For the last six years, the number of Indians visiting Australia has been growing in double digits, says Nishant Kashikar, country manager, India and Gulf, Tourism Australia. In 2020, the country was all set to welcome the highest number of Indian visitors ever seen in a calendar year, thanks to it hosting two World Cups (Men’s and Women’s T20), in addition to India’s tour of Australia.
Cut to the Covid-19 pandemic; Australia closed its borders, bringing tourism to its knees. Since then, the ICC T20 World Cup has been pushed to 2022, and while the India tour of Australia did carry on as planned, Indian fans couldn’t travel to watch it live.
In a chat with Campaign India, Kashikar explains how travel was the first to shut down and will be the last to recover from the Covid-19 outbreak, how Australia and India have dealt with the pandemic, plans to open borders for tourists, and more.
We're seeing Indian travellers starting to travel abroad to countries like the Maldives and the UAE. When do you think Australia will open its borders to travellers from India?
It was quite heart-warming and amazing to finally see some spectators packed into stadiums during the current India-Australia series. It is proof of how well Australia has managed to control the pandemic. The country continues to open its borders gradually and cautiously to the entire world depending on the Covid situation, the vaccination program, and safety and security protocols. The first step will be for them to eradicate the virus from their own country, open borders, or open travel domestically within Australia. The next step would be opening up borders to countries that have declared themselves Covid free, or allow travellers who have gotten a vaccine.
Opening up tourism from India is a function of several parameters; it comes down to how well India manages to control the pandemic. Further, it also depends on its vaccination program and the formation of the air traffic bubbles between the two countries. Thirdly, it also depends on the isolation and quarantine protocols implemented by Australia for international tourists. It will only happen once the chief medical officer of the country allows international tourists to travel.
When tourism opens, however, it could happen in a phased manner; it might open up in cohorts. For instance, it could start with those visiting friends and relatives followed by education. Business travel and leisure travel will then follow.
The isolation period could be a problem as people don’t seem ready to go to a country and quarantine for a while. How do you plan to tackle this?
Certain cohorts like the ‘visiting relative’ segment or the ‘education’ segment wouldn't mind a quarantine since the duration of their stay is longer. Having said that, it's too early for predictions because a lot of countries have gone into wave two and wave three of the pandemic. We are still towards the lower end of wave one, achieving a six month low in terms of daily Covid cases in India. It’s a good, positive sign. I guess the challenge would be in terms of eradicating the virus from the country and then rolling out this massive vaccination program within India so that other countries' governments will be able to invite Indians to visit their countries.
How will Tourism Australia be looking to build the confidence of a traveller to fly to Australia once borders open?
The India-Australia series is currently on and we've already seen spectators at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Melbourne Cricket Ground, Adelaide Oval, and Hobart. People are moving about, the cricketers have posted pictures in restaurants, and have been going out to public places. This has given Indians the confidence that Australia has really managed to control the pandemic well. It has shown and demonstrated their ability to recuperate and enhance this rate of recovery as well.
Our research has shown that almost 87% of Indians feel that Australia has really managed the pandemic well and is a safe and secure destination for travel.
The India tour of Australia would have been potentially a big-ticket event for Tourism Australia. Were there discussions with the BCCI to push the tour to a time when the border was open for Indians to fly in?
These bilateral series are decided well in advance and the tourism departments don’t play any role in determining their timings. We intended to capitalise on the PR opportunity that these events offer.
Every time the Indian cricket team has travelled Down Under, we have seen a significant increase in travel not just for the event, but also after the event. The tours are usually longer – three months – so it gives us a lot of opportunities to work with official broadcasters, advocates, Australian cricketers, Australia’s friends, and the travel trade to inspire Indians to think about Australia, either for the event or after the event.
During this series, we have been advertising on sports platforms such as Sony LIV and ESPNCricinfo. We have a 30-second video showcasing some of Australia's top natural attractions with an inspirational message that Australia's beauty is ageless.
We are working with the likes of David Warner, Brett Lee, Harsha Bhogle, and Danish Sait to create some engaging content too.
What has Tourism Australia done to keep the country top-of-mind when travel resumes?
Pre-Covid in 2019, India recorded six consecutive years of double-digit growth in terms of arrivals and spend from India to Australia. We also earned the distinction of being the fastest-growing market for Tourism Australia for the third consecutive year. Whilst the Indian outbound travel market was growing at almost 8%, arrivals from India to Australia grew at almost 16% over the last four to five years. We had set a very strong foundation. We believed that 2020 would be a phenomenal year for Tourism Australia because the country was scheduled to host two World Cups. The ICC T20 Women's World Cup went ahead and was the last major event that took place around the world. And then the Men's World Cup was scheduled in October and November 2020, which has now been postponed to October and November 2022. Before even the finals of the ICC T20 Women's World Cup took place, we achieved another historical milestone of crossing 400,000 visitor arrivals. That was for the year ended February 2020.
Then the moment we went into lockdown the objective was to ensure that Australia remains right up there in terms of consideration, intent, desirability and fashionability. We wanted to maintain Australia's attractiveness in the minds of the Indian high-value travellers.
We want to inspire potential travellers to consider Australia as the next holiday destination as soon as the borders open. We have been engaging with consumers on various social media platforms. We have launched campaigns including 'With love from Australia', rolled out on Facebook and YouTube. We took consumers on a virtual journey of the Great Barrier Reef and other locations which included the Melbourne Cricket Ground. We also used virtual reality and launched ‘360 videos’ on Facebook and YouTube wherein one could actually transport oneself to Australia and see what’s around in a 360-degree video format. We added the sights and sounds of all the wonderful places that Australia has to offer.
We also launched a campaign to promote domestic tourism in Australia.
We have also worked closely with the Australian and Indian travel industries with over 16,000 pieces of training through online webinars. We have worked very closely with our partners including our airline and key distribution partners. We are also exploring new partnerships – banks and non-travel partners – because we believe that they would have access to people who will have the propensity to travel and have been relatively unaffected by the pandemic.
There's been a lot of impetus and focus to revive the Australian tourism economy. The Australian Government has allocated AU$46 billion to help recover tourism. Most recently, there was an AU$128 million worth travel agents support program announced for the industry, and this grant varied from almost AU$1,500 up to AU$1,00,000 to various business entities in Australia, which are part of the tourism economy.
Qantas received an almost AU$800 million subsidy support provided to Qantas, the national carrier in Australia. A lot of states have initiated a travel voucher program, too. The Victorian Government has given almost an AU$3 billion investment to support the hospitality business and they have already disseminated 1,20,000 travel vouchers of $200 each. One can apply for these vouchers online and then redeem them on tourism attractions.
A similar initiative was undertaken by South Australia where they launched the ‘Great State’ voucher program, giving vouchers valued between $50-$100 redeemable at any tourism attraction. There is also a ‘24-hour economy’ strategy in New South Wales. Malls and restaurants are open for 24 hours to just bring the economy back on track. Further, Australia intends to vaccinate the entire population of the country within the next six months or so. So there's a lot of investment undertaken by the Government to revive the tourism economy.
There's a perception that travellers would want to eliminate stopovers at airports and fly directly to their destination. Other than Delhi, the connection to Australian cities is usually via Malaysia, Singapore, or HK. Is that a big challenge too?
I don't think so. If one is looking to travel to a country that's safe to visit, there really shouldn't be any problem. If one is willing to fly non-stop, for 12 hours, then travelling one-stop via one of the Southeast Asian hubs should also be okay.
We're seeing airlines like Emirates and Turkish Airlines pushing travel to their respective countries and also offering lucrative stopover offers. Australia can't really offer that - would that also be a drawback?
There's a very strong correlation between aviation connectivity and tourist arrivals. We believe that there isn't enough aviation capacity between India and Australia. And what I'm referring to is the direct aviation connectivity between the two countries. Therefore, almost three years ago we launched a program called the airline marketplace, we got over eight airlines together under one roof to offer some significant deals for travel to Australia. We have worked closely with the likes of Air India, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Malaysia Airlines, Asia, Cathay Pacific, China Southern, and even Emirates and Etihad to promote some tactical fares. So as soon as the borders open, we would be keen to launch the virtual travel fair. We would rather convert this weakness into a strength.