Ajay Prakash is the CEO of Nomad Travels, a travel agency located in Mumbai, and is the newly elected President of TAFI, the Travel Agents Federation of India. Ajay is also the Deputy Chairman of the WTAAA – World Travel Agents Association Alliance, a not-for-profit entity incorporated in Belgium which is a global alliance of travel agent associations from Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India. TRO thought it would be interesting to see how the life of a travel agent in India might compare with U.S. counterparts.
TRO: Ajay, give us a bit of your background. What is your history in the travel industry?
AP: I came into travel on the rebound – via the theatre and teaching. For years I struggled – writing, adapting and directing plays for the stage until it became clear that that way lay penury and starvation. For a couple of years I taught English literature to undergrads until the chalk dust from the blackboard (no e-learing then!) started to play havoc with my bronchial passages. Then I joined Air India as a Sales/Marketing executive and worked with them for 8 years before I came to the conclusion that big corporations and I were not really made for each other. That’s when I quit and set up Nomad Travels in 1988. We have 10 employees, half of whom have been with me virtually since I started Nomad. We do corporate and leisure outbound and we delight in doing inbound travel into India.
TRO: Tell us what it’s like to be a travel agent in India?
AP: It’s not easy! There are 2900-odd IATA accredited agents in the country and over 100,000 registered non-IATA agents. Airline commissions have traditionally formed a large part of agents’ revenue, and those seem to be disappearing. The market’s been vitiated by extended credits and incentives being offered by the big boys while the small to midsize independent agents find themselves being marginalized as they are disenfranchised by some airlines who are leaning more and more towards consolidators. Recently BA withdrew ticketing authority from close to 1000 accredited agents across the country. 16 foreign airline have abolished base commission, while they continue to pay hefty back end commissions to aggregators. The whole IATA agency program and its value to agents is being questioned. Low cost carriers and OTAs have grabbed a substantial market share. Airlines routinely undercut agent/GDS fares on their own websites. We live in “interesting” times.
TRO: How does being a travel agent in India differ from being a travel agent in the United States?
AP: The biggest difference is the consumer – the passenger. Apart from personalized service, clients in India – whether individual or corporate – have traditionally looked to agents for “deals” and discounts.The concept of paying a service fee to an agent is still fairly alien in the market – except for services like passport or visa facilitation. If you sell packages you can quote a consolidated price but charging a service fee to issue an airline ticket is still a stiff uphill job in the leisure market. Many agents in the US are part of a franchise or a chain; we have a number of stand-alones who do not wish to dilute their identity.
TRO: What are the big issues facing travel agents in India?
AP: Apart from the airlines’ commission issue there’s the issue of visas. The US visa is like a game of chance; European visas are painful to obtain. At least the US gives out 10 year visas, the Shengen visa is almost always short term and needs even well travelled people to go into the Consulate or Embassy every time for a biometric process. For inbound travel the big issue is infrastructure.While the “Incredible India” campaign has generated significant interest, the promise needs to be matched by the reality. The other concern is the often unreasonably high hotel tariffs which divert potential inbound travellers to other South Asian destinations. Varied, and often high, taxes levied by different states are another impediment to the smooth movement of tourists across the country. Let’s just say that tourism happens in spite of – not because of – governments.
TRO: India suffered through what is sometimes referred to as “26/11″. Tell us about the impact on travel of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
AP: Terror is a global phenomenon and we have no option but to come to terms with random, unpredictable acts. The only way to combat terror is to not let it cow you down and Mumbai responded superbly. A day after the Taj Mahal was cleared, the local trains were packed again with commuters, attendance at offices was normal and the Oberoi and the Taj reopened in very short time. Yes, we went through a slump for about six months – the attack happened just as we were moving into the peak inbound season, but people who come to India are a special lot; perhaps they too have a streak of the stoicism which forms such a large part of the Indian psyche! So, things are very much back on track. Even the global economic meltdown didn’t affect India as seriously as many other countries because Indians, by and large, are rather prudent in fiscal matters and do not live in debt, unlike many others around the world. The Indian economy is growing at a very healthy 7 to 8% and things are looking pretty good right now.
TRO: What destinations do you sell to clients? In the Indian market, what destinations are “hot” with the public?
AP: Our biggest segment, by numbers, is domestic tourism – Indians travelling within India. South East Asia remains a perpetual favourite because of the amazing value for money. The 300 million plus Indian middle class has however matured in terms of travel aspirations and destinations like South Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Greece and even the Scandinavian countries are increasing in popularity. The US and Europe of course remain very popular destinations. The cruise market is still in its infancy in this country, but it’s catching on. The thing to remember is that Indians tend to travel as a family; it’s quite common to see three generations taking a vacation together. Food is another very important factor – not just vegetarian food, but food that’s suited to the Indian palate and many destinations have discovered that food plays a huge part in the Indian tourists’ choice of where to vacation.
TRO: What about India as a destination for U.S. travelers? I feel that India is largely misunderstood. Do US travelers see the “real” India?
AP: It’s a fascinating country, it’s an exciting country, but it’s not a bland or “easy” country. It’s very easy to communicate with the man on the street since most speak a smattering of English, and many speak it very well. What’s tough is the sheer sensory overload – The sights. sounds, smells, the sheer multiplicity of sensory experience can overwhelm you. So it’s very important who have an agent/tour operator who does just the right amount of hand holding. As T.S Eliot said “Humankind cannot bear too much reality” and that goes for the overseas traveller too. But there’s no point travelling if if you’re not open to new experiences. And – it’s not all Slumdog Millionaire, there’s also “Eat Pray Love.” So there are a million “real” Indias. We are a maddening mixture of a million diverse realities. What you see is what you choose to see. So, again, having the right tour operator is very important.
TRO: Tell us about TAFI, your role in it, and the WTAAA.
AP: TAFI (Travel Agents Federation of India) is the premier association of travel agents in India. Our 1400 members account for 70% of airline BSP sales in the country. The managing committee is elected by the membership for a term of two years and, after serving two terms as the national General Secretary, I was elected President of TAFI in July for the term 2010-2012.
TAFI is also a Board member of the WTAAA (the World Travel Agents Association Alliance). The members of WTAAA also account for close to 70% of global BSP sales. As the Deputy Chairman of WTAAA, it is my pleasure and privilege to interact with my colleagues on the board, each of whom heads the travel agents association of their country or region. The WTAAA is a tightly focused think tank and strategical group uniquely positioned to share global agent concerns and devise strategies specifically suited to local conditions through a sharing of our diverse experiences and insights.
TRO: What opportunities might exist for communication and learning opportunities between US travel agents and their Indian counterparts?
AP: The annual TAFI Convention – the next one is being held in Dubai from 25 to 28 November of this year – is a great networking platform. We normally have seven to eight hundred owner-member delegates who participate. Publications, such as TRO are great for building bridges and sharing ideas and information. We are also talking to ASTA about holding an ASTA IDE in India sometime soon.The Tourism Minsitry is keen to hold such an event in India and I shall be speaking to my ASTA colleagues on the WTAAA board about we can take this further.
TRO: What is your favorite destination(s) in India? What should a traveler not miss?
AP: There is so much to see that one could spend a lifetime exploring India. But most of us have to get back to our lives after taking a vacation so sure the Taj Mahal is one of the most beautiful creations in the world and the forts and palaces of Rajasthan transport you to a bygone era of splendid, gracious royalty, and the backwaters and Ayurveda make Kerala “God’s Own Country” and chilled out Goa is always a great place for a holiday but me, I’m a man of the forest – the opportunity to see a tiger in the wild in one of the lovely wildlife sanctuaries is a thrill of a lifetime; I always recommend a visit to a wildlife park to all my clients.
TRO: Tell me everything you know about kites.
AP: Ah kites! The kite is the symbol and the earliest manifestation of man’s desire to break free of the shackles of this earth. Long before the invention of the airplane and long after flying carpets ceased to exist, the kite is what transported mankind’s soul into the skies. Standing alone with a kite line in your hands looking up into the vast sky is akin to meditation, and if you have friends who join is, it’s a party in the sky. The best part about kite flying is that it changes your perspective – instead of looking at the ground, or straight ahead, which is what we do almost all of the time, you look up into the sky – that’s a mind-altering activity. Off and on I’ve been doing international kite festivals in India – The Desert Kite Festival, The Taj Kite Festival, the Goa Kite Carnival – all of them with the tagline “One Sky One World.” It’s a great way of bringing people together – for in the sky there are no boundaries. I love flying Indian fighter kites but I’ve also got a collection of some 100 odd great kites from around the world – many made by dear kite friends who I met on a flying field and who now are among my dearest friends.