Amidst lockdown, TourismFirst caught up with Ashwani Lohani, whom the industry saw most recently as CMD of Air India. There have been news reports that he has joined as Chairman of Andhra Tourism, in the rank of cabinet minister? Lohani confirmed the order but said there had been some clarity lapse in the matter. He remains most obliged to the Andhra CM, and indeed he had confirmed his willingness to join the state, but only on an honorary basis. However, the state government order mentioned otherwise, as a full-time employment. But right now, it was the Covid 19 that was catching everybody’s attention and most rightly so, and any further discussions will have to go into pause mode, till normalcy begins. Meanwhile, he has already been appointed honorary advisor on tourism matters to the Uttarakhand CM, and hopes to get engaged with the state as and when this crisis blows over.
Lohani has a unique engagement with tourism in the country. As MD of Madhya Pradesh Tourism, as director in the Ministry of Tourism at the centre, as CMD of India Tourism Development Corporation, as CMD of Air India (two separate tenues), and as chairman of Railway Board. He brings with him policy planning, running two separate and most critical transportation arms of the economy, and also as creator of tourism products in Madhya Pradesh. In Times Like These, when tourism and travel has been totally blunted out of proportions, hitting ground zero across the entire value chain in travel, what does he see our industry’s future?
Travel and Tourism, to his mind, will not be the same, at least for some foreseeable future. There will be total shift in the dynamics of the business, he says. Inbound tourism may take some while to pick up and may now appear to become a less reliable component in the business. The emphasis, he says, will shift to domestic and in fact, to what he calls local business.
“We were talking earlier of desh-videsh as the fulcrum, now it would make sense to tag onto aas-paas, the local tourism, outside of the big metro towns, and within the states. This would give rise to highway tourism driven by private transport, as well as public”, he says. He sees the growth of caravan tourism, camping sites, and week-end tourism to nearby vicinity as the upcoming new segments, and these he believes will become the new backbone of India’s tourism.
Is there any new opportunity in this? Yes, he says this new focus should be taken up seriously by state governments and seen as an opportunity to create new products that can entice local tourism. This would call for dynamic policies, that attract new investments on the ground, where the private sector can sense new business opportunity. This would also give rise to unique Indian experiences that have so far been missing from the scene. He sees the opportunity for Delhites to discover more of nearby Agra, Jaipur, Alwar, Sohna and possibly the Uttarkhand and Himachal hills. Local tours, guided tours are new possibilities aimed at Indians.
How does he see air travel rising in this new scheme of things? Air fares are attractive say between Delhi and Mumbai but between Delhi and Andamans and between Delhi and Kochi are too costly. He sees many of the airlines deploying their existing capacity towards domestic flights, and there is good logic in bringing fares down within the country, making them attractive enough for more Indians to fly within.
When does he see this happening? Perhaps, two to three months after the lockdown, and he recommend that till then, state governments will be wise to start doing their homework so that when the lockdown gets lifted, they can hit the ground running. Of course, he adds, this will need new innovative promotional campaigns, creation of innovative destinations, extensive signages and interpretation boards plastered all over, caravans along with parking spots, attractive transport for city darshan, technology for tourist guidance and a new booster of advertising, on city bus stands, on the back of transport vehicles, trains, buses, trucks, taxies and in newspapers. A new beginning but a genuine one focused on quick implementation and innovative ides needs to be made for tourism in India, he asserts. Perhaps the initiatives taken by Madhya Pradesh during his tenure can provide the cue.
One last question, and without which any interaction with him will be incomplete! With the return of the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh, and given his long innings in the state’s tourism sector, during the erstwhile Chauhan regimes, does he see himself going back? Right now, he says, the COVID crisis is gripping the nation and also every state government. Tourism is correctly not the focus. If there is any opportunity, who can tell?