The 35th annual convention of IATO brings forward the scope of new-age tourism in India

The freshly-concluded IATO convention hosted in the ‘City of Joy’, Kolkata presented a platter of immense opportunities and possibilities for a brighter tomorrow for the travel fraternity of the country. Accentuating on the theme ‘Is Tourism thriving? Challenges and Opportunities’, the experts and forerunners of the tourism industry gave significant insights on issues such as GST, e-Visa, travel technology and refinement of niche tourism, bearing a special focus on the east and north-eastern slice of the country. TravelScapes provides a detailed outlook of how this year’s convention behaved like a lorgnette, this year, to foresee the coming days of India tourism

The 35th annual convention of the Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO) was organised in the ostentatious ITC Royal Bengal, Kolkata, one of the recently-opened property that is positioned as the most luxurious properties of South Asia. The convention took all the stakeholders and association members, a step closer, to grow inbound and domestic traffic in the country while offering a closer look at all the potential opportunities in the sector. The insightful sessions, spread across the three-day occurrence, were carefully devised by the policymakers that set a tremendous momentum in place.

This, in turn, gave an impetus to the audience to network, connect and work together for the tourism of tomorrow. The event, in all its glory, sought to take stock of the private sector involvement along with the government’s participation. Day one witnessed the inaugural function that took place at the Biswa Bangla Convention Centre, Kolkata, which is, currently, one of the largest MICE venues in not just Bengal but all of India. The delegates and guests were welcomed in a quintessential Bengali custom, emitting the warm fragrance of the state’s tradition and heritage.

The unveiling was flagged off by the welcome address by Debjit Dutta, Co-Convention Chairman of the convention, this year while it witnessed the presence of Gautam Deb, Minister-in-Charge, Department of Tourism, Govt. of West Bengal, Atri Bhattacharya, Principal Secretary Tourism, Government of West Bengal, and Debashis Sen, IAS, Addl. Chief Secretary-IT & E-Department, The West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation (HIDCO) along with Pronab Sarkar, President, IATO and Chairman Convention; Senior Vice President E.M. Najeeb; Vice President Rajiv Mehra, Rajesh Mudgil, Secretary of IATO and Rajnish Kaistha, Joint Secretary as well as the Co-Chairman of the convention, this year.

Addressing the delegates and media, Sarkar commented, “The need of the hour is to increase the footfall of foreign tourists in the country. I hope this convention shall work as a solution and act as a game-changer and will help increase the growth of tourism in the country.” He further suggested that such annual conventions are the platform for showcasing the true potential of the lesser-known destinations to augment the overall tourism scenario. Bhattacharya stated, “IATO coming back to the city of Kolkata after 17 long years exhibits the true tourism potential of this state and how it has revived from the grounded economy. Bengal has experienced a sudden surge of noteworthy infrastructure and tourism products that are boosting the inbound and domestic footfall of tourists to West Bengal. Domestic tourists remain our core strength; nevertheless, we shall not neglect the inbound.” He concludes saying that there is still room for further progress and promotion that requires recognition at a national level.

Further, suggesting how the state can thrive in terms of developing the key offerings and star/ conventional attractions, Sarkar recommended strict and friendly tourism policies to be implemented with a single-window clearance to boost the overall infrastructure in the state including better roads and wayside amenities. He further emphasised on the government taking the utmost advantage of the UDAN Scheme and therefore, work on improving domestic connectivity. “It is the right time to explore the geographical advantage of West Bengal and create an enhanced connectivity to and from the major cities of this thriving state,” he asserts.

Accentuating moreover, Sarkar rightly points out that since Bengal is known as the abode of some of the great freedom fighters, the government should work on reinstating their residences and key areas and open them for tourists. Also, he further enlisted other suggestions including brushing up the key thriving segments of the state including adventure, wildlife, cruising, to name a few. Adding to that, he says, “We also welcome the suggestion of Principal Secretary who wants the association to host the convention in every five years so as to showcase what’s new and latest in the tourism sector of the state.”

Adding to this, Deb explained, “After 17 long years, IATO entered the boundaries of Kolkata, because of which, we are very optimistic that through IATO and their strong presence, Bengal shall receive that much-needed impetus to projects its tourism offerings. Bengal is now changing with the mushrooming of several hotel chains and two state-of-the-art convention centres in both Kolkata and Digha, respectively, while we are planning to take another MICE facility near Siliguri. Tourism in Bengal has vast coverage ranging from the coasts in the South to the mountains in the North and we are certain that Bengal will steadily rise in the global podium of tourism.” He further adds that not only adventure tourism but also entertainment (cine) tourism is garnering huge popularity both in India and overseas while business tourism is also gradually reaching the summit of success.

On Day Two, the convention kick-started with E.M. Najeeb, Chairman, Air Travel Enterprises Pvt. Ltd. addressing the delegates, “Tour operators are facing critical issues and we need to think differently on how we can evolve, issues related to GST, which are being discussed for quite some time and the transport taxes that needs to be reduced. To achieve the targets we should find the answers and solutions.”  During the first session of the convention where panellist talked about ‘Is Tourism Thriving? – Challenges and Opportunities’, Anil Chadha, Vice-President-Operations, ITC Hotels, shared the opinion of the hospitality industry and emphasised on how tourism needs to grow collectively for all its verticals to prosper together. He also opined that MICE tourism is a bigger picture than one can see. Mentioning that ‘Incredible India’ is one of the best campaigns and India is a land of Incredible outcome and opportunities, Jyotsna Suri, CMD, LaLiT Suri Hospitality Group, shared that the challenges that the country’s tourism is facing today are connectivity and infrastructure. “We have airports, but we don’t have flights. We have the fourth largest railway network yet we do not utilise it properly. We need more marketing campaigns talking about India as a safe and secure tourist destination.” Echoing to this thought, Sujit Banerjee, Secretary-General, World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTCII) India said that taxation in Indian tourism is a matter of concern especially when hospitality is concerned.

The silver lining appeared when Meenakshi Sharma, Director General, Ministry of Tourism, Govt. Of India talked about the strong points of ‘Incredible India’. “We have created 46 per cent higher job opportunities in the last three years. Also, the largest number of roadshows have been planned this year and the next. We have closed down offices but not reduced our marketing strategies.” She also mentioned the new initiatives taken up the Ministry of Tourism including the revamp of the new website also available in almost eight foreign languages. She politely concluded, “Tourism is growing, but not thriving, as there is so much more still left to do.” Next in line was one of the most awaited and looked forward to the session, which has also become a regular in every IATO convention was the one that brought together the hoteliers, tour operators and travel technology experts to find means to address the ‘Impediments in Traditional Business’.

Moderated by Homa Mistry, CEO, Trail Blazer Tours, the session invoked relevant responses from the panel. Hoteliers such as Hemant Mediratta, Senior Vice President, The Oberoi Hotels and Resorts; Abinash Manghani, Area Manager, ITC Hotels; Gaurav Singh, Cluster General Manager, Marriott International and Manish Gupta, Area Director- Taj Hotels were of the common view that tourism should be promoted as an all-year activity removing these barriers of peak and low season. Simultaneously, Sanjay Kumar, COO, Air Asia and Ankush Nijhawan, MD of Nijhawan Group of Companies spoke about scaling up the technology to boost overall tourism. “We need hotels’ and airlines’ support to have a high-yielding business in tourism,” said Mistry who also pointed out, “Can an association become the marketing place in the future?” to which Nijhawan, on the contrary, opines to sell direct instead of coming via aggregators like themselves.

Furthermore, an invigorating speech was delivered by the recently-appointed Additional Director General, Ministry of Tourism, Govt. of India, Rupinder Brar who talked about the focus areas of Indian tourism that are easy to tap. “There needs to be a holistic marketing strategy depending on extensive S.W.O.T analysis and improvisation. Synergising the experiences available in the new India is the key tactic now.” She further opines to work with key opinion and decision-makers of the industry for generating campaigns. Lastly, a session on promoting ‘Cruise and River Cruise Tourism’ in India, which is one of the most potential tourism wing yet hugely ignored, was conducted by Sanjay Basu, Chairman, Adventure Resorts & Cruises Pvt. Ltd. The panellist witnessed Raj Singh, Managing Director, Exotic Heritage Group; R. Sushila, Executive Director, Vivada Cruise; Ratna Chaddha, CEO, Tirun Cruises and Mohammad H Jadwet, Director, Makruzz.

Day Three, instigated a fresh start with compulsory ‘IATO Run for Responsible Tourism’ taking place in the heritage route of the formerly known Red Road that exhibits the true-blue aspects of colonial Bengal on both the sides of the pathway. “In the last eight years, IATO Run for Responsible Tourism has become a ritual and synonymous with IATO conventions. Each year, over the period, we have conducted the run at the best spots of the cities across India where the convention was held giving the host city a platform to showcase it to the delegates. It was for the first time this year a ‘Heritage Trail’ was picked up as the route due to Kolkata’s heritage legacy. More than 450 delegates registered for the run, this year and we were overwhelmed with their active participation. This year, all the participants were also given a heritage tour of Kolkata before they started the run to add to their experience. We have endeavoured to practice the responsible tourism, which is why the entire event is managed by us with no impact on the surrounding and the environment and promoting healthy lifestyles,” adds Wasim Shaikh, Founder, Active Holidays who supervised the Run this year.

The final day of the convention exhibited the new cohort of young blood on the dais with Vinayak Koul, Director, Snowlion Expeditions Pvt. Ltd.; Chirag Shah, Founder and CEO, Mumbaifilmcitytours.com; Vishal Yadav, Director, Incredible Destination Management Services; Madhusmita Khound, Managing Partner, Avani Travel Services and Rajeev Goyal, Managing Director, Solutions Unlimited speaking on ‘Tourism through the Eyes of Young Professionals’ moderated by Tony Marwah, Managing Director, Indian Travel Promotion Company. Followed by this, the business session of ‘Experiential Tourism’ was moderated by Rajesh Mudgill, Managing Director of Planet India Tours Pvt. Ltd. The topic gathered the valued developers of ‘experiential’ tourism in India including Shoba Mohan, Founder, Rare India; Husna Tara from Glenburn Tea Estate/ Glenburn Penthouse; Ajay Rawla of The RajBari Bawali along with Tejbir Anand, Managing Director, Holiday Moods.

The final session of the IATO convention in Kolkata was the indispensable discussion on ‘Reinventing East and Creating Circuits Beyond the Border’ moderated by Debjit Dutta, Director, Impression Tourism Services (India) and participated by Supratim (Raj) Basu, Director, Help Tourism Pvt. Ltd.; Taufiq Rehman, Director, Tour Operators Association of Bangladesh (TOAB); Sabyasachi Dutta, Director, Asian Confluence Meghalaya and Sonam Dorji, Executive Director of the Association of Bhutan Tour Operators (ABTO). Dutta highlights “the need of creating cross border tourism to boost the East” along with the intensification of infrastructure for gain in inbound tourism while Basu talks about introducing niche tourism in this region. Dutta further dwelled in details on ways and means to develop tourism in the East, which has such huge potential for this particular sector. “The tourism industry has a huge relation in synergizing bi-lateral relations,” said Rehman as he points out the imbalance of tourist flow between the two countries. As a fruitful conclusion of the session, Dutta and Dorji, together, announced that the two associations would join hands to make cross-border tourism itineraries between India and Bhutan to boost North East tourism in India and reinvent North-East circuits.

Addressing the delegates in the valedictory session, Prahlad Singh Patel, Minister of State (I/C) for Tourism and Culture, Government of India shared that tourism is one of the biggest industries and we should not worry but ponder on the situation in front of us. “In these changing times, we need to change our thought process” as he alongside discussed the surge in demand of pilgrimage tourism. Sarkar highlighted the key takeaways and considerations in front of the Minister while he recognised the top inevitabilities that require maintenance for profit. In addition to this and the sessions, were some perceptive and intriguing presentations by various state tourism boards such as West Bengal Tourism, Gujarat Tourism, Rajasthan Tourism, Odisha Tourism, Uttar Pradesh Tourism, Jammu Kashmir Tourism, Madhya Pradesh Tourism, Rajasthan Tourism and Maharashtra. Nonetheless, the icing on the cake was the conclusion of the convention with the motivational sermon presented by the noted author Chetan Bhagat on how to overcome downturn situation in the present scenario and turn to positivity and successful business.

Taking a cue from such a boisterous success of this year’s convention, Jenu Devan, Managing Director & Commissioner of Tourism of Gujarat Tourism extended his utmost support by announcing the 36th annual convention of IATO to be hosted in Ahmedabad, Gujarat next year. “It is an apparent fact that wherever IATO convention has been hosted, booming tourism has followed. Therefore, Gujarat would be pleased to be the host of next year’s convention by IATO.” With this and the takeaways from the perceptive convention, the fraternity is expected to strive and implement new strategic policies for the year 2020, thus lifting India to a higher stratum.

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