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Friday, 24 February, 2017, 17 : 30 PM [IST]

‘USA has recognised the importance of the Indian traveller’

This year is being celebrated as the U.S. and India Travel and Tourism Partnership Year to promote bilateral tourism. A host of activities have been planned to commemorate this partnership and increase tourist numbers from India. Thomas Vajda, U.S. Consul General in Mumbai talks to Disha Shah Ghosh about the United States as a MICE destination and the MICE group visa process.
Q. What activities have been chalked out to celebrate the 2017 U.S. and India Travel and Tourism Partnership Year?
A. In June 2016, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi announced that the United States and India will be Travel and Tourism Partner Countries in 2017. We are thrilled to have entered into this partnership with the Government of India for tourism promotion, as this is only the second time in the history of the United States that we have embraced a tourism partnership year. This unique opportunity will allow us to build on the tremendous tourism interest and potential on both sides.

We have an active tourism promotion programme that seeks to expand on existing opportunities to promote travel. We are looking at every opportunity to highlight travel in both directions, because travel and tourism is not only crucial to economic growth, but also builds bridges between nationalities.

Our participation as a Partner Country in the Vibrant Gujarat summit was one of the major steps towards stronger people-to-people ties. We have already participated in two Brand USA travel agent educational seminars in Mumbai and Pune this year, and have another one coming up in Ahmedabad in March. We will also be promoting travel and tourism though our social media properties, and here are some of the activities planned for the rest of the year:

  • U.S. Pavilion at SATTE 2017, Feb 15-17,
  • S&CD Travel and Tourism Working Group Meeting, Feb 16
  • Aviation Connectivity Roundtable, Feb 16, 2017
  • Brand USA Celebration tourism Year Celebration Event, Feb 16
  • India Investor Roadshow in the United States, May
  • International Pow Wow 2017- DC, June
  • Tour Operator Roundtable in India, August
  • Incredible India Tourism Investors’ Summit, Sep
  • Brand USA Sales Mission to India, Sep
  • U.S. Familiarisation Tour
  • India Familiarisation Tour
  • Culinary Tourism - Rocky and Mayur


Q. What initiatives are you looking at elevating MICE numbers from the Indian market?
A. According to the most recent data available, from August 2015 to July 2016, close to 1,175,000 Indians travelled to the U.S. While we don’t keep track of the statistics for MICE travel separately, we have seen a big increase in MICE travel over the 3–4 years that we’ve been focused on promoting the sector.

One exciting development that we’ve noticed is that MICE travel is starting to move beyond well-known destinations like New York and California, as repeat MICE travellers prefer newer and exotic destinations like Alaska cruises, or visits to places like New Orleans or our wonderful system of National Parks. Another opportunity that we are excited about is engaging with the entertainment industry here in India. One example is the new Indian Academy Awards event, which will be held in California this July. We were honoured to host a press conference launching the IAA here at the Consulate in January, featuring Shah Rukh Khan, Shiamak Davar among others. It’s great to be involved because initiatives like this help to promote the United States as a great MICE destination. In order to build on this increased interest, we have an internal Working Group in the Consulate consisting of the Consular, Public Affairs and Foreign Commercial Service officers, who make extensive efforts to reach out to different industries and different sectors to encourage them to consider the Unites States as a preferred destination for MICE. The response has been positive, and we will continue to work with companies and corporate travel agents to facilitate large groups in order to make the visa application process as smooth as possible. Our plan right now is to continue to conduct outreach to possible MICE groups, and to provide excellent service to MICE travellers.

Later this year, we will also undertake two MICE Round Tables working with travel and tourism partners like Brand USA and VUSACOMM to target tour operators and corporate entities. In addition, our Commercial Office will meet individual corporate entities to identify their needs and discuss what the USA has to offer. We encourage those involved in MICE or other group travel planning in Western India to contact the Consulate at Office.Mumbai@trade.gov to learn more about our services.

Q. Please elaborate on your Group Visa policy for MICE travel from India?
A. We have a number of initiatives to ease the visa application process for MICE groups. We encourage travel agents and companies undertaking group travel for MICE to USA to reach out to the Consulate

in advance. We will meet any company that has a MICE group to learn more about their group, and to explain our procedures and valid documentation. This allows us to accommodate qualified groups through a group appointment process, and when possible with same-day appointments for biometrics and visa interviews, which is significant for people travelling Mumbai for their visa process. We encourage those involved in MICE or other group travel planning in Western India to contact the Foreign Commercial Service office at the Consulate at Office.Mumbai@trade.gov to learn more about our services.

I should also mention that we have a feature on our website for visa applications,www.ustraveldocs.com/in, which allows group administrators to view and manage visa process for the individuals in the whole group. While we do our best to accommodate MICE groups, it’s important to note that these remain individual visa applications, and each applicant must qualify on his or her own merits.

Q. How do you like to position the USA?
A. We recognise that India is one of the world’s fastest growing outbound travel and tourism markets, and we’re eager to increase the number of Indian visitors to the United States. We’ve done a lot of work to make U.S. visa process easier, quicker and more pleasant for travelers. For example, we’re very accessible: we currently have the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, as well as Consulates in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kolkata, and a new state-of-the-art facility will be built in Hyderabad in the near future. Another selling point is that we are often able to issue a 10-year visa in lieu of the shorter term visa offered by other countries. In addition, most U.S. visas are easy to renew within a year of when they expire, as applicants who satisfy certain criteria can renew via the drop box and do not have to appear for biometrics or an interview.

People have great experiences in the United States, as the country is a fabulous destination with iconic cities, friendly people, and beautiful national parks. We recognise the importance of the Indian traveller and we love to see Indians travel to the United States. Though it is great for the U.S. economy, it is even more important for people-to-people relationship between both nations.



Q. A host of US hotel brands have a strong presence in India. How do you think will this association leverage the US-India partnership further?
A.The United States offers a wide range of hotels, motels and other accommodation options for almost every budget here. The presence of U.S. brand hotels in India is a benefit for many travellers, because it provides an opportunity for Indian travelers to be familiar with the services and accommodations that these properties provide, creating a brand recall and high level of comfort for visitors when they’re in the U.S. In addition, Indian visitors can take advantage of the hotel rewards program during their visit to the U.S. However, I should point out that travelers to the United States are not restricted to these properties, and visitors can always choose from the tremendous array of stand-alone accommodation options that the Unites States offers.

Q. A number of Californian wines have now entered the growing wine market in India. What kind of role will these wines play in the Indian F&B segment in the long term?
A.We are pushing for a range of American food products because US-India bilateral agricultural trade is pretty small. We think wine offers a great opportunity to connect. The Indian middle class is growing, and with an increase in disposable incomes, consumers are developing a taste for American wine. There are some challenges related to labeling requirements, regulatory standards and a high tariff, but American wines are among the best in the world and have a distinct taste.





disha.shah@saffronsynergies.in
 
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