By Reya Mehrotra
Fed up of staying at home, Kochi-based travel and event consultant Agney Menon packed his bags and set out to travel in November last year. Opting to travel by road, the 24-year-old visited more than two dozen places, including Kashmir, Goa, Delhi, Rishikesh, Dehradun, Mussorie, Kasauli, Shimla, Kasol, Manikaran, Tosh, Kullu, Manali, Rohtang, Dharamsala, Mcleodganj, etc. The travel junkie, who says he felt “jailed” during the lockdown, recently returned from a trip to Abu Dhabi, his first international travel since the pandemic struck.
Menon was not alone in defining the post-pandemic trend of travelling by road before the second wave of Covid hit and restrictions were put back in place. When the lockdown lifted last year, the road trip was the first form of travel to pick up, as people opted for quieter vacations at offbeat destinations — small villages close to cities and natural habitats. And that’s how, experts say, the first phase of travel recovery began. From workcations and staycations to drivecations and bleisure (business and leisure) trips, people hit the road for many reasons. The most common motivator was the desire to break free from the monotony.
Behind the wheel
On January 17, Bengaluru-based journalist Barkha Kumari and her husband embarked on a six-day road trip across Karnataka. With the aim to visit the hidden treasures of the state, the couple decided to make Mundgod, a Tibetan settlement town, their first stop. However, a detour led them to a village called Hosur where they ended up hitching a bullock ride, dining at a local home and meeting the traditional embroidery community of Lambanis. The highlight, however, was driving inside the Yellapur forest to meet Siddis, the descendants of the Bantu tribe of Africa.
Another couple, Chandigarh-based Robin Nakai and wife Amrita (along with their friend Usha Hooda), embarked on a 40-day road trip in January covering 4,500 km. The trio, all in their 60s, drove through Udaipur, Mumbai, Ganpatipule, Panjim, Hampi, Bengaluru and Chennai before flying to Andamans.
Rajeev Kale, president and country head, holidays, MICE, Visa, Thomas Cook (India), says that quick breaks to short driveable distances or within the city of residence were at an all-time high as people wanted to get away from the stresses of work from home and domestic chores. Kale says good Wi-Fi, health, safety and hygiene remained the top priorities of travellers until the curbs were introduced again with increasing cases.
Sharing his experience of travelling during the pandemic, Menon, whose first stop was Goa when he resumed travelling, says, “There was social distancing and shops were closed, so I had to bring my own food. I carried a hygiene kit containing masks, rubber gloves, sanitiser, lab glasses, alcohol wipes/tissues and got my RT-PCR test done on reaching Goa. Yet there was anxiety during the initial days.” He adds that using one’s own car or privately hiring a vehicle is the safest mode to travel right now. Menon is now looking forward to road trips to newer and uncommon places in the future once the pandemic ends.
This seems to be a common sentiment among travellers. According to SOTC and Thomas Cook’s Second Holiday Readiness Report, which came out in December last year, there is a new-found interest among travellers to move away from crowded/traditional tourist spots and discover India’s untold stories and secrets.
Another trend is the demand for spiritual trips for introspection in the post-pandemic world. So Thomas Cook and its group company SOTC Travel have launched an interesting mix of itineraries such as the Ramayana Trails, which allows one to walk in the footsteps of Lord Rama and relive his life, Wellness Breaks consisting of meditation and yoga sessions, Private Journeys for small group travels, Hidden Gems, holiday experiences to offbeat/unique destinations like Kolukkumalai and Pollachi in Tamil Nadu, Sundarbans in West Bengal, etc. They also have customised nature walks, as well as a tie-up with Amar Chitra Katha to introduce Great Indian Journeys, with packages like The Mughals and their Magnificent Monuments, The Krishna Trails, Maharana Pratap and the Ranas of Mewar, Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara Empire.
As days passed and confidence rose with road trips, short-distance air travel also picked up in the last quarter of 2020, leading to another post-pandemic travel terminology: flycations. And now, of course, we have vaxications, or post-vaccine vacations.
With pent-up travel plans and excess savings, more and more travellers were investing in health- and wellness-themed vacations to recover from the mental fatigue, say experts. People are also willing to spend more on luxury travel within the country now, says Jane Lim, VP, global markets at Tripadvisor. “In the first three weeks of January, global travellers on Tripadvisor were searching for pricier trips like luxury beach resorts or spas than they had in the past two years (during the same period). In fact, the average cost of a single future trip in 2021 has jumped 13% since January 2019,” she says.
Travel for wellness and rejuvenation purposes, special occasions, wilderness-filled escapes, longer stays, family vacations and stays at private accommodations like colonial bungalows became the key features of the second phase of travel’s recovery, offers Daniel D’Souza, president and country head, leisure, SOTC Travel. “Honeymoon couples who had to cancel plans were travelling too,” he says.
The recovery rate for domestic leisure travel, which started in June 2020, is still behind pre-Covid times and with the second wave forcing curbs, recovery seems a distant dream for now. Till February, it was 60-65% of pre-Covid levels, as per Sabina Chopra, co-founder and COO, corporate travel, and head, industry relations at Yatra.com.
Along with air travel, pocket-friendly bus travel had picked up too. “SmartBus witnessed pre-Covid records. High-velocity routes like Delhi-Lucknow, Delhi-Amritsar, etc, were back with 8-10 buses each catering to nearly 7,500-10,000 travellers monthly. We noticed high traction on routes like Delhi-Lucknow, Delhi-Gorakhpur, Delhi-Amritsar and ran around 100 buses to cities where people travel for functional reasons, while around 18-20 buses catered to 1.5 lakh travellers monthly for leisure or travel to pilgrimage centres like Manali and Tirupati,” says the spokesperson of IntrCity RailYatri, an intercity mobility brand which launched IntrCity SmartBus fleet in 2019.
With vaccination drives on full swing across the world, consumer confidence has been high for international travel, as per experts. Consequently, short-distance international travel to countries close to India has picked up but is likely to go back to lockdown levels as cases surge. Since the lockdowns were eased, Dubai and Maldives led the international travel growth trajectory, followed by Egypt, Kenya, Turkey and Russia, as per Chopra of Yatra.com. This year, vaccination will play a key role in people’s travel plans if lockdowns are not reintroduced. As per a January Tripadvisor report, The Year of the Travel Rebound: 5 Traveler Trends to Watch Out for in 2021, 77% of travellers surveyed globally said they will be more likely to travel internationally if they receive the vaccine, rising to 86% for domestic travel. The report followed from Tripadvisor Consumer Sentiment Survey, which was based on data drawn from an online survey of 2,330 consumers. Conducted between December 28, 2020, and January 10, 2021, it covered six countries—US, UK, Australia, Italy, Singapore and Japan—and included site behavioural data sourced from first-party traffic data on Tripadvisor, gathered during the week commencing January 4, 2021.
The report also revealed that 65% of leisure travellers surveyed did not travel internationally in 2020. However, 47% of all respondents globally are planning to do so in 2021, especially in the second half.
Kale of Thomas Cook (India), says, “There was an increase in bookings, as well as queries for international destinations till March. Our special Maldives offer, at half the price, saw 100% increase in demand/queries. Dubai, too, has seen an impressive month-on-month growth with more than 1060% growth in travellers in December 2020 over November 2020.”
While short tours are affordable, long trips have become a luxury with increased precautions and charter flights ferrying in people. Travel firms are also going the virtual route to cater to the demand. SD Nandakumar, president and country head, B2B and foreign exchange, SOTC Travel, says they have ventured into virtual services with programmes like MICE Plus, Hybrid Virtual MICE and Assured Safe Travel Program, in partnership with Apollo Clinics.
To give the country’s tourism sector a fillip, the government recently announced the Dekho Apna Desh campaign, wherein it will refund the travel expenses of those who travel to 15 destinations in the country by 2022.
Popular offbeat destinations
- Havelock Island, Andaman Islands
- Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
- Chikmagalur, Karnataka
- Dooars in the north-east
- Digha, West Bengal
- Naldehra, Himachal Pradesh
- Ratnagiri, Maharashtra
- Ganpatipule, Maharashtra
- Sikar, Rajasthan
- Mattur, Karnataka
Evergreen tourist destinations
- Hills in the north-east
- Parts of Himachal Pradesh
- Hill stations in south India
- Lonar Lake, Maharashtra
- Magnetic Hill, Ladakh
- Gokarna, Karnataka
- Gandikota Hills, Andhra Pradesh
- Floating Post Office, Dal Lake
- Andaman Islands
- Mount Abu