India    13.07.2020    Amrit Singh

Reflecting on the last few months

When TransIndus started 30 years ago, midst the excitement of the new venture was trepidation and a fear of the unknown! We were conscious from the beginning that the way ahead would be bumpy, as with all business!  True to the word we have weathered a fair number in our time, be it SARS, Zika or other viruses, terror attacks around the globe, natural disasters like tsunami’s, landslides and ash clouds but none that have left us searching for answers in quite the same way as the present crisis. 

The one common theme that emerges through these crises, at least for us travellers, is that no matter the size and scale of the situation, people’s desire to travel prevails and we find new, safer ways to achieve it! Some recoveries may be swifter than others like the recent Kerala floods and Sri Lanka’s Easter bombings that had us returning quickly in a bid to help local communities while others like the 9/11 terror attacks that, reverberated around the world required had us all to pause for a while and reassess safety & security measures.

Alongside the emotional adversity and near economic collapse, the current Covid-19 crisis has brought home a great many realisations including awareness that our environment can be cleaner, the world’s wildlife can be pulled back from the brink and our lost eco-systems can be revived and preserved for future generations. It’s a tremendous shame we needed a disaster of this magnitude to comprehend our losses and begin to take action in resolving them collectively. 

The human race has always travelled be it in search of food & water; wealth & power or an inborn desire to explore, but until recently travel has largely remained the preserve of the few and has had limited consequence, which nature could cope with!  Even a generation ago one would not have considered travelling several thousands of miles simply to catch 10-days of sunshine!

Now that travel is so easy and affordable, and we have finally been jolted into an awakening that our global community and planet deserves better care, I have no doubt the way we travel in future will change significantly, not only in the obvious improved hygiene, use of PPE, medical certificates and health checks but the basic value we place on the privilege and freedom to travel.

A life-long commitment to TransIndus

Thirty plus years ago my life in travel had begun quite accidentally, following a family holiday to India, a country I’d left behind in childhood. Captivated by every aspect of the journey I stayed on for the next 3-years, travelling across the country from north to south and east to west, experiencing the first snowfall of winter in Kashmir, monsoon showers in the tropics of Kerala, being awed by ancient temples in sprawling archaeological sites and learning much more about the culture, traditions, myths and legends of the country from villagers in remote hamlets. Working in Delhi for The Oberoi Hotels, India’s premier hotel chain not only funded my travels but provided an opportunity to experience a more luxurious side of the country and the depth of divide between the rich and poor and much more importantly I learnt the extent to which travellers to India were sheltered from the real joys of travelling in India.

Back home and the prospect of returning to a 9-5 job in pharmaceutical sales, a burdensome student loan and the thought of leaving my young baby in childcare all conspired in the birth of TransIndus, from my kitchen table. The excitement, enthusiasm, energy and trepidation of that time have all been brought home as I return to working from a kitchen table, amidst the enforced Covid-19 lockdown. Today as the travel industry explores new ways of operating Covid-safe and socially distanced holidays, the same basic questions we asked three decades ago, are being revisited of why people travel, what do they hope to see and experience and how can we help them achieve their ambitions?

At times it feels as if we have been afforded this time to reflect on our activities and ambitions and ask if we have remained true to our original mandate..... Our agenda at the onset had been to help people experience the sub-continent as I had done; travelling independently or in small groups of friends, to places off the grid, where traveller wouldn’t normally go and meet & mingle with local people for a better understanding of their lives.  the phrase ‘Responsible Tourism’ had not been coined but we knew operating holidays equitably and ethically was a significant part of our mission statement.   

We proposed travel by road and rail rather and minimised air travel, we maximised local experiences, identified small family owned properties with a local ambience for a more authentic experience and arranged interaction with local communities, ensuring their services were compensated properly.  With so little of India proffered by the few large main-stream operators in the 1980's, we promised to open at least one new region of India each season and to remain fresh and relevant for our guests.  Above all, we knew the secret of a great holiday was the quality and enthusiasm of the guide, and we boldly decided to use local English Speaking guides to act as a conduit of communication between the guests and local communities rather than ship European guides in. Finally, based on the ancient Hindu philosophy, we focused on delivering good service at a fair price, in the belief that due reward would naturally follow. It seems the British public enjoyed our mantra and have given us their support ever since.

As an Asia specialist it was only natural that we spread our wings to include the rest of Asia including South East Asia, The Far East and Central Asia. These places not only connect along borders but in shared histories, culture, traditions, language, art, food and religion.  Myanmar, the place of my birth, was among the first places we ventured to outside the sub-continent and later added others one region at a time, to keep our offering fresh.  The latest were Central Asian nations of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Iran with their stunning monuments, jaw dropping nature and deep, rich cultural histories that include the relics of epic dynasties which ruled over vast empires and held control over the Silk Trade Routes.  We feel these will be among first to bounce back and I can’t wait to return.

Things may not have always been as smooth and we may not have got everything right over the years but judging from the continued support of our clients, even during these difficult times, it feels as if we might have got some things right!

The challenges of Covid-19

We have never anticipated a smooth run but the most challenging days of our thirty plus years have been these last four months when we found ourselves having to disrupt our client’s holidays to repatriate them home en-mass. Our teams across Asia worked tirelessly and around the clock to re-arrange flights and accommodations to ensure everyone reached home safely. I can honestly say I have never been as proud of our teams as at this time.

Governments meanwhile debated the crisis in independent silo’s and responded in knee-jerk reactions rather than coming together for a joint-response to contain a global crisis.  The Foreign Office appeared to lose all perspective as it digressed from its established rules to issue a new blanket advisory, handing loop holes for airlines and insurance companies to exploit and renege on their responsibilities to clients.

By mid-March, a little before the official UK lock down, we took the decision to shift to working from home to protect our team and I am immensely grateful to our IT specialist and our team for setting us up virtually overnight, so our sales specialist could continue the crucial work of speaking with clients personally.

Over these days we have had to take many difficult decisions but none more so than the revoking of all holiday departures until the end of September.  While most booked clients opted to postpone their journeys to 2021, some had to cancel a few and are troubled by our inability to reimburse everyone immediately.  To the few people who are still awaiting refunds, I would like to offer my personal apology and assure you that we are working with pipe-line service providers to recover advances paid and ask them to bear with us a little longer.

With all movement for spring, summer and potentially autumn 2020 stalled and barely a fresh booking on the horizon, we would have been facing a serious financial crunch but for the interventions of Rishi Sunak, whose Job Retention Scheme, has allowed us to keep our amazing team together, albeit much of it furloughed but, connected in spirit. 

I chose to take a short stint on furlough myself partly in solidarity with the team and partly because the need of the day was the presence of front-line destination specialists to help clients navigate their way through postponements and cancellations!  A happy outcome of my time away from the coal face has allowed me to consult with industry partners; a few past clients I count as friends and co-directors to reflect on the future of TransIndus and the shape, size and scale of recovery in a post-Covid world, when that day arrives! 

In lockdown and on furlough, every flower-bed, potted herb and vegetable patches sprang into life as I tinkered in the garden pondering these questions; I emptied every wardrobe of clutter as I despaired over the threat of a second surge and, cleared vast stacks of lingering paperwork while pouring over the timing of a recovery. Midst a myriad of the uncertain and often unsettling thoughts the most probable path, the path that feels the most natural appears to lead back to a strengthening of the core values TransIndus began with.....  the value of remaining a true specialist, the care and concern for our travellers & hosts alike, the fulfilment of providing bespoke, interactive and engaging experiences to unique off-track places, the smile and gratitude of happy clients and the prospect of an even greater emphasis on sustainability to ensure our ultimate hosts in tiny villages benefit at least as much as our clients and us.

The road to recovery

On the question of restarting holidays, we’re naturally delighted by the inclusion of Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong in the list of counties that people can travel too without quarantine. With many airlines, hotels and visitor attractions still working on their recoveries, we anticipate that travellers will be able to head out to these places safely by mid to late August. 

Other Asian destinations who we know to have managed infection rates well including Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and The Maldives are yet to open of their borders to international traffic in a bid to keep their populations safe but murmurings are they will open soon and certainly by early September.  We remain cautiously optimistic that all our travellers will be able to enjoy their holidays this autumn onwards.

In the meantime we are working with local partners to establish hygiene & safety measures to follow the World Travel and Tourism Council’s (WTTC) ‘safe travel protocols’ along with training of guides and the introduction of contactless travel where possible. 

To ensure the health and safety of our group travellers we have decided to further reduced the size of our small group tour from 16 down to 8 or 10 people ensuring social distancing. And, in response to feedback from our clients through recent surveys conducted with The Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO), we are broadening the range of our Wellness, Ayurveda and Yoga Retreats to include beautiful new properties Goa, Maldives, Kerala, Bhutan, Thailand and Sri Lanka.  

We know the confidence of our travellers has been shaken and to help them make the leap back into travel once again, we have announced the ‘Transindus Covid Promise’.......  A promise that allows travellers to Book with Confidence with a lower deposit and freedom to exercise complete control of their holiday under our ‘flexible amendment guarantee’ which allow them to:

  • Postpone the holiday departure date anytime up to 30- days’ pre departure.
  • Move the holiday to any other one of our destinations in Asia, up to30-days’ pre departure.
  • Allow a one-off name change, provided international flight tickets have not been issued.

Our brilliant teams ably led by Brijesh, Hari and Flora are ready to help answer any questions that might arise whether guests are ready to travel just now or are just beginning to explore possibilities.

My final thoughts:

While this period has been a roller coaster of emotion and activity it has shone a light on the strengths of TransIndus and the depth of our knowledge, the importance of our specialism, the respect of industry colleagues and above all, the loyalty of our satisfied and happy clients.

It has been a tremendous pleasure and a privilege to have worked at the helm of TransIndus these last thirty plus years and long may it go on, enriched and invigorated by the insights gained following these testing times.