As global tourism numbers dwindle, one organization is putting tourism authorities in front of airlines in a bid to change the way the industry works.
“In these challenging times when business travel is being particularly hit hard, airlines are focusing on leisure travel to sustain revenues and route profitability,” explains Route Development Group (RDG) tourism development director Gerard Brown “increasingly, airlines are seeking new leisure destinations to serve and who better to convince them than a tourism authority. Conversely, as visitor numbers continue to fall at an alarming rate, tourism authorities need to start promoting their destinations to airlines.”
At this year’s Arabian Travel Market in Dubai, RDG, organizer of the annual World Route Development Forum, held a workshop in which tourism authorities could discuss the benefits of their role in the development of new air services. The workshop was an exercise in helping tourism authorities promote their destinations to airlines and discover how airline route planners could satisfy and even stimulate tourism demand for a region.
The event was such a success that the opening day of World Routes in Beijing this year will host the Routes/ PATA Tourism & Air Services Summit which will give tourism authorities and airlines the chance to find out more about the destinations they serve and more importantly, which ones they should be serving.
“Historically, tourism authorities have neglected the aviation side of tourism development. Their approach has, in many cases become stale and dated,” explains Brown. “But there are signs that the more pro-active tourism authorities are definitely becoming more interested in aviation and working their way up the supply chain. Previously they would leave the responsibility of promoting their destination to airlines with their airports but in many cases the relationships with their airports are not necessarily strong.
“At the same time, the present climate requires that airlines have to be more proactive in sourcing leisure traffic that is going to fill the plane.”
British Airways newly announced routes are a case in point explains Brown. “BA’s new schedule is very tourism focused. There is a new Las Vegas service from Heathrow, The Maldives and Sharm El Sheik three-times a week from Gatwick and several new Caribbean flights. Many other airlines are also launching flights that seem to be more tourist destination-led than ever before and this is due to the decline in passenger numbers. The hands of tourism are very much behind this.”
So why has it taken airlines and tourism authorities so long to come around to a new way of thinking? “Airlines are asking tourism authorities to help them as the current trading conditions are really hurting the world’s airlines. Airlines have had the luxury of having the airports doing all of the running in the past – now they are having to be a little more pro-active and the balance is shifting slightly.
“The Middle East is seeing healthy visitor numbers but most of these are transit passengers and the Middle East is not the travelers’’ final destination.
“More tourism authorities are now realizing that their competitors are not only their immediate neighbors,” continues Brown. “They are starting to look at where in the world the traveller is ending their journey. It is a similar situation in the Mediterranean, where the destinations and airports are realizing that they are competing with the Maldives, Mexico and Egypt for example. With flights to Australia from £349 with Singapore Airlines, many UK travelers will consider this as a viable alternative to the Mediterranean.”
But some tourist boards are yet to accept this new way of working and Brown says he has been surprised that more Western European and North American authorities have not begun to pro-actively market themselves to the world’s airlines. “Tourism is so well developed in these regions, and they have been hit incredibly hard by declining visitor numbers,” says Brown.
On the other hand Australia and New Zealand’s authorities are well ahead of the game and their tourism boards have been coming along regularly to Routes events over the years. In the same way, Ras Al Khaimah’s tourism authority realized the benefits of meeting with airlines at Routes some two or three years ago and Brown confirms that other Middle Eastern regions are now coming around to this way of thinking, although it has not been without its challenges. “We have built some solid relationships over the years with the Middle Eastern airports and tourism authorities but even though the Middle East is relatively well-developed on the tourism side, there is sometimes a reluctance to work closely with airlines and there are different reasons for this. Some are of the view that if they have their own dominant carrier, why would they need to speak with other airlines? And yes, some of these airlines are very strong in the market but any reliance on one carrier in the present climate is a clear risk. It can also be challenging where you have a country which doesn’t want to upset its national airline, but understand that their national airline does not have sufficient capacity to deliver all of the tourism authorities’ aspirations.”
But Brown argues that all final decisions rest with the tourism authorities and airports and the Routes event can be used as a vehicle for them to bolster their knowledge of industry trends. “They need to find out from airlines what is happening in the industry, and that is where the Routes event is particularly valuable.”
The dynamics of the travel business are also being changed by low-cost airlines and Brown argues that they and other full service airlines are becoming tour operators in their own right. “UK carriers such as Jet2, Easyjet and even British Airways have become tour operators and very influential ones,” says Brown, and tourism authorities are cottoning on to this. “Who carries more tourist passengers in the UK each year? TUI, Thomas Cook or Ryanair? Who should the European tourism authorities be trying to influence? The face of the leisure travel industry is changing. Airlines are becoming the new tour operators. How will BA fill their new flights to the Maldives, Sharm el Sheik and Las Vegas? I imagine they will work with each respective tourism authority on joint promotions.”
“VisitBritain has struck up relations with Easyjet as well as BA and have also been speaking to hoteliers like Holiday Inn to offer a one-stop shop packages to tourists. It highlights a proactive approach to driving visitors to their destination, which is exactly what is needed in the current climate.”