Airline Diplomacy – Can India make use of VietJet’s timely announcement?

In the last few months, I have traveled from India to multiple airports in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. It was ironical that India’s direct air-connectivity with some of these countries, perceived to be on friendly terms with it, still remain below-par. At the same time, the common sight that stood out in each of these airports was the ubiquitous China Southern or China Eastern airplane – reaffirming that airline diplomacy is an integral part of China’s increasing outreach to Asian developing countries.

One of the most glaring example is probably direct air-connectivity between India and Vietnam, a country one of the friendliest towards India, from amongst the East Asian nations. To reach Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, you either needed to stop-over in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or Singapore, and waste precious hours and patience. So the recent news of soon-to-be-commenced direct services to India from Ho Chi Minh City by Vietnamese low cost airline VietJet is a much-needed breather. If the four-flights-a-week schedule launches from July, the easier flow of people between the countries should hopefully become a precursor for deeper business and trade linkages between those people, especially now as even business-travelers increasingly use low-cost airlines to fly around. As of now, Vietnam comprises only ~1.5% of India’s trade volumes.

But as far as business is concerned, this news still raises four counter-views for India’s ability to leverage on this opportunity:-

First, the fact that it took a Vietnamese airline, and not an Indian airline, to bridge the connectivity gap is telling, especially after Indian Prime Minister Modi’s pro-active outreach to invite all the ASEAN leaders as chief guests during the Indian Republic Day parade on January 26th, an event China’s Xinhua could not ignore. But despite those efforts by the Indian political establishment to move closer to ASEAN as a potential counter-measure to the growing Chinese influence in the Asia Pacific, one is still to see an Indian airline pro-actively follow up on its own government’s efforts; a bit akin to the business ties between India and Israel despite their political overtures of late. Had it been an Indian airline announcing direct connectivity, the business enterprise profits, jobs and incomes might have been more than otherwise!

Second, following this announcement, the Indian media has gone on a hype about VietJet’s past tactics of using bikini-clad models to do a mid-flight rampwalk. A quick search of multiple Indian news networks (here here here and here) showed this, reaffirming the Indian media’s primary obsession with only “sensational tabloid drivel”. It is another thing that VietJet had to pay a massive fine to the authorities since it had not obtained the requisite permissions for such marketing tactics. Nevertheless, this blatant hype by the media might only colour the branding of Vietnam, otherwise a scenic tourism destination, in the mind of the average Indian male tourist who may only correlate it with their biased perception of Pattaya and Phuket – especially those Indian males going on sales-incentive trips. Such biased branding may be counter-productive to build deeper business ties in the long-run.

Third, it is yet to be seen if the majority of the air-traffic moves from India to Vietnam or the other way around. Given that it is a Vietnamese airline which is taking the plunge having seen the growing number of Indian tourists thronging Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, one suspects the motivation is to attract Indian tourists to Vietnam – ergo the India to Vietnam traffic would be typically be heavier. But this also highlights how far behind the Indian tourist industry has remained in attracting the volume of foreign inbound tourists that its scores of historical and scenic tourism sights otherwise merit. The question is – can India leverage this opportunity to attract Vietnamese tourists to India, after failing to attract commensurate tourist numbers from Malaysia and Thailand despite the growing number of Indian tourists going there?

Last, the most interesting – most Indian news networks shared this news between 16th to 19th March, despite the original news from Vietnam officially coming out as early as 5th March (here and here) – that is almost after 2 weeks! If this does not show the glaring gap of Indian news channels to capture relevant news-bytes from abroad that have a pressing relevance to matters concerning India, and more so from countries to whom its politicians are making concerted outreach, then what else does? If such is the gap of breaking news, the gap in business ties is bound to remain chronic.

Nevertheless, airline diplomacy is often the precursor to bigger things, and hopefully the easier flow of people should bode well for eventual deeper business and trade ties between India and Vietnam. The correlation between Chinese trade and Chinese airlines probably offers the best support of this logic. But one will have to wait and watch how India eventually ranks on the four counter-views mentioned above, before one can say for certain that it leveraged this opportunity for its best advantage!

By Sourajit Aiyer

Image Courtesy: Nhan Dan

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