“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
In A Hat Full of Sky, Terry Pratchett seems to be invoking, in a completely different context, the true spirit of travel. Travel, today, seems to be mimicking this spirit in unusual ways, much like flamingos do: land in the right spot, at the right time, in the right season and make it your own, in the process creating and predicting an immersive experience that is rooted in local geography. Or in the case of people, cultural as well as geographical context of the destination.
Travel is challenging hoteliers, tour companies and travellers to take a leap of faith, as we continue to deal with interesting twists and turns in a world weary of COVID. It continues to be a tough market to operate in, made more unpredictable by the uncertainties of lockdowns and shifting goalposts worldwide.
It has also banned travel between its regions from 21 December to 6 January, a body blow for its tourist establishments, restaurants and hotels. The Holiday season, which stretches from X’mas to New Year and is one of the most profitable, will be a dead loss for a country where tourism plays a pivotal economic role.
However heart-breaking this may sound, there will be a massive shakeout and tourist establishments and hotels that have fragile business models will cease to exist.
Everything is not lost though, and there is some light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. For the battle-weary global travel industry, the weather is slowly settling down.
Remarkably, the emerging travel trends are heartening for a besieged industry that is desperately looking for hope and praying for signs of revival. More people are opting for driving holidays, glamping and trekking, demonstrating a newly discovered appreciation for nature, privacy and the outdoors.
This desire to travel again is finding echo within India, where most leisure hotels are witnessing vastly improved occupancies, with Xmas & New Year almost achieving sell-out levels.
Further afield, the Maldives, which has rolled out the red carpet for celebrities, influencers and Bollywood stars in a bid to woo Indians, as well as Dubai, have emerged as red hot destinations, particularly because of their proximity to India and ease of travel. Neither of the two is known for budget travel. Rather, they are home to some of the finest luxury travel and hospitality products that are eagerly sought out by discriminating travellers.
The Maldives is witnessing a surge in demand largely due to its “one island, one hotel” system. Private villas dominate the inventory at most resorts, offering seclusion and safety, attributes that are much-sought-after in a post-COVID world.
The pivot towards villa holidays is a trend reverberating across segments. The spotlight has firmly swung to shine over standalone villas and home rentals and they seem to be winning on the share market, too.
This fact is brought home by the success of Airbnb. News reports tell us that on 11 December, Airbnb Inc. shares more than doubled in their trading debut, propelling the home rental company to a high of USD 100 billion valuation, one of the biggest first-day rallies on record.
This was, in no small way, the result of support from retail investors who are embracing companies poised to thrive as vaccines promise a loosening of pandemic restrictions. The company, incidentally, has just reported its most profitable quarter, a clear sign of the times to come.
The actual process of booking a stay.
If you are a savvy world traveller, ensure that you keep your finger on the pulse and learn to decode the fine print while navigating the burgeoning world of villas and homesteads. While selecting your preferred options, the trick lies in exploring not just what suits your needs best, but also who can provide the best options.
There is a smörgåsbord of choices offered by membership-only villa booking sites and multi-destination villa websites that are more specific to a destination. Companies such as Ministry of Villas, Stay One Degree, Villa Finder, Asia Collective, Elite Havens, Home Away, One Fine Stay, Lohono Stays, The Private World, and closer home, SaffronStays and others—who sniffed out the opportunity and leveraged it effectively over the last few years ago—will benefit.
Interestingly, besides the organised, established players, the supply end is being catered to by owners of farmhouses and villas. Even celebrities with lavish holiday homes are not averse to throwing their hat in the arena. Owners who have put their villas in the holiday rental market range from professionals who have opened their primary homes to strangers, Hollywood moguls, racehorse owners and bankers, all united in their desire to get a good ROI for their impulse or considered purchases.
Closer home, the rush to book a villa holiday has been fortuitously leveraged by IHCL, with their amã Stays & Trails, as well as The Postcard Hotels, some of which are one key hotels and can be fully booked by a group or family due to their size. These anti-mega resorts stress on authentic, local, relaxed, private experiences.
Many hotels that have laid the foundation for differential establishments also stand to gain as the world opens, albeit cautiously. Hotels that can boast the largest over-water villas, such as Soneva Fushi in the Maldives, offer the luxury and privacy of a villa with the facilities of a hotel.
This brings me to the other emerging trend. After years of solo travel, travel on work, and other such, people are rediscovering the pleasure of travelling with family and value in multi-generational travel.
Many travellers are intent on enjoying a curated holiday in destinations that range from a secluded rustic mountain home in Himachal or Uttarakhand to an old restored bungalow in Goa, each with a private mountain, beach or pool, as the case may be.
Owners find they can be in business overnight via digital platforms.
Villas provide the best antidote to post-COVID travel. They are great value propositions as the cost of an entire villa for a group of sizable numbers would be less than the equivalent number of rooms in a hotel. Each room is suite-size. The villas are fully staffed with security, housekeeping, guides, masseurs and private chefs, and offer the facility of rented cars.
In a win-win situation, owners of the aforementioned residences are in a position to define local experiences in a much sharper manner. Many owners throw in extras such as personal guided tours, local cuisine classes and wine tasting sessions. Further value can be derived from locations that are off-the-beaten-track. They are as enticing and exceptional as popular ones but with the advantages of undiscovered, unspoilt destinations.
This brings me back to Airbnb Experiences. From healers to art dealers, naturalists to guides, and even a mock fiancé if you so desire, helping you find local hangouts and watering holes, artisans and ateliers, what they lay out as options for a traveller is mind boggling.
In many ways, they are capable of filtering the experiences much better than the average concierge, who hands out routine advice about much-visited restaurants and walking routes.
I cannot end without casting a cursory glance through the work of India’s prolific travel and lifestyle influencer Instagrammers. Their posts tell a fascinating tale of discovery and shift from the done and dusted.
Fortuitously for India, the lockdown has shifted the focus of travellers/influencers to destinations closer home, who are particularly rallied by the Ministry of Tourism’s cry, Dekho Apna Desh, as well as the well-played-out slogan, Incredible India.
Deepa Harris is CEO & Founder, BrandsWeLove