Will India's Adventure Travel Companies Survive the COVID-19 Crisis?

COVID-19 has hit the Indian tourism industry hard: an industry professional shares his personal struggles, thoughts, and advice.

Will India's Adventure Travel Companies Survive the COVID-19 Crisis?

It’s almost a month into lockdown post Covid-19 in India.

In February, I remember trying to put together a ski holiday in Gulmarg for some friends and clients, while still trying to decipher the true impact of the virus, if any, in India. We knew it was spreading globally and also that we would see it in India soon enough. We got on a conference call with our clients and decided that the trip would go ahead as planned—with precautions in place.

We knew that Kashmir was clear until then, but still enquired with the local authorities if any cases had been reported. Our drivers were instructed to wear masks and not shake hands. Every family got a separate car, even though pretty much everyone was landing in Srinagar at the same time.

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We stocked up on hand sanitisers, stopped our daily dose of cashews and walnuts because that would have meant using bare hands to eat them. Sadly, we were forced to use mineral water bottles because we were unable to access the large 20 litre cans that clients used to refill their bottles with. This hurt more than anything else because we have a reputation of running plastic free trips. We hounded the hotel staff till they complied with every hygiene request we raised. The ski instructors and porters maintained an acceptable distance from the group always. Gulmarg saw the best dump of snow in a decade and everyone had a fantastic ski trip. We got back to our homes on the 12th of March, and a little more than a week later we were in lockdown.

As the CEO of a reputed adventure travel company with more than three decades in the business, I had a bucketload of feelings and thoughts swarming through my head. We were just getting into our peak season and were looking forward to re-building our cashflows, but now? We owed money in the market—vendors who trust us and have worked with us for decades. They too would feel the cash crunch and need money. I had 40 people who worked with me and trusted me to pay salaries and wages on time. Even though very small, I did have an EMI to pay. What was I going to do?

I turned to other experts in the industry. It was time to see what was happening in the business. As the Vice Chairman of FAITH (India’s largest industry body for tourism) and the ex-President of ATOAI, I had access to news from a cross section of the tourism industry from aviation, hotels, restaurants, inbound, outbound, domestic and of course, adventure travel.

Here’s what I found out: The mantra is to survive. Somehow survive the virus and the financial fallout. Be ready to start lean once all of this blows over. I spoke with some really close friends in the industry and we took solace in each other’s stories of misery. I also had the opportunity to get on a video conference with some global colleagues from the adventure travel community.  The first such global call had people from USA, UK, Belgium, Spain, Columbia, Costa Rica, Brazil and Bolivia.

And here’s what I found out: Everyone is in the same boat, everyone is down-sizing, everyone is trying to stay afloat, and everyone is re-inventing, re-structuring, and re-organising. Marketing strategies, websites, and social media pages are being recreated and the focus on content creation has increased. Everyone is preparing for the “new normal”. What that “new normal” is, is anyone’s guess.

I sent most of my field staff home, some who are stuck and can’t leave because of the lockdown get accommodation and food. I paid full salaries for March and cut down costs in April while maintaining a skeleton staff at salaries 50-60% lower. I went into every line item and killed costs. I somehow try and stay relevant until this thing blows away or gives us respite.

The group of close friends continue to “meet” every night—it’s like a therapy session where you can share each other’s pain and try to figure out this new world together. All this while we try, plead, beg and let our government know that we need help.

Tourism is the largest impacted industry in India—it contributes almost 10% to India’s GDP but has always been treated like a step-child. Ten million jobs are at stake and thousands of small to medium tourism enterprises are on the verge of a shut down. The industry can’t pay salaries, EMIs or even monthly utility costs. UK, US, Germany, Singapore and some other countries have already announced major bail out packages for tourism. As we flounder and flap about in deep, fast flowing waters, I can just hope that the Indian Government is going to throw a rescue bag or a life jacket in our direction.

In January we were watching social media channels showing empty streets in Wuhan, people locked in, some being dragged into isolation, food being left outside doors. We had our eyes wide open, our mouths agape, but our minds were in complete denial. China had 50 million people in lockdown! Not realising that we would also be in the same boat soon and that we would lock down 1.3 billion people.

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As revival is still a distance away I have renamed this section “still surviving”. In this section I have chosen to ask questions and even more questions. Questions that we need to ask ourselves, our families, colleagues and our industry. So till now, the government’s response has been way below expectations, and that’s not for the lack of trying. Every representative trade body led by FAITH (Federation of Associations in Tourism and Hospitality) and supported by organisations like CII and FICCI, have done their bit with gusto.

The Government asked for a lot of information from the industry:

How many people does the industry employ?

What is the total salary outflow of the industry?

How many tourism units are registered with central or state governments?

How many employees have Aadhar and PAN registrations?

How many employees have bank accounts for direct transfers?

What is the value of total monthly EMIs of the industry?

What is the value of GST submitted last year by the industry?

All the questions have been answered in detail. However, the questions have been endless, frustratingly so, and the industry has done its part and answered every last one. Now all we can do is eat, pray and…pray. So, what happens in the meantime? Everyone and his/her uncle is on a Zoom call. Suddenly the world has realised that you can wear a decent shirt with torn shorts and flip-flops and still look cool in a video conference. Till the time when you forget to switch off the camera and get up to take a bathroom break. Then all hell breaks loose.

But on a serious note, these Zoom calls have become the “new normal” for now. They allow you to work and deliberate on a daily basis. God forbid you don’t have at-least three Zoom calls a day, you are just not there yet. These video calls have allowed us to rise above the feeling of guilt of staying home as we can now log and “go to work”. I have been lucky to be a part of many such calls where people better than me are asking questions and seeking answers.

Here are a few of them for all of us to mull over:

How many people do you actually need to run your operation?

Do you actually need an office space post Covid-19?

Is it time to re-negotiate rates and cancelations policies with vendors? The days of 100% cancelation post 30 or 90 days seem to be history.

Should we start offering last minute drop out deals to client along with liberal and refundable deposit schemes?

Are hotel prices going to rise or fall? One would think they would fall as supply outstrips demand. But on the other hand chains and smaller units may limit active inventory in the market. So it's still anyone’s guess.

Are flights going to be cheaper? Not if flights are forced to leave the middle seat empty on all flights. Will domestic start first or inbound ? What about outbound?

What will the clients look for before booking a hotel? Price or hygiene? Is bus and train travel still a viable option?

Then in the Adventure Travel sector there are even more questions:

Are mass trekking, camping and big group adventures over?

Will the concerned authorities eventually realise that we cannot allow over-tourism?

Will clients still visit crowded and congested destinations like Shimla and Manali, or will they go further and go remote?

Will family and friends travel supersede big group departures?

How will large campsites become COVID friendly?

How will we run COVD friendly expeditions and treks?

How to safeguard our staff from COVID? Will adventure travel drive the next tourism growth?

These are all valid questions that all of us will need to answer. Maybe you can all start discussing these within your own small Zoom groups. Of course, this does not take away from the fact that you still need to figure out how to pay your salaries and EMI’s. What we do know is this: We're in for the long haul.

The “gurus” of the industry (with minute contribution from my end), have predicted the following: Covid-19 will probably not leave us in peace till at-least July/September. Maybe longer. It may even pay us another visit again in the winters. No vaccines will be available before mid 2021. No inbound traffic till vaccine is found. Even if there is, it will only be a trickle. So tourism will not travel. Think about it. Domestic will start first, but nothing before October. Short haul and driving holidays will kick off earlier. Airlines are already retiring long haul aircrafts. Corporate travel only where really essential. MICE will be a tough call but maybe starts only in 2021. Price of a holiday is down on the list. Health and safety moves up to take priority in decisions. Holidays will be down on the list. Securing financial future of family will come first. The Big Fat Indian destination wedding is a thing of the past. But then after a long lock down there is also a feel-good prediction that revenge tourism will bump up the tourism numbers over a short period. Despite all the predictions and graphs and statistics you may see, end of the day please remember that these are only predictions. No one knows your business better than you. You need to decide what will work for your business model. People like me, can at best either add value for you or add to the confusion. Depends on how you want to look at the glass. You need to trust your gut which should be able to tell you what to do. If it does not, then maybe you need to change your line of work.