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As covid-19 cases decline across major Indian cities, expect a fast pick-up in travel in the coming weeks. The pandemic has changed reasons for travel and preferences, but the broader picture of get-out-of-house remains true for affluent Indians, an analysis of data from Airbnb and Google shows.

After the hard lockdown in 2020, the concept of vacation took the form of a ‘staycation’ or a ‘workation’—book a room/house for a period of time and stay/work from there. Calendar 2021 has seen two distinct phases. The first phase was the first quarter, when the virus relented, and the concept of vacations returned. In both January and February, travel demand for domestic locations was higher than the corresponding months of 2020 (both pre-pandemic months), according to Google Destination Insights.

This is corroborated by Airbnb data on total bookings for 15 popular getaways. This January and March, the combined number of booking days for these 15 destinations were the highest for those months in the last three years. Further, according to a survey by Airbnb and YouGov published on 17 February, 57% Indians planned to travel in 2021.

But April and May, when the virus returned with a vengeance, showed the distance between intent and action. Bookings on AirBnB for these 15 destinations in April amounted to only 77% of April 2019 levels (April 2020 was a hard lockdown month). In May, when lockdowns had been clamped extensively, bookings amounted to only 39% of May 2019 levels. As lockdowns ease again, these numbers are expected to rise again.

Northern Rebound

The travel industry will be hoping for a return to the mood and activity of January and February. Among the 15 popular destinations across India we considered from Airbnb, a regional bias was seen in the degree of rebound. Northern and western locations bounced back more strongly than southern ones. Northern hilly locations drew the maximum traveller interest.

For the period from January to May, nine of the 15 destinations saw greater activity than 2019 and 2020 levels. Barring Chikkamagaluru in Karnataka, all were located in northern or western India. Kullu in Himachal Pradesh—including areas such as Manali, Tosh, Jibhi and Kasol—recorded more than double the number of bookings than it did in both 2019 and 2020. Conversely, in three of these 15 destinations, the 2021 booking levels were less than 75% of their respective levels of 2019 and 2020. These were The Nilgiris district (Ooty), Kannur district and Puducherry.

Managing Risks

Minimising the virus risk has been a key consideration of most travelers. In a July 2020 survey covering 28 countries done by booking.com, 77% of Indians surveyed said they would book an accommodation if it clearly spelled out its health and hygiene policies, against the global average of 70%.

Hence, travellers were looking for locations that were less frequented and less populated. According to the same Airbnb and YouGuv survey quoted above, 85% respondents were looking for ‘unique accommodations’ such as heritage homes, havelis, farm stays and villas for their next trip. This is also reflected in the breakup of Airbnb data for the 15 chosen destinations. On the one hand, the total number of booking nights between January and May 2021 exceeded both 2019 and 2020 levels. On the other, the share of ‘entire houses’ in these bookings (as opposed to ‘private rooms’) increased from 51-52% in 2019 and 2020 to 62% in 2021.

Price Carrot

In order to draw travellers, property owners have had to play the price card. In nine of the 15 destinations, average prices in 2021 were lower than in 2020, by 3% to 20%. These included destinations from all four parts of India. The sharpest drop was seen in Kullu, which also led in demand. Destinations in western India fared the best in holding the price line, with Alibag managing a 57% increase over 2020 prices.

A full recovery is some distance away, especially in the busier travel pockets. For example, in the quarter to March, revenues of Indian Hotels fell 42% on a year-on-year basis, while its profit turned into a loss. At the same time, a lengthening of the pandemic is spurring the need to get away when one can. The booking.com survey shows 68% of Indian respondents considered working from a different location—the highest among the 28 surveyed countries. As the unlock process picks up pace, expect more people to head out for vacations and workacations.

www.howindialives.com is a database and search engine for public data

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