Governments across the world are looking for ideas to kickstart their tourism sector. Every research suggests that it is the third biggest generator of jobs and contributes considerably to the world economy. While several ideas are being bandied around, a ground-breaking idea is that of a travel bubble. Countries at a similar stage in the pandemic recovery are looking to collaborate on creating safe travel zones.
Norway and Denmark, for one, or Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania, or New Zealand with Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and some Pacific Islands in a trans-Tasman bubble. Potential travel bubbles could account for 35% of the world GDP in the immediate future.
India, once it manages to set itself on the course of recovery from the pandemic, would do well to establish some of its travel bubbles with countries it has traditionally enjoyed old relationships with, such as the GCC nations, a very crucial economic block.
The GCC has emerged as India’s major trading partner over the last few years. The history backing our relationship dates back more than 5,000 years, when the ancient civilisations of Indus Valley and Dilmun (present-day Bahrain) were trade partners. Over 3.4 crore Indian migrants are estimated to be living in the UAE, or over 27% of the country’s total population. Colliers International’s 2019 report estimated nine million Indians will travel to GCC countries by 2022 – 37% of the total outbound travellers.
The Gulf region and India enjoy several synergies: a feeling of security that our people experience in each other’s countries, for one. A flight to the UAE or one of the GCC countries is no longer than 3 to 4 hours long; the cultural distance is even less pronounced.
Over the last few years, the UAE has pursued an aggressive strategy of diversifying its economy, and its relations with India have benefited as a result. We have collaborated in several sectors: IT, space tech, defence manufacturing, renewable energy, and not to forget, tourism.
Now is the time to leverage the tourism potential the two blocks offer by establishing our version of the travel bubble, which will benefit the GCC states and India. Travel to the various Gulf countries is easy, not just due to the number of commercial flights (1,000+ per week before the lockdown) that connect one to the other, but also the plethora of private jet companies which operate in this sector. India also offers a fairly good infrastructure for personal jets to land at any of our major airports.
It is possible for India to promote itself as a staycation and weekend destination. We possess the luxury infrastructure required to do so: some of the best hotels in the world, in scenic locations, most of which are now connected by airports, small and big, and an increasingly smooth network of roads and highways.
I see pent-up demand from affluent Arabs and Indians living in the GCC countries on several fronts; for instance, shopping for the much-coveted work of Indian fashion designers. Before the lockdown, several Arabs and NRIs in the Gulf countries regularly spent a few days in India, meeting up with designers to commission bespoke couture pieces. This trend can be further strengthened.
For India’s ancient healing system, Ayurveda, and its luxury wellness spas and resorts, affluent GCC residents are a captive audience that we should capitalise on.
Even as I write this comes the news that the Maldives’ foreign minister is speaking to his Indian counterpart to establish a high-end travel bubble for affluent Indian travellers who want to fly out to the Maldivian islands, via a private jet service from Mumbai, to stay at one of their secluded resorts.
For India, this could be an opportunity to transform its tourism sector by attracting affluent travellers from our neighbourhood countries, who not just possess the financial heft to spend more, but are also appreciative of our varied cultural, heritage, adventure and spiritual offerings.