. We need to develop heritage and village circuits, hiking circuits, new motorcycle circuits, cycling circuits, open up new trekking and mountaineering trails, develop at least one excellent quality ski resort, etc.
Post COVID-19 we need to engage aggressively in PR and marketing front. Use of technology in promotions has to be done actively.
Engagement with international bloggers, travel magazines is an area to start with and Himachal should have a representation in all prime International Travel shows. The state tourism department has to take lead here. I would suggest that the state tourism department apart from high tourism officials should also invite main operators and hoteliers dealing with international tourists to participate in such shows and promotions.
Post COVID-19 there would be an increased demand of destinations catering to a controlled flow of Tourists or in other words destinations which will have strict defined SOP’s related to flow of tourists, local visits, local service providers including guides, drivers, accommodation units etc. I think this would enable the specified destination in providing a high end authentic and enriched experience. Himachal will have to focus more on a refined tourism experience, strict service SOPs and take COVID-19 as an opportunity to move in this direction. This will widen the horizon of carrying capacity and eco-tourism.
Himachal has to shift its focus from large factories to cottage industry, which simply implies promoting small hotels and homestays – a move from grand and royal to small and beautiful. This would help in implementing concepts of carrying capacity and eco-tourism in a much easier manner and do away with perils of mass tourism and pollution.
Quality of home-stays and small hotels needs urgent attention. Post COVID-19, I would propose to start a 6 months diploma in Homestay Hospitality wherein the course content needs to include aspects of housekeeping to small topics like cleaning stains on linen, professional presentation of Himachali cuisine, learning few international dishes etc. Although a homestay operator provides service from the core of his heart, but to cater to international tourists, a professional insight of tourism will help him in raising his own service standards. We all need to raise the bar of performance and standards.
COVID-19 has severely affected all segments of Tourism and Inbound will take the longest to revive, taking 12 to 18 months for international tourists to return. There are a lot of areas to work on for the revival of inbound tourism and need to prioritize short term as well our long term goals. As an immediate step, I feel developing health facilities is the most important confidence boosting measure that needs to be done. This has to be followed with implementing strict operational SOPs for ground level service teams and then working towards revival of present tourism offerings. Our State Government has a huge role and responsibility to play in the revival of Inbound Tourism to Himachal.
Post COVID-19 constant engagement between Government and Tourism Professionals are required to merge our synergies in a coordinated effort for a better future of the Inbound Tourism and growth of Himachal Pradesh in this specialized segment of Tourism Industry.