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Naam Bade, aur Darshan Chote!

26 mins. read

‘We have surely achieved a leadership position in the travel industry, but leadership in a situation like this is taking things too far, isn't it?’ Vibhuti’s comments lightened up an otherwise tense moment. On 9th March around midnight, our tour manager, Meghraj Raut received a call from Naidu Hospital in Pune, informing him that 3 guests who had returned from our Dubai tour had tested positive for COVID-19, hence the hospital was asking for the list of all guests who had travelled with him. Meghraj called Vivek Kochrekar immediately and very soon about 8 to 10 of us connected on a conference call. Our Guest Relations manager, Ishita Shah called the doctors at the hospital to reconfirm if these travellers were surely our guests. Our Dubai tour of 40 guests had recently returned on 1st March and so it was inevitable that this was indeed our tour, but Ishita called the doctor to reconfirm the same. Even a 1% chance of our tour not being involved was worth it as we could foresee the unfortunate aftermath of this news. Veena World could soon be all over social media, television news channels and newspapers for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, the news was confirmed by the doctor and the guest list and itinerary of the Dubai tour was handed over to Dr Vavre of Pune Municipal Corporation by Ishita. Our fears were not unfounded when Television channels were flooded over the next 2 days with news of how the first patient affected by COVID-19 had travelled from Dubai with our group tour. Even though the newspapers had kindly withheld our name in the news, the scintillating nature of this news made sure that each and everyone connected with Maharashtra was updated by now that this was indeed a Veena World group!

Our team had a tough time in the fortnight that followed, continuously monitoring the news related to the incident. They were busy collecting and sharing television news, social media comments and every piece of information which in turn started to affect their emotional state and wellbeing. With each passing day, they were pulled into a state of feeling angry, frustrated and sad as the brand that they had lovingly built with such hard work and exceptional efforts was being maligned with such unkind news all across. It was imperative to support our team and pull them out of this vicious cycle of doom and depression.

I implored the team to stay away from social media and the news. The damage was already done and we needed to keep our chin up now. But the news splash was morally disheartening and it was difficult to talk the team out of it. Just as we were trying to come to terms with the situation, some immoral individual had managed to disseminate to the public the confidential list of tour guests, which was submitted to the hospital, without the knowledge of the doctors and the authorities concerned. Needless to say, this list was soon viral and added to the consternation and chagrin of all the forty guests on the list. I wonder, how could whoever that made this list viral, not realise what a grave mistake this was! Subsequently, many of the guests had to face so much mental trauma and stress that it was worse than being affected by the disease. As if they had committed a crime just by going on a holiday. They were ostracised in their community and we were further disheartened as this news was also reported on TV channels and newspapers. The millennials and the next-gen who are blissfully unaware of such incidents were also learning it the hard way through news channels. When things started getting out of control, Mr. Deepak Mhaiskar, the divisional commissioner of Pune announced in a press conference that strict legal action would be taken on whosoever forwarded this list and whosoever spreads fake news and rumours.

By now, eight members of this tour had tested positive for COVID-19 making Maharashtra the most affected state in the country which was worrisome to all. We had operated many tours to Dubai in that month and hundreds of guests had returned happily to India after enjoying these tours. We had no clue as to why this particular tour was affected. We were deeply touched by the warmth and concern expressed by our Honourable Chief Minister, Shri. Uddhavji Thackeray, who not only called us to check how many guests were still on tours abroad but also informed us to make sure that all guests took proper precautions on returning and asked us to stay in touch with Maharashtra’s principal health secretary, Shri. Pradeep Vyas.

By now everyone was exercising utmost caution after returning from a foreign tour, but the fear of the disease spreading in society was reaching new heights which prompted the authorities to demand the list and contact details of all tourists who had been abroad in the month of February and March from not only our offices but from all travel agents or to face prosecution on failing to do so. Of course, they were only doing their job and we were bound by duty to co-operate with them for the same and help curb the spread of COVID-19. However, we couldn't ignore the danger of these lists being shared on social media. God forbid, but if this information were to go viral, it would disturb the peace and mental well-being of all the guests involved, as was our previous experience. Finally, after a discussion with Shri. Pradeep Vyas, it was decided that we would submit the lists only to his office and he would, in turn, had it over to any authority that needed it. With this peace of mind, we submitted the guest lists sorted by their residence city to his office.

This entire episode was not only very daunting but a constant cause for worry as Veena World featured in the news for all the wrong reasons. At this time, our Honourable Chief Minister’s phone call gave us the much-needed strength and support. The co-operation extended by the offices of our Principal health secretary and Pune’s health Commissioner further strengthened our resolve.

As these incidents unfolded, social media was filled with comments and posts like ‘Veena World brought the Coronavirus to Maharashtra and should be boycotted’, ‘They should not be spared’ and so on. A person named Hemraj posted abuses against us on his Facebook account saying ‘haramkhor ahet saale’. It was surprising to note that according to his Facebook page he worked at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Govt of India. It was really disheartening to read such comments by a person working at such a responsible post when the government themselves was so empathetic and supportive. How can they harbour such hostile feelings for anyone? Was this anger directed at Veena World or was it envying other’s success, or simply jealousy against those who could afford a holiday outside India?

Though our spirits were dampened momentarily, some good things came to light. All our guests who had been admitted were recovering well. We were also introduced to some good samaritans like our honourable Mayor, Smt. Kishoritai Pednekar. By now she had received some complaints against us. We liked her style of personally paying attention to the complaints and reaching out to the people personally against whom the complaint was raised. We discussed with her, the unique challenges faced not just by our company in this crisis, but also the stand taken by the airline industry, and also on the employment generated by the travel industry however small or big the travel company may be. We have given our guests a timeline of one year i.e. 31st March 2021 within which they can utilise their tours and we have further committed to maintaining the original tour price. We sent her a copy of the public notice issued by Veena World for the same. We informed her that the tour price paid by the guests after deducting the actual expenses borne so far and the money locked in for services that were already booked and paid for along with nominal tour transfer charges has been kept in a credit shell. Once things are up and running after the lockdown, we will try to minimise the charges further and should there be any refund from the concerned parties, then that will also be added to this credit shell. She agreed for the same and elaborated that she did not demand a refund but wished that people can complete the tours they had booked without attracting too much additional expense.

She sent us the phone number of the person who had raised the complaint via a Whatsapp message and I spoke with him as well. He was one of our well-wishers from Pune, Mr. Lakshman Sanap. He would often send me positive feedback on some of my articles and we shared an email friendship. He was anxious about the future of his tour booked with us, scheduled to depart in March. Your office informed me that the tour is as per the schedule and if I cancel, then I will have to bear the cancellation charges. I told him, ‘it’s correct, and the situation was and continues to be a source of anxiety for everyone. The countries that were not yet affected by Corona were claiming that all was well and that it was safe to travel. The airlines that were operating flights insisted that cancellation of air seats would attract full cancellation charges unless the flight was cancelled by them. We had no choice but to inform the same to the guests. The World is full of confusion and chaos right now. We witnessed how Japan was desperate to salvage and host the Olympic games as per schedule until recently. A superpower like the USA had not acknowledged the severity of the situation initially. Until recently, Brazil was dismissing this malady as simple influenza. This is an unprecedented situation around the World. Even as of date, the airlines have refused to give refunds and are offering a rollover of the funds deposited with them in a credit shell for future use. Some airlines have offered this credit for utilisation until 31st July 2020 while others have offered until September and December 2020. They have also specified that we will have to bear the fare difference applicable at the time of utilisation. In spite of this, we have offered to maintain the same tour price and have offered a time-limit of 31st march 2020. We had already mentioned this in the 2nd Public Notice issued by Veena World in the newspapers dated 17th and 18th March 2020. Rest assured, we have the best interests of our guests at heart. And that’s why guests love us back wholeheartedly. The maximum number of Indian tourists who travelled with Veena World in February and March are a testimony to this love and affection bestowed upon us. Unfortunately, yours was one of the families which could not travel. Once the situation changes for the better in the future, you will surely travel and enjoy the tour as well’. I had a long conversation with Mr. Sanap and the only reason for sharing this communication is for the benefit of many others who might be in a similar predicament with the same doubts and worries.

April and May are the busiest months for the travel industry at large and for us as well. This is the period when the entire Veena World team rolls up their sleeves and is busy working round the clock. As the summer holidays commence, more than 100 Veena World tours depart to various destinations in India and around the World from Mumbai airport on a weekly basis. Our tour managers are all set at this point to serve our guests on their dream holiday to ensure a happy and fulfilling tour. These are the most important months of the year for the tour managers. After a record-breaking stupendous start to the year with a fabulous sales record, COVID-19 has brought the entire travel industry, hotel industry, the airline industry and now every industry across the globe to a grinding halt. In such circumstances, following the advisories issued by the Government of India and other countries as well, we have had to postpone the tours that were scheduled to operate in summer to a future date. We have communicated this to all, with our Public notice and now we are leaving no stone unturned to communicate with all our guests who are booked for the summer holidays. Even today, our huge team is communicating with each and every guest in the best possible manner with the available limited resources as they work from home. It is really unfortunate that the travel dreams of thousands of guests and our tour managers have been crushed this summer.

However, our March Madness continued as Veena World once again found itself in the social media hotspot! A post titled ‘Naav Mothe, Lakshan khote’ written by one of our March month Singapore tour guests who was a retired District Judge (Zilla Nyayadhish) and ex-head Zilla Grahak Manch, Pune had gone viral with such intensity that our friends and family, well-wishers, our guests and even Political leaders had forwarded the same to us. The reactions ranged from “is this true?” , “Please take care”, “we trust Veena World” and many more comments. But the post was written in such a manner that even those who trusted Veena World would have thought twice! This post was about one of Veena World’s most popular tours, Singapore Thailand Malaysia. Thousands of guests have enjoyed these tours over the years and it was impossible that it would be a failure. The tour was on road smoothly and the guests were having a good time. After completing all the sightseeing as per the tour program when the tour was in Malaysia and was scheduled to reach Singapore for the remaining 3 days, Singapore closed its borders. Since it was now impossible to enter Singapore, with the co-operation of our airline partners, we managed to change the flight tickets and bring this tour back to India instead of proceeding to Singapore. We have asked our travel partners in Singapore to check what best can be done for the non-utilised portion of Singapore. At the same time, one of our New Zealand tours was also on-road. On getting the news that International flights would not be operational to and fro India from 22nd March, we put in immense efforts and were successful in bringing back all these guests to Mumbai by rerouting their flights via Delhi at an additional cost. As a precautionary measure, some senior members of this group were asked to stay back in Delhi. We were relieved and satisfied in having fulfilled our duty to bring these guests back to India before the lockdown. Shri. Gandhar Dvigrajkar, who was celebrating his honeymoon on this New Zealand tour recognised our efforts with his kind words, “The impact of Corona was being felt worldwide, but we were totally stress-free as we were traveling with Veena World”. Coming back to the malicious viral post about our Singapore tour which seems to have been written with the sole purpose to spite us, this person has also written, “the television channel Zee 24 Taas has broadcast a piece of news that the tourist who went to Dubai with Veena World has expired due to the Corona Virus”. Shouldn't a person of this stature who has worked as a District judge and in Pune Zilla Graham Manch clarify all facts before hurling such atrocious accusations at anyone for whatsoever reason? It’s incredible that he has killed this tourist in his post, just to establish authenticity and make people believe it. Actually, strict action should be taken against all such rumour-mongering people who spread fake news. I pray for the speedy and full recovery of everyone affected by the coronavirus and take this opportunity to inform everyone that all Veena World guests including those forty guests who returned from Dubai and from all around the world are safe and sound. In fact, Zee TV has made an excellent documentary, about the first person who was affected and has now recovered fully, on the day of his discharge. It is shocking that a responsible person can go to such lengths to gain publicity for himself and to defame Veena World. When we sent him an official reply, he got back to us with a short response that in the lockdown state he is in self-quarantine from 19th March to 12th April and he will get back to us only after 14th April. When we insisted on a clarification of his post he reiterated the Quarantine excuse and got back with a flimsy reply stating… ‘I have no personal grudge against anybody. Previously I have been on a Manali tour with Veena World along with my family’… What about the irreparable damage done to Veena World by his post? What about the impact on the mental wellbeing and anxiety experienced by our 1000+ team members? It takes years to lay the foundation of a successful business which is the source of daily bread and butter for all its team members. It takes immense efforts by all the stakeholders and Veena World is one such company that was built by the sweat and tears of all involved. Just because social media gives you the freedom to freely write anything, should a responsible person behave so irresponsibly? He even tried to gain further public sympathy by stating that ‘Veena World has not even cared for the safety of their own employees’. Contrarily, we believe in leading from the front and in the first week of March, we were ourselves traveling abroad as well. On 16th March we (Neil or me) were invited to visit Singapore courtesy Singapore Airlines to see the situation first hand and experience how the day to day activities were functioning normally and to see all the precautions being taken. The entire hospitality industry be it airlines, national tourist boards or each and every travel agent and tour operator however big and small, were trying desperate measures to salvage the situation. Even developed countries like Japan, America, Dubai, Singapore, and Switzerland are trying really hard to control the crisis and restore normalcy. In fact, one of our guests booked on a European May tour departure informed us that if everything comes back to normal they are ready to travel. Many of our guests are asking us to commence tour operations from September. We acknowledge the resilience shown by our guests from time to time. In spite of the terrorist activities in certain areas of Kashmir, our tours to Kashmir have always received a huge response from our guests. Even with the uncertain conditions prevailing in the state all our Kashmir tours were fully booked this year too without any advertisements. You must have read the appeal made by a group of travel companies from Pune in the newspapers urging people to postpone and not cancel their tours and travel plans. Each and every person working in the travel industry was trying their best to help tourism survive this crisis. In the midst of all these efforts, when we approached the person responsible for the post he preferred to hide behind the veil of his quarantine period from 19th March to 12th April, but it didn't stop him from writing and publishing such a spiteful post on the social media platforms on 23rd March. It is unfortunate that he chose to take the support of the quarantine or lockdown period for such a horrible deed. We have duly noted this and shall take it forward with the utmost seriousness with the relevant authorities.

With lakhs of tourists traveling to India from all parts of the world, I can’t help but wonder why the first coronavirus affected patient had to be from Veena World. Why Veena World? Even today, many honeymoon Couples from India are stuck in Bali. These bookings were made online, so aren't these online companies answerable to anyone? Today, many tourists of various nationalities are stranded in different parts of the World. The US had arranged for a special flight to evacuate the American citizens who were stranded in India. Air India is also doing the same for our Indian citizens. Recently, I received a very heart-wrenching email from an Indian youth named Mr. Gandhi stuck in Australia to help him out of the situation. We have forwarded the email to the Australian tourism board, Indian embassy and tried our best to guide him in this situation. There are countless stories of people being stuck on airports, on cruises and in hotels around the World. We have successfully completed our responsibility to bring back all our guests to India and we will always fulfil our duties. And yet we were defamed. But it is said that God gives his hardest battles to his toughest soldiers. It looks like, we are the chosen ones this time, so we must work harder and increase our strength and resolve. Our team abides by the principle that we should not fear anything if we are not at fault. When someone is trying to defame us by spreading wrong information about our beloved company let us face it patiently and calmly and not get affected by such viral posts.

Many well-wishers advised us to turn a blind eye to such social media posts and continue with our work. Of course, this is the right advice and we are continuing with our work from home as well. Like all other pandemics and infectious diseases, this pandemic shall also stay put for a while till it fades away. Once normalcy returns and we get a green signal from the Government we will surely be the first to commence our tours as even our guests are eagerly waiting for the same. However, we had to put forth the facts here because sometimes when you tell a lie big enough repeatedly people start believing it as the truth. And here, the story was being fabricated in such a way that a person or organisation of lesser mental strength could have been completely demolished by its impact.

Our Honourable Prime Minister is facing this crisis brought about by COVID-19 and trying to build solidarity in our beautiful country. Maharashtra government has also successfully controlled the situation and the lockdown has helped to control the spread of COVID-19 so far. Even a superpower like the USA is struggling to control the situation. On behalf of Veena World, I wish to express our immense gratitude from the bottom of our heart towards our Central Government, State Government, Municipal Corporation, Doctors, Nurses and Healthcare teams working round the clock in various hospitals, Police forces, Security forces, administrative workers, cleaners, bank officials, all those working in essential services and all those supporting them directly and indirectly! And a big thank you to all of you as well.

Let us all support the Government initiative to curb the spread of COVID-19 by staying at home in this lockdown and set an example for the World to follow.

Stay Home! Stay Calm! Stay Safe!

April 05, 2020


Veena Patil
Veena Patil

‘Exchange a coin and you make no difference but exchange a thought and you can change the world.’ Hi! I’m Veena Patil... Fortunate enough to have answered my calling some 40+ years ago and content enough to be in this business of delivering happiness almost all my life. Tourism indeed moulds you into a minimalist... Memories are probably our only possession. And memories are all about sharing experiences, ideas and thoughts. Life is simple, but it becomes easy when we share. Places and people are two things that interest me the most. While places have taken care of themselves, here are my articles through which I can share some interesting stories I live and love on a daily basis with all you wonderful people out there. I hope you enjoy the journey... Let’s go, celebrate life!

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