20 YEARS OF DELIGHTFUL DÉJÀ VU
The more things change, the more they remain the same. How true. We, at Today’s Traveller, decided to map the events over the last 20 years and found that while events take on different shapes, and job profiles take on new designations, the status quo stays much the same
Airline ticketing has simply changed hands from off-line to on-line and domestic airlines fight it out for passengers, whereas 20 years ago international airlines played the GSA field in a similar tussle for passengers. Travel agents in their brick and mortar avatar have morphed into the present omnipresent OTAs. Halfway through the two decades, agents had their commissions trimmed systematically by international airlines, but they got their own back with an arsenal of online technology and once again have taken pole position for bookings.
Hotels have emerged under bigger, newer, bolder brands with a new set of challenges, but they face the same measure of stress in the room rate, manpower crunch and land rates, not to mention red tape and taxes as they did 20 years ago.
Travel and Tourism continue to push destinations, new and old. Pushkar gets a facelift; 5-star hotels come calling. Ajmer gets an airfield. New attractions surface...traditional fairs and festivals get rebranded and sold. Getting there through surface or air and staying put at new-fangled accommodations is an eternal cycle. It all lies in the eye of the traveller.
Aviation has seen glorious days before flying into the red. Over these two decades consolidation has given way to large powerful entities spreading global wings and offering networks and alliances to choose from. The domestic airline scenario has been the stuff legends are made of with low-cost airlines winging their way into passenger purses and dislodging established players. Currently, domestic airlines continue to proliferate despite bleeding revenues and cut-throat competition.
It’s absolutely delightful to see how over 20 years international airlines at their meanest best continue to tighten seat and leg space in Economy Class, only to announce without any guilt that full First Class cabins boast a room in the sky. Ah..no remorse then as now for the salivating cattle class on long haul flights!
THE DELICIOUS IRONY OF RE-DOING THE SAME
Of course, we are over simplifying things. There has been a sea change in the Travel and Tourism scenario, but the delicious irony of re-doing the same actions with a new set of customers or a changed set of circumstances stares you in the face. Sure, technology has created tectonic shifts in how travel is bought and consumed and shared experiences and customer assertion is at an all-time high. Nonetheless, the space remains interesting.
As the pyramid flexes in a developing country, so too, the consumer profile. The last 20 years has seen a coming of age of sorts of the great Indian traveller. Today’s Traveller is excited that a whole new breed of experiential Indian travellers is emerging in the space being vacated by the traditional Indian arm-chair-spectator traveller. And, of course, we are delighted that the Snake Charmer India of yore has given way to Techie India. Similarly, Indians as consumers of travel, both domestic and international, are replacing the inbound foreign traveller – and with matching if not larger purse strings. One sought-after visitor profile gives way to the other...so the rotation of purchase and travel keep the economic wheel turning.
Hotel designs are being created for the typical Indian consumer...larger rooms as they travel enfamily as well as satvic vegetarian restaurants with a ‘maharaj’ in tow. Recalibration takes place. At the end of the day, a hotel needs a good ARR and if it’s rupees replacing dollars, it’s the economics of demand and supply of the time machine.
Tourism continues to grow, despite itself. In 20 years tourism has not seen a concentrated sustainable development programme from the government despite several well-meaning initiatives. Take the E Visa programme extended to 43 countries in 2014. Great initiative with great results. Just like the Incredible India campaign in 2008...a brilliant branding exercise resonating till today but with no follow through. The narrative thread that connects weft and warp of tourism stays missing over 20 years...and nothing connects each isolated initiative with the other.
INTERESTING KARMIC CHAKRAS
Interesting karmic chakras you might say. 20 years ago, ‘patal’ plates were a part of the Green drive. They fell out of fashion only to reappear in 2017 as ‘ organic plates’ fully certified by an American company. Coffee was an upmarket traveller’s choice...tea was not, till Earl Gray swept the market. Today, Chaayos sells ‘masala chai’ in ‘kullards’ at cafes. Tea and the Indian taste buds are getting their right of way.
The mind’s eye sees sameness even as fresh calibrations bring a smile. The ubiquitous bicycle was a turn-off 20 years ago; fashionably outfitted for fitness today. Uberisation is here big time, but it shares space with the two-decade favourite – the ‘kali pili’ taxi . Passengers recall the same strident calls for a strike then as now.
Similarly, auto rickshaws existed for the odd-travel but now, not only do they dodge traffic in large numbers, they are celebrity entities as recently seen in an over 300km Anniversary ‘Rickshaw Run’. Public bus service continues its apathetic journey down main metros 20 years ago as they do today.
Recycled tourism instances abound. Lavish Indian hospitality replaced austere western ethos...then, back full circle in the garb of stripped bare economics. Tight efficiency substituted for manpower attentiveness only to be brought back in the form of hi-tech computerised comfort replacing the white-gloved butler; the automatically calibrated temperature in rain showers replacing the manually laid out bathtub. It’s only a matter of time when rooms reflecting newer versions of bath luxuries go back in time to an in-room spa in your bathtub with mind bending relaxation therapies. Rain shower did you say? Who wants to stand when you can lie in with bluetooth tech and water waves massaging tired neck muscles?
DEMOCRATISATION OF LUXURY
Democratisation of luxury is an inevitable off-shoot of development. As a matter of fact, travel was considered an elitist activity 20 years ago till the Indigos came along and made air travel affordable. Not luxury any more, but the term ‘Connectivity’ springs to mind every time you see an aeroplane.
So too, good highways and road travel make short holidays the flavour of weekends. Roadside restaurants, highway stopovers, resorts...all create new travel options for the traveller. 20 years ago dhaba eateries were king along dusty highways. Not so today. Motorists pull over at air-conditioned cafes and motels with clean bathrooms. Sure, travel has come a long way. However, there are diehard ‘dhaba’ fans just waiting to revive the culture. Any bets that the new age ‘dhaba,’ complete with hookah and charpoy, clay oven and piping hot food is around the corner?
20 years ago it was the prerogative of every 5-star hotel to boast a flower shop selling expensive blooms and bouquets. Seeing off dignitaries at airports or welcoming them at hotels. Today, of course, blooms and bouquets, some truly exotic, are available at every roadside vendor. Nay, red roses are sold at red light stops.
We continue to have a collective preoccupation with the negative. A small window for tourism’s golden run from 2006 to 2009, post which a large window of difficulties that stay to date. Every year rewires itself with challenges that come out of abundance: too many airline seats, too many rooms and too many choices. Consider this: 20 years ago the preoccupation was with an ever growing population, which 20 years later is a significant strength. Start-ups, entrepreneurs, new entities, new businesses mark the current years. A realignment of access to the masses is yet to be played out and once that falls in place abundance will, like the ‘population problem,’ turn up aces. Same story of plenty, rebooted.
Think about it. Look around. The territory is familiar even if the players are different. Spas and health clubs are changing hotel landscapes, but banquet space is still in pole position. The inevitable coffee shops of yesteryears which laid out sumptuous breakfast spreads boasting the best of the West...now offer idli, dosa, poha and paratha.
New products cater to changing tastes and trends and the high priest of hoteliering, The Oberoi, is being torn down brick by brick to be replaced by a new, more resplendent Oberoi. At the end, The Oberoi will remain The Oberoi – perfectionism at its best. These are the echo chambers of time and space.
Today’s Traveller’s journey has been magnificent in its way. Not in a shiny munificient manner...in fact, no more than a post stamp size compared to the giant scale of the travel world. Just a view from a window ...mountains to climb, places to go, things to do. We picked our road...followed our heart. In this, its been a journey of discovery, of abundance, of grace and good humour. We wouldn’t have it any other way.