A few weeks back, photos of the recently-opened Tulip Garden in Munsiyari, Uttarakhand flooded social media platforms. Sharing the first glimpse of vibrant tulip bulbs amidst the backdrop of snow-clad Himalayas, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand tweeted that “this garden will be one of the biggest tulip gardens in the world and will transform tourism in Munsiyari region”. The gardens indeed make a perfect setting for “Instagrammable Tourism”. Particularly popular amongst the millennials, trends such as “Instgarmmability” or “Bucket Lists”, are redefining travel aspirations across the world. In such cases, the choice of travel destination depends on the degree to which it attracts positive social media attention.
A recently published report Techno-disruptions and Travel posits that travel enterprises leverage such trends and match them with consumer preferences, thus providing travel choices which appear to be handpicked. Travel platforms, as the study observes, markets geographies that have high visual and cultural appeal and integrate various such locations into tourist circuits. These circuits are heavily promoted through attractive tour packages with bulk discounts. Furthermore, through “engineered data-based product services,” digital platforms not only inform consumer choices but also create a “trust infrastructure”. Essentially, this trust infrastructure is communicative-networking enabled through a participatory user interface. This allows travellers to rank, review and share their personal experiences on digital platforms, thereby enhancing the credibility of platformization as a practice. In simple terms, digital platforms allow word of mouth to spread rapidly to a wider customer base. Furthermore, through platformization, big players in the tourism industry, consolidate the entire planning on a single portal, thus making travel a hassle-free procedure. With 70 per cent of travel planning done online, India is amongst the most digitally dependent traveller nations in the world. However, the report also posits that increasing platformization has a disruptive impact especially on the local players in the Indian tourism industry as well as on the natural environment.
Co-published by German-based organization Tourism Watch of Brot fur die Welt and Bengaluru-based NGO IT for Change, the report elucidates on three major factors influencing the travel industry in India.
First, travel platforms, hotels and travel agents are effectively using social media channels for building communicative networks and business promotions. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are actively used for advertisement purposes displaying eye-captivating photos, high-end services and attractive deals and packages. Digital advertising is embedded with data-based practices and targeted outreach that draws on an individual’s personal information, search histories and content consumption across social media portals. Travel agents also use WhatsApp to personally reach out their direct and indirect network of past and prospective clients as well as business partners. This makes B2B networking more efficacious.
The increasing tech advancements have also spurred the growth of travel enterprises that particularly deploy digital marketing practices for influencing as well as being informed of travel trends. For example, Tripoto, a travel start-up defines itself as a global community of travellers connected on a digital platform. It not only shares travel stories and virtual tours but also serves as a partner gateway for larger tour operators like Make My Trip. These partnerships and effective use of digital tools have enabled the practice of platformization to expand and tap into the likes of travel community across the globe. This in-turn has redefined the tourism sector, creating greater awareness and providing a plethora of options for travellers to opt from. The multiplicity of tourism destinations in India across the length and breadth of the country ranges from nature retreats to historic temple towns. This creates opportunities for travel enterprises to develop expertise on specific domain and leverage digital platforms to create awareness about India’s tourism potential and its cultural fabric, across the world.
Second, established travel platforms, having large network-data advantage, have taken over a majority of the tourism. They use practices such as deep-discounting and algorithmic manipulation of visibility of listings to influence decision-making of travellers. The report critiques this practice on grounds that one, small-scale stakeholders experience loss of revenue and visibility because of biased platformization. Two, many small-scale travel agents and individual brokers, acting as middle-men, have also lost businesses as individuals themselves now plan the entire travel through a single travel platform. And three, travel packages offered on platforms have fixed tie-ups with few agents who in-turn determine what a particular holiday deal has to offer. This leaves little room for personalization and eliminates scope of local collaboration. Despite such heavy losses incurred, smaller actors face a Hobson’s choice and are compelled to rely on platforms for businesses.
While the loss of livelihoods due to increasing automation of jobs is a downside of platformization, this critique doesn’t take into accounts two case points. First, large platforms can provide credibility to many smaller actors who have been unable to compete in the markets, because of the lack of proper infrastructure resources or services. For example, by partnering with smaller lodgings, OYO ensures tourists a basic experience at a feasible cost and also enables active communicative-networking. Owing to this, low-budget travellers are more likely to opt for accommodations under OYO brand than independent lodgings that do not have a pre-established check mechanism. Similarly, Airbnb homestays connect a niche set of travellers looking for more customised experiences to smaller boutique hoteliers and service providers. These small-scale service providers are likely to not be equipped to manage large data-networks on their own and stand to benefit from platformization. Second, this study focuses on two destinations – Jaipur and Manali – both of which have been popular amongst tourists for decades, allowing larger businesses to establish themselves firmly in the local market. However, the travel and hospitality industry in many smaller and budding destinations significantly rely on local stakeholders. The increasing demand for tourism in a particular destination also opens new job opportunities for the local population across domains - from infrastructural development to service-oriented businesses.
Third, platformization is complacent to the ecological damage owing to the remote nature of the operations. Ecotourism, revolving around travel to experience nature is gaining global popularity, creating market opportunities for hospitality industries to set up in and around natural landscapes. In some instances, ecotourism is linked with promoting adventure sports in certain destinations. However, as the report rightly mentions, this development has come at the cost of disrupting the ecological balance in some cases and also setting up of weak infrastructures. For example, while rafting and campaigning on the banks of Ganga have made Rishikesh a popular weekend destination amongst the youth, it has also contributed to polluting the river and diluting the spiritual fabric of the small temple town. Moreover, many businesses, with no knowledge of the terrain or having no prior experience in the hospitality sector/adventure sports, have also entered this competitive space. Though these businesses offer attractive deals, they are also prone to greater damage and risk of lives in case of a calamity. Travel platforms, operating digitally and lacking a physical presence in such tourist spots, promote businesses based on market demands and ignore the disruptive impact on the environment. Partnering and promoting small-scale businesses run by natives and developing participatory mechanisms which involve citizens and panchayats in the decision-making process can help in addressing these challenges. The local inhabitants will not only provide an authentic experience to their visitors but at the same time act more responsibly towards the nature that has nurtured them throughout their lives.
The Indian travel and tourism industry accounts for nearly ten per cent of the national GDP and impacts over 38 million jobs, indirectly and directly. The vast and varied geography, a rich history and cultural heritage and newer forms of experiential tourism–wellness, health and ecotourism–has expanded the scope of the tourism industry significantly. This has resulted in India’s rank in the Travel and Tourism Competitive Index to leapfrog from 65th in 2013 to 34th in 2019. Travel enterprises, using creative and informative measures, have also contributed to enhancing the perception of India in the eyes of travellers from across the world. Digital interventions and platformization have sought to redefine the tourism scenario in India by scaling-up operations and tapping into its monetary potential to the maximum. However, the increasing practice of data-based optimisation has also raised concerns over transparency and ethical conduct of platform giants. To address these challenges and make the travel industry more inclusive, necessitates a comprehensive policy framework, focussing on localizing tourism economy. This will promote local businesses, align them with larger and more resourceful travel platforms as well as keep a check on ecological damages incurred due to over-tourism. Providing capacity building trainings and incubatory support, creating models to monitor tourist trends through digital intelligence and keeping a check on the data manipulative practices can ensure a more equitable and profitable growth of India’s travel and tourism industry.
The report Techno Disruptions and Travel can be accessed here
Feature photo by Oleg Magni