‘India is the second largest source market for student travel’
During the first-ever two-city Brand USA Sales Mission in India post-pandemic, Jackie Ennis, Vice President, Global Markets, Brand USA spoke to Disha Shah Ghosh about the growth statistics from India, key segments of focus and the visa issue.
Q. India is an important source market for Brand USA. What kind of growth have you seen in 2022, and your forecast for 2023?
During 2018-19, India arrived into the top 10 international source markets for the USA, and what was interesting is that they were one of the highest spenders. We also saw that during the pandemic and in 2021, Indians have consistently travelled to the USA.
We saw 1.25 million Indian arrivals in 2022, very close to our peak year of 2019 which saw 1.47 million arrivals from India. Besides, during 2022, India ranked 4th among our top 10 source markets, excluding Canada and Mexico. India is a very important source market for us and has consistently climbed in ranking. Moreover, during the first two months of 2023, we have already seen 200,000 arrivals from India.
Q. Tell us about the new and additional flight connections to the USA?
The purchase of Air India by the Tatas has created huge advantage for people travelling to the USA, because the airline has made it clear that the US is going to be a major area of focus. Currently, AI operates 47 non-stop flights to USA, with 16 direct connections to San Francisco. With the purchase of new aircraft, they should announce flights to new gateways in the USA. In the past 4 months, AI started 3 flights each from Bengaluru and Mumbai, and in February launched 7 flights from Mumbai to JFK Airport.
Alongside, IndiGo with its codeshare with Turkish Airlines, services Tier-II and III markets in India via the Istanbul hub. Air travel is recording strong growth and 80 percent of all Indian visitors to the US, opt for gateways in Europe, Japan, Singapore and the Middle East, and they do not mind one-stop flights.
We also have United Airlines and American Airlines offering one-stop connections. We believe, that there will be a big push soon for more flights to India from these homegrown US carriers, once the Ukraine war situation eases.
Q. The VFR segment is a big source market for Brand USA from India. How are you tapping this market?
VFR is a really important segment due to its emotional ties and affinity with the Indian diaspora in the USA. An Indian VFR traveller is now less likely to spend time with only family, but also wants to go around and explore the USA. The travel hook is VFR, but it’s really leisure to experience the diversity of USA that interests this segment. They are certainly a part of our promotional campaigns.
There are more students visiting the USA from India, and every student gets family and extended relatives for their admissions and graduation ceremonies. Last year, the highest number of students from India went to study in the USA, and that’s one of the things to emphasise that they study in different parts of the country, not only in the major cities. These student visitors serve as ambassadors of travel to the USA. The Indian market is the second largest source of student travel, and last year India emerged as being the number one.
Q. The delay in issuance of US visas is a big hurdle for travel. How do you expect to reach your target in this situation?
Visa has been challenge of late for sure, but there are a lot of people in India who have a valid 10-year US visa. This year, 200,000 visas have been issued to Indians, with the US Consular Service doing a commendable job, and has set a target of over 1 million visas for Indians by this year’s end.
The US Missions have opened Saturday services, and called in retired staff to assist with the load. Moreover, Indians are allowed to travel to other markets to apply for quicker processing. For back-end processing, they are trying to rope in overseas Missions where the visa load is comparatively low. This should cut down the wait time, which is a computer generated estimation that fluctuates based on the demand at any given point.
It is also noteworthy that 3 million Indians have a valid US visa at any point of time, and many of these repeat visitors were the ones who travelled to the USA last year.
Q. What kind of marketing activities have you planned for India?
This two-city Sales Mission in Mumbai and New Delhi is our first physical engagement in three years, post-September 2019. In Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, and Bengaluru we are now screening our film “Into Nature’s Wild” for the travel trade and media. Additionally, we also held trade networking events in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad. We are increasing our presence in the travel trade, including the Tier-II and III markets in India.
During the pandemic, we ran a robust education program on our global e-learning programme ‘USA Discovery Programme’. India has one of the highest engagements for this e-learning programme globally, with 10,000 badges issued to agents over the last 3 years. We conducted 18 webinars and 100 trainings for small and mid-sized agencies across India. As the market in India is evolving, we are meeting new players and engaging with them. It is not about doing something radically different since we are still in the recovery phase. As competition is stiff in international markets, we aim to reinforce the range of opportunities and experiences in the USA. We also took 6 agents from India on a FAM trip to Taxes.
Q. What is the objective of Brand USA making the movie “Into Nature’s Wild”?
We treat the travel trade similarly to consumers in terms of creating aspiration for the USA. An example being shows on OTT platform GoUSA TV showcasing outdoor and other unique activities. The messaging of this movie now resonates with people’s sensibilities post Covid. It also inspires via USA’s epic landscapes and wide outdoors that are accessible for exploration. The idea is to have visitors get out and explore nature.
The USA is also a hot spot for global cuisine, and we are keen to tap the booming luxury travel market with shopping choices, and variety of farm to food options. Luxury, movie and sports tourism is another key area that we want to showcase in India.