The light at the end of the tunnel

So, we are at the start of a new year. It’s been 27 years since India’s economic liberalisation started, 18 years since the millennium, 10 years since the dastardly terror attack in Mumbai, 8 years since India’s first mega private airport opened in Delhi, 4 years since India put a spacecraft into Mars orbit, 1 year since the sloppy demonetisation, 9 months since GST rocked our world.

Time flies and we don’t even know it. Yesterday my boys were babies who needed their dad’s hands to go around. Today, they are strapping young men who offer me their shoulders for support. Many of us remember the days when we had more hair and flatter bellies (and boy do we wish for those days). We used to travel the world scouting for jeans and shoes of foreign brands. Today, we only have to drive to the nearest mall to buy the best of the world. The days of $1000 BTQ a year for foreign travel have long gone. Getting a new phone connection is now an hour’s job. You can walk into a car showroom and drive out with the latest model.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a different India we live in. My children cannot relate to stories of how we used to watch pirated movies on VHS, how Coca-Cola was a smuggled brand, how life could be without cell phones. Who could imagine that companies like Google, Microsoft, Pepsi could be headed by us tanned people. A country that is chaotic, that is disorganised, that is multi-cultural, that is corrupt and yet, despite all the sh** we deal with in our daily lives, we are still growing at 7 percent a year. Just imagine what would happen if we behaved more civilly.

We live in a country that makes me very proud. I am an optimist. I wear a swiss watch. I like my Brook Brothers shirts. I love Japanese food. But inside, I bleed Indian. I will defend my nation to the end. So, when I speak to my friends in the industry, it depresses me to only hear moaning, crying, bitching, backbiting and sadness. Have we really forgotten all we went through to get where we are today? Do we really not see the opportunities that lie ahead?

One can get consumed by looking backwards to what happened in the past. One can spend endless hours in pondering what should have been. Intrinsically, we are not people that believe in looking back. As a nation fascinated by astrology, palmistry, numerology, palm leaf reading and what you have, we always look at the future for what it holds and for the opportunities it will bring. If there is something we don’t like, there is always a religious ceremony around to fix it. We are a nation of contrasts, of challenges, of organised chaos, of enormous beauty. We are people who believe in the power of the self and the power of the almighty. India is an unexplainable phenomenon and Indians can sometimes be odd, but we are a people who truly believe the future holds better times for us.

I am blessed to have been trained by one of the pioneers of the industry, my father. I am fortunate that my parents were able to give me a solid global education. I am honoured to have played roles in some of the most prominent associations in global travel. I have done all this with my eyes wide open, listening to colleagues across the world, participating in educational forums, absorbing experiences and learnings that have helped me become a strong and successful professional.

Therefore this is what I think…

The issues in the Indian tourism industry are many and often intertwined and most of them can be very easily resolved if the players come to a table with a sense of maturity and leaving their egos outside the door. It is time to pause, take a deep breath and evaluate what we in the Indian tourism industry may have been doing wrong. Where have we made missteps, where have we had successes and where can we make a difference. Let me share my views on some broad areas where I feel some positive thinking would go a long way.

Again, this is just my opinion based on my life experiences.

Having curated the content for five IATO conventions, what frustrates me the most is almost a complete lack of desire in our industry for knowledge and self-improvement. I often travel internationally to participate in seminars and conferences. I find listening to speakers from outside our space to be most insightful. Listening to world leaders in tourism share their mind, allows me to pick up small ideas to use back in the business. I have taken many such experiences to create special sessions in IATO events that are very different from other industry associations. We have brought in fabulous speakers from different walks of life. We have focused content on helping our members improve our business. Yet, members show very little interest in sitting in the session and would prefer to be outside gossiping. There seems to be no internal drive to become better at what we do.

And then we wonder why we have challenges in Indian tourism.

Our engagement with the government, central or state has always been subservient, slavish at times. We attend meetings, say ‘yes sir, yes ma’am’ and take instructions. This industry has always kept its engagement on a one-way street. Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate the role the government has in our industry and understand the power they have to facilitate growth. There are some amazing people working at different levels of the administration. But we refuse to acknowledge that the policies followed by tourism administrations in India, state and centre, are archaic and no longer relevant in this new world. Our needs are different, the customers are different yet we keep doing the same thing year after year and expect different results. That is the definition of insanity. The fact is that we in the private sector understand the ground realities. We pound the pavement every day. We understand the pulse of the market. We know what sells and what does not. Yet our associations completely refuse to hold our ground and push a viewpoint that makes business sense. We are not assertive. We are not professional. We go into meetings ill-prepared. This is true across all associations, even my beloved IATO. Socialism is far from dead in tourism and we are suffering because of that.

And then we wonder why we have challenges in Indian tourism.

Our associations are political cess-pools of greed and personal glory. At least, I know in IATO this is a bit less than others, but the fact is that all our travel associations have popularity contests every few years. Elections are not run on merit, campaigning is dirty and personal. Already, IATO is seeing finger pointing start as elections are in four months. No association has a strong secretariat and none has a top-notch professional running the affairs. I say this with the utmost due respect of course, but it is a fact. Look at NASSCOM, CII, FICCI, bodies that are not much older than the likes of TAAI and IATO. NASSCOM was started in 1988, a kid in our times. Yet, they helped create an industry that has completely taken away the golden mantle that tourism once held. How did they do it and why can’t we? Because we do not believe in hiring professionals to run our affair. The reason a handful of companies have grown the way they have is because they made professionals take accountability. I have been advocating this path for IATO for some time. It is an uphill task. The bottom line is that as long as members vote on issues other than merit, we will never get out of this deep hole. It’s as basic as that.

And then we wonder why we have challenges in Indian tourism.

FAITH is the tourism industry federation we created at the fourth attempt in 40 years. I along with a few other buddies put in sweat and toil in getting this off the ground. I am very emotional about this subject as it is my dream that one day we have one and only one association in tourism. There can be no difference in opinion in the fundamentals of the need and approach taken in creating a common federation. Yet, it became such a political issue that the levels of disgust went through the roof. Even today after five years of creating FAITH, there is still squabbling. The lack of unity in our industry seems to be insurmountable. The mistrust is intense. The desire to make a point at one’s own detriment is prominent. And because we are so disjointed in our voice and thought, we get taken advantage of. No wonder the Finance Minister hates us (my personal opinion as there can be no logical reason for him to consistently ignore a sector that makes for 9 percent of the GDP). We behave like school children.

And then we wonder why we have challenges in Indian tourism.

The spirit of support and volunteerism is weak in Indian tourism. Ask for inputs and suggestions, you get a handful. Ask people to participate in annual conferences, interest is weak. Organise meetings to discuss issues, few show up. The interaction between the stakeholders and their elected leaders is very weak and therefore the associations have very little to work with. There is no ground support. Fundamentally, we in Indian tourism do not seem to talk to each other. We do not share what experiences we have had. We do not help each other. We work in isolated silos hoping someone out there will fix things for us. And this is just talking about the individuals. It is even worse when we talk about the different segments of our industry. HAI doesn’t want to talk to IATO. IATO doesn’t want to talk to the guides. TAAI, TAFI and others fight for the same issues. ATOAI is happy being in the great outdoors (truly love hanging out with these guys). ICPB has been ripped with incestitous infighting. ADTOI is still trying to get their feet back on track. ITTA has squabbles at micro levels. One can go on and on. And all these folks are my friends and peers whom I do admire. But it really seems like everyone is hoping some God out there will pull a miracle that will turn things around. A strong industry is one where stakeholders are engaged in dialog. Engaged in debate. Healthy sharing of thoughts. Not screaming and shouting as we mostly see. Can we not simply talk to each other and help each other out?

And then we wonder why we have challenges in Indian tourism.

I don’t want to forget the outbound segment for my company ventured into this area recently. It has been an interesting learning experience. It is very different from inbound and the opportunities are vast. Yet, look at the quality and content of what is sold in India as an outbound product. We have no base of luxury travel agents. We have completely lost credibility as an industry in the global market. To quote my many DMC friends from around the world – we shop around, we are rude, and we are unprofessional.
We don’t even have the courtesy of saying thank you. We make people work on proposals and go silent. Of course we have spots of excellence and people who do the industry proud. But as a whole, India has been branded as a very difficult outbound market that does not give a return on investment for efforts put in. It is a fact that in most destinations none of the leading inbound players want to operate with India. My playground is global, I travel the world interacting with people. This is the consistent feedback I get. I do not like to have to apologise for a country that otherwise makes me proud.

And then we wonder why we have challenges in Indian tourism.

So ladies and gentlemen, now that I have added many more to my list of critics, I want you to take a step back and without any emotions or feelings for me, ponder on some of what I have said. Am I really that far off from the truth? Do many of these issues need investment, government policies or major change to be different? Do we not have it within our power, our reach to make 2018 a true year of change and move forward together into a new era?
Nothing in the universe can stop us if we put our heads together. It is time to hold hands as one team and dream the same dream.
Henry Ford said, “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.”
Smile and have a great year ahead.

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