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Like how China dominated tourist arrival charts pre-coronavirus, the world’s biggest outbound tourism market continues to dominate the vast majority of tourism recovery conversation as more countries in Asia Pacific come out of coronavirus lockdown.

While India is still fighting the global pandemic within its borders and has yet to come out of its weeks-long coronavirus lockdown, Asia’s industry players are urging for more attention to the region’s other very populous market even if its pre-crisis outbound numbers lagged behind China.

India is also a tourism powerhouse that few Asia Pacific destinations could ill afford to ignore, if they were to take heed of the need to reduce over-reliance on a single market, a lesson laid bare when the Chinese outbound market was brought to an abrupt halt at the onset of the coronavirus crisis.

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Poised for Strong Rebound

While the global pandemic has sent the tourism industry worldwide reeling, industry experts are bullish that India outbound tourism is well positioned to make a recovery by last quarter of this year amid current projections of Covid-19 lockdown easing and lifting of restrictions.

“India is such a big country and clients are governed by different thought process between the country’s north and south, local festivals and school holidays,” said Harjit Singh, associate vice president of Signature Tours in India. “For West India outbound travel could possibly start by October when the region marks Diwali during that period, and for the rest of the country by this year-end.”

How post-pandemic travel and recovery timeline will look like is still up for much speculation, but Singh believes that India’s “working executives between 30 and 45 years old” will lead the initial recovery of the tourism sector, first to domestic destinations before fanning out to regional destinations like Bangkok, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

India’s lengthy coronavirus lockdown period, imposed since March 24 and expected to run until May 17, is further stoking the pent-up demand for travel among the country’s working executives, many of whom found themselves even busier working from home during this period, said Shreyash Shah, director of sales and marketing at Thailand-based A-One Hotels.

Thailand, in particular, is poised to reap the first wave of Indian outbound tourism recovery, as the kingdom is often perceived as being a safer destination than India, said Shah.

“Once the doors are open, I expect five in ten [pre-cisis] Indian travelers will come back to Thailand,” he expressed. “But it all depends on airlines to put back the international capacity.”

Tourism Australia Regional General Manager for South & Southeast Asia, Brent Anderson, also shares the sentiment that that recovery for India outbound travel demand to Down Under would be swift. The Indian market, he added, would more likely be inhibited by aviation access issues rather than a lack of demand, even in the post-Covid era.

“The pent-up demand is high, and Australia still ranks highly as a preferred destination [among Indians],” said Anderson during a recent webinar. “It’s how quick we can come back and how quick we can open up those borders. Instead of a U-shaped recovery, a V-shaped recovery is what we’re looking at for [India].

Not living up to potential

As countries emerge from the coronavirus lockdowns and plan for their tourism recovery strategies, Shah feels that the recovery potential of India outbound tourism market is once again overshadowed by China.

While it’s understandable that destinations and industry players are keen to court travelers from China, which was first in and first out of the virus-induced lockdown, few destinations have explicitly outlined their recovery strategies and efforts to woo the Indian market back, Shah opined. “I’ve attended so many webinars recently and everyone’s focusing on China recovery. Nobody talks about India besides Australia and Thailand.”

Both Tourism Authority of Thailand and Tourism Australia have launched their own webinars with specific sessions looking at India as among the focus markets targeted for recovery, he noted.

But Shah fears that Asian destinations could again be viewing Chinese as the quickest and biggest go-to market to fill much-needed numbers in the wake of the crisis.

“Destinations should go for all markets but narrow down to a few key ones,” he cautioned. “Look at what happened in Thailand – so many hotels dependent on the Chinese market have gone bankrupt and many may not reopen.”

Singh agrees that many tourist boards had given more attention to China pre-crisis because of its sheer strength in outbound numbers. “But India outbound market isn’t far behind, and India will be an important market to look at for tourist boards [post-Covid].”

A chance to flex tourism Muscle?

While it’s clear that India was already a coveted tourist source market for several Asia Pacific destinations prior to coronavirus, Kuala Lumpur-based tourism analyst Gary Bowerman thinks what the pandemic opens up is an unprecedented chance for India to use its outbound tourism as a strategic tool in post-crisis recovery.

“I think we’ll see a much more strategically aggressive India in the aftermath of the virus, largely because a lot of Western nations will scrupulously review their relations with China,” he said.

India, constrained by its own political structure, had been less active in engaging with other countries besides its immediate neighbors, he added, which contrasted with China’s aggressive push into Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, among others, through its Belt and Road Initiative.

However, the widespread global anger with China for its early-stage management of coronavirus, and how it has used tourism as a political tool in the past, may come back to bite the country, Bowerman remarked.

Herein, he added, lies the “opportunity” for India to step up its engagement with regional neighbors as well as Europe and the United States.

“India has a lot of cards to play in the coming months, and tourism may be one of them,” said Bowerman.

Photo Credit: Asia's tourism players are urging for more attention to India post crisis even if its pre-crisis outbound travel numbers lagged behind China.  Danon / Adobe