The April 21 terror attacks which killed 250 people led many Indian tourists to cancel their holidays to the island nation. But travel agents in India report that a lot of them have opted for Dubai and the wider Gulf area instead, despite the rising cost of airfares between Dubai and Indian cities
Gaurav Chawla has just returned to Delhi after a recent hectic three-day business trip to Dubai, when we meet in his office in Delhi’s Connaught Place. He is all smiles, delighted that he has managed to salvage a good part of the money he nearly lost when his clients decided to abandon their travel plans to Sri Lanka, on account of the terrorist attacks over Easter. How did he turn it around?
Chawla, the suave owner of Delhi-based Swan Tours, a leading outbound tour operator in the city, is also a smart businessman. In the wake of the April 21 attacks on hotels and churches, which killed more than 250 people, clients who had planned to travel to Sri Lanka on holidays began to cancel their plans in big numbers. It was time to think on his toes: Why not try diverting part of this crowd to Dubai or other tourist destinations in the Middle East?
Dubai is quite aggressive in wooing international tourists around the year
He took the early morning flight to Dubai. Upon arrival, Chawla sweet talked top executives from some of the leading travel operators in the city, signed up some major brands to highly lucrative hotel and transport packages and then took the evening flight back home.
“As luck would have it, it is off season for tourism in Dubai now and they offered highly attractive rates for rooms and other services. Yes, airfare between Dubai and various Indian cities have shot up in recent weeks due to the shrinking of airline seat capacities, after the collapse of Jet Airways. But, the lower hotel tariffs and other logistic services make up for it to a great extent,” Chawla explains.
So, will Sri Lanka’s loss be Dubai’s gain? Many of the leading outbound tour operators across Indian cities spoken to by Arabian Business say that of those who cancelled their travel plans to Sri Lanka after Easter, half decided to rebook holidays within India. Of the remaining 50 percent, about 20 percent decided to head to Dubai, or other areas of the Gulf.
“Many of the family tourist travellers from India have opted for a destination within the country, as they did not want to go through the process of arranging visa, hotel booking and other services all over again. However, an equal number of them are forced to opt for alternate tourist destinations overseas because of pressure from their children who have been excited about their approaching ‘foreign travel plans’. Of this group, a good number of them are deciding on Dubai. The city is closer to home, has several ‘touristy’ things to offer, like a desert safari, water kingdoms, etc, and above all a lot of shopping,” says Poonam Sethi, owner and managing director of The Hotel Firm, a Mumbai-based corporate event organiser and leisure tour operator.
However, she hastens to add that the very high Mumbai-Dubai airfares at present have put some of her clients off travelling to the emirate. “Corporates have their budget constraints when it comes to travel costs and cannot cross a certain limit, even if a deep discount on stay is offered by hotels in Dubai. However, leisure family travellers look at their overall tour package costs and discounted stays and other costs in Dubai, thanks to their offseason deals could offset a good part of the increase in airfare,” she points out.
What an international tourist will be missing in their Sri Lanka experience, Dubai is trying to make up
George John, a Delhi resident who is planning to take his family for a short vacation in Dubai, concurs with this theory. “The attacks on churches in Sri Lanka came as a rude shock to all of us. My kids were very excited about their ‘foreign trip’ and now I am bargaining hard with one of the city tour operators for a good package deal for a four-day trip to Dubai in the first week of June,” he says.
For visitors like John, a Dubai trip has an added attraction – it will double up as a family get together as he has several of his relations working there.
Chawla also talks of the fear of the Christian community visiting Sri Lanka in the near future. “Many of my clients, including my international clients who come to India and opt for an extended tour to Sri Lanka are Christians and they have also expressed this fear (of the community being targeted in the island nation attack).”
Sethi says for people in Mumbai, Dubai is their favourite getaway location for a short break. “Many of those who wanted different experiences like Sri Lanka but had to cancel their plans now, will also opt for a favourite location like Dubai, as it is the easiest option at short notice,” she says. The rate-friendly packages available for Dubai come as an added attraction, she says.
But it is not all plain sailing for Dubai to take over as the obvious location to replace Sri Lanka. Airfare between some of the popular Gulf and Indian cities has seen a sudden jump in recent months, starting from January this year. A Delhi-Dubai-Delhi air ticket for travel within the next four days costs as much as $856. The decision by debt-ridden – and now grounded – Indian carrier Jet Airways to first curtail and then cancel its direct flights between some of the Indian and Middle East cities early in January as part of its ‘route-rationalisation’ has triggered a spurt in airfares between the two regions. Seat capacity limitations under the bilateral air service agreements with the UAE have also restrained other Indian carriers from operating additional frequencies to Dubai from Delhi, Mumbai or other Indian cities. The result was a steep and steady increase in airfare to Dubai since the beginning of this year.
“Airfare between India and Middle East has seen a 20 to 100 percent increase in the recent weeks, depending on the how close or advance from the date of travel a passenger makes the booking,” according to Balu Ramachadran, head of air and distribution at online travel booking firm Cleartrip.
Cleartrip’s data shows that in the last week of April, airfares to Dubai from some of the leading Indian cities were up by 50 percent to 100 percent on a year-on-year basis, depending on how close to departure the booking was made.
“On a Y-O-Y basis, on the first of April, airfares to Dubai were high by about 95 percent for bookings done within seven days of travel, and up by 56 percent if the bookings were done within 8-13 days of travel, according to our data,” Ramachadran says.
However, he says tour operators get special airfares as part of their package offers and therefore will be able to attract tourists with discounted costs to visit Dubai and other tourist destinations in the Middle East.
Many of the Indian tour operators pointed out that the discounts and other incentives being offered by operators in Dubai, such as the inclusion of free activities as part of the package, is a major factor in enticing those who have cancelled trips to Sri Lanka to opt for Dubai instead.
“Dubai, especially the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM), the principal authority for tourism in Dubai, is quite aggressive in wooing international tourists around the year with various packages. Unlike some of the Southeast Asian countries, which also offer similar tourist experience like Sri Lanka, DTCM and private hotel and tour operators offered us quite attractive packages,” says Chawla of Swan Tours.
Even if they can attract a small portion of the diverted tourist traffic from Sri Lanka, it will be a big thing for them as it is off season in Dubai now, he adds.
“We were offered a tariff as attractive as $60-$80 a day in hotels like Double Tree by Hilton in Dubai. This is much cheaper than a comparative standard hotel in any of the leading Indian tourist destinations such as Kerala, Goa or Agra,” he says.
“What an Indian or international tourist will be missing in their Sri Lanka experience, Dubai is trying to make up with offers of comfortable stays and world class tourist infrastructure and attractions there at discounted rates.”
Interestingly, Dubai is also increasingly emerging as a gateway destination for many of the Indian tourists who are now opting for countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan for their holidays.
“Since there is no direct air connectivity with these countries from India, tourists have to opt for a stopover flight via Dubai. Most of my clients therefore opt for a two-night break in Dubai either on their way or return trips,” Sethi says, pointing out that this has added to the Indian tourist traffic flow to Dubai as of late.
“The value-for-money Indian tourist travellers are quite happy as they get to enjoy the European weather, in say Georgia, and do a lot of shopping in Dubai in one trip,” she says laughing.
According to Cleartrip’s Ramachadran, while Dubai has always been one of the most tourist-friendly destinations for Indians, there has recently been a trend of Indian travellers experimenting with newer holiday locations in the region.
“Salalah in Oman is one such new tourist location many of the Indians now prefer for their short breaks, because of its comparatively cooler weather and other attractions,” he adds.
Manama, Oman and Kuwait City are also coming up as big favourites for Indian travellers
Leading Indian tour operators in India say Dubai, Thailand and Singapore will be among top international destinations for tourists in 2019.
Dubai is expected to be the top location for Indian tourists this year due to a host of economical and entertainment reasons.
“Dubai has a whole lot to offer for family entertainment by way of several amusement parks, Hollywood city, desert safari, innumerable number of malls – all things which are on top of the ‘to do’ list of majority of Indian tourists,” Pronab Sarkar, President, Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO), tells Arabian Business.
The UAE also offers free visas for children up to 18 years when accompanying their parents, an added attraction expected to push up tourist flow to Dubai from India this year, Sarkar explains.
Besides Dubai, Manama, Oman and Kuwait city are also coming up as big favourites for Indian travellers.
“Though Dubai tops the list, we saw up to about a 40 percent increase in bookings last year to cities such as Kuwait City and Manama,” says Balu Ramachadran, VP & Head of Air & Distribution, Cleartrip, a leading online booking platform.