Open Letter to the Travel Fraternity and Policymakers
The travel industry is reeling from the massive disruption due to the Coronavirus pandemic. While the situation is unfolding (and hopefully, this too shall pass), we will need to tackle the effects for some time.
As a travel media operator whose health depends on the health of travel businesses serving Indian and Asian markets, let me dare to make the following suggestions:
To Travel Businesses
If you are greatly affected, focus on keeping your head above water. While business and thus profit is important, do understand that human life is far more precious than that and be willing to sacrifice profits. Calculate and project the worst-case scenario and deliberate on strategies to overcome and stay afloat, taking the hit. If you can take the hit, do not let your employees or customers suffer. One year of lower or no profit, or even losses that will not shut the business down may not be that big a price to pay for a disaster like this which shall hopefully pass soon. However, if you face a real shutdown, talk to your employees and other stakeholders about the situation. Discuss how, if at all, they could contribute to stay afloat. Can the employee who has no work take a voluntary leave without pay or a pay-cut in lieu of forced absence from the workplace? How can your investors chip in? Can you find new ways to deal with your business partners? Can you organise a representation to the local government at the industry level, for a tax cut or another kind of a stimulus package?
It goes without saying that you must do everything possible to contain the virus and tell your customers how they are as safe doing business with you, as they would otherwise be. It need not take much, for example, to guarantee basic hygiene by sanitising every surface that is likely to come in direct human contact and providing kits including gloves, masks and sanitisers to your consumers, and employees. For example, if your business requires staff who use public transport to be present at the workplace, can you make available or encourage them to pool private cars?
If your business involves assembling a large number of people who are going to be in close proximity, you might have had or may need to cancel your activity altogether. It is better to do so sooner rather than later, to reduce the hardship of your guests. You may have no option but to take it as a once-in-a-decade kind of loss, which may well have been for another unforeseen reason – a slowdown, recession or bad year otherwise for whatever reason. Sellers in the supply chain on such activities will need to act responsibly: the low variable and high fixed costs supplier must take the maximum hit and vice versa. Hotels and airlines would have to accept cancellation and rescheduling, for the agent or operator who has already paid on behalf of customers. (An agent or operator may find it impossible to offer a refund or postponement on their own, unless the service providers like hotels and airlines obliged?)
Needless to say that the travel business runs on trust and acting irresponsibly may retain the cash but lose customers, or if you act more gracefully – win them for a lifetime.
In addition to sanitising every surface that will be touched, can airlines deliberately fly one-third the full load and maintain safe social distance between passengers and with the crew, by design? Can a hotel design new and temporary protocols to maintain safe distance (say 2 metres) between every stranger? Can we then position such travel options as safe as the day to day life within your congested city?
Opportunity often finds its way in hardship. Can we change the way we serve our customers with a more health-conscious approach towards individuals and groups?
The least every employee could do is to not try to profit from the situation e.g. to insist on not working and expect to get paid as usual. A much better and ethical course could be to take your earned leaves if you want to stay away from your workplace. Alternatively, a temporary and voluntary pay cut could be a viable option for you to consider if you know that your organisation may not be able to afford your services due to the visibly clear losses it will suffer.
The situation may demand of you a sense of greater responsibility and contribution in handling any crisis, as your employer may not be able to solely withstand the disruption and keep the ship afloat.
Be sensitive to your fellow employees and other people you are going to come in contact – follow the hygiene protocols widely available, e.g. wash your hands with soap as often as possible.
The example you set and peer pressure you create may go a long way to save or sink the ship you are on, so a larger interest may indeed be in your enlightened self-interest, especially in hard times such as this.
To Governments and Policymakers
While human life and containing the virus must be the top priority, it is important to keep in mind that a complete and long disruption may lead to avoidable economic hardships especially in destinations that may not be affected by the virus and are yet squarely dependent on tourism. It may not be insensitive to say that disease and death due to hunger is as bad if not worse than the pandemic. So elective travel may even need to be promoted rather than restricted. For example, why not promote among closeted city dwellers to take a reclusive vacation in a safe resort location?
A relatively less affected country like India would do well to contain the disruption as much as contain the virus. Ask people to not panic and cancel their travel plans, rather take a road trip to your nearest destination and take a reclusive holiday with your family, friends and colleagues who in any case share common spaces with you, while maintaining a social distance of say two or more metres from strangers.
In the medium to long term, it is time for the Indian Government to go to the drawing boards to design a new campaign with catch phrases like Namaste India! When the crisis is over (and hopefully soon), it is India’s moment to use the soft power of our day to day greeting – Namaste, recognised by world leaders as “ahead of the curve”! This could be one of the first few steps in our journey after the pandemic has subsided, long before it is business as usual. That usual may indeed be different from what we considered normal in the past.
Promoting Namaste as a substitute to the handshake may also be the greatest public service campaign, for more than one reason