The future of travel is different but bright nevertheless, says Amanpreet Bajaj, Country Manager, Airbnb India, as he reveals what community-based tourism has in store for the first batch of explorers after the lockdown.
Many of us sitting in our homes right now are probably reminiscing about the magic that travel invokes – the places, communities, and experiences. When I think about why travel is so core to us, I realise that the pursuit of new experiences and of human connection is perennial. As Trenton Lee Stewart writes, “May your adventures bring you closer together, even as they take you far away from home.” That, for me, is what travel is all about.
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As humans, we have an uncanny knack for remembering the feelings and associations that travel invokes, the people we have met and the experiences we have had. We may not remember our last day in the office before the lockdown began, but we may certainly remember the last destination we travelled to on holiday in vivid detail, the communities we got introduced to and the people we met. Fulfilling a perennial human need is why a vibrant travel ecosystem has existed, and why in India, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, travel and tourism accounted for 9.2 per cent of GDP in 2018, with a growth rate of 6.7 per cent. The sector also accounted for 12.75 per cent of employment share in India, according to the Ministry of Tourism’s Annual Report 2019-20.
The Coronavirus pandemic has been very hard on the travel and tourism sector, as it has been on many parts of the economy. Communities and businesses relying on tourism have been impacted, which includes our host communities for some of whom hosting on the platform has become a primary source of income. But it is important that all of us weather the storm, and that we come together at this time to follow guidelines and keep our communities protected. When it is safe to venture out again, I feel that many of us will, and our hosts are more committed than ever to welcome guests back. Ninety-two per cent of hosts interviewed on our platform have said that they plan to host as often as before, or more often, once the effects of the pandemic are less severe. We are seeing a slow but substantive easing. As governments begin to review restrictions in advance of reopening communities, the reality of tourism in India may look quite different for the foreseeable future, and hosts/communities will need to prepare for a new normal.
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As many of us move out of our homes for the first time to travel, local experiences may be preferred. We know that leaving our homes for essentials has started feeling like a brand-new experience! In addition to those that feel more comfortable travelling this way, we may soon see a new kind of explorer for whom this is an opportunity to seek the road less travelled. Holidays in smaller farms, nature holidays off the beaten track, and other unique destinations that are a road trip away might be tempting. This will also be a sensible choice as local small-scale businesses will be supported benefiting the local economy, and for travellers, it will also result in more unique, individual experiences. States will also be looking to ease travel rules independently, making local travel within or adjacent states the preferred choice so inter-city or near-city travel might be the preference at first. But eventually, road travellers may start to experience the beauty of the diverse landscapes, communities and cultures that India has to offer. They may prefer to also take direct flights to reconnect with loved ones and places that they were close to. Gen Z travellers may be the first generation that takes to travel, to step out of their comfort zone and embrace adventure and nature experiences.
The revival of travel will also be an opportunity to spotlight domestic destinations. Community-based tourism may even be preferred over other types of travel. An example is the highly-rated bunch of rural homestays listed in Gujarat through our partnership with SEWA (sewa.org). Meanwhile, the experiences we offer in partnership with the Princess Diya Kumari Foundation in Jaipur not only give people an opportunity to learn local crafts from rural women in Rajasthan but also help the artisans market their products and take the next step towards financial self-sufficiency.
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While proximity will be one big trend, commitment to safety will be another. As travel businesses and communities come online again, they can reassure customers by adhering stringently to local guidelines and preventive healthcare advice. For a little while, people may be selective as they re-explore travel, but an extra effort by businesses, hosts, and communities will build confidence, along with services that give travellers firm control over their experience—these could be flexi-bookings and cancellations, contactless check-in, cleaning standards, and limited contact during their stay. Airbnb is working with its hosts to put enhanced cleaning measures in place, which adhere to the advice provided by the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and independent medical guidance. Even with these measures, the profile of the traveller and mode of travel itself might change in the short term. For example, people may prefer individual experiences or travel in smaller groups.
It may well be that people may look at longer stays and immersive experiences for the rest of 2020. A new crop of digitally savvy nomads may begin to explore long stays without being tied down to one place of residence or one place of work. As remote work is normalised and the concept of a fixed abode slowly diminishes, these travelling residents may wish to experience the world on their own terms.
These trends show us that while the mode may change, travel is here to stay. It will take the combined strength of all stakeholders—communities, governments, the industry, and travellers—to ensure the sector’s rapid revival and long-term health. Airbnb is embedded within the community and is invested in their success. We remain committed, now more than ever, to economically empower communities, drive travel to lesser-known places, and support environmentally sustainable trips.