Melbourne-based Gaura Travel has been around for nearly 14 years now during which time they have flown over a million travellers. But their test came after the pandemic struck bringing life to a standstill and leaving Indians visiting Australia stranded. They came through the test with flying colours.
Melbourne: The messages are legion, filling up their Facebook, email et al. And they are straight from the heart.
“It’s humbling, and we are grateful that we could reunite anxious and worried families, sending back home their loved ones stuck in Australia for months because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Ashwini Sonthalia.
He and younger brother Abhishek started Gaura Travel in January 2007 and haven’t looked back since. By their estimate, they have flown over a million passengers till now.
The advent of the rampaging pandemic though put the brakes on their activity towards the end of March when both India and Australia went into hard lockdowns.
So how was it when that happened?
“The world came to a standstill. Our overseas offices had to close down and only the Melbourne office worked. We were attending to our clients, answering their queries… there was panic as they were worried about what was going to happen to them, how would they return home to India, what about refunds. The first month, we were taking about 200 calls and processing about a hundred refunds,” Ashwini said recalling those harrowing days.
This went on till around the middle of June by when even the Vande Bharat Mission flights also stopped; people kept inquiring about the possibility of returning home and when.
“We were in discussion with Mr Raj Kumar, Consul General at the Consulate General of India in Melbourne. He and his team were guiding us, showing us processes,” Ashwini said.
Amidst all this, it was the siblings’ penchant for out-of-the-box thinking that opened doors for the stranded to once again start dreaming of being able to return to India. It was such innovative thinking that had seen the travel agency start a 24×7 overseas call centre in 2010 – the first local company to do so and which changed the industry and others later adopted.
July 4. Saturday. It was a red-letter day for Gaura Travel as it launched three chartered flights, all of Singapore Airlines, to New Delhi. Two days later would be Ashwini’s birthday, but that probably was the last thing on his mind as a flurry of activity began.
“It was an overwhelming experience for us. People didn’t understand what was going on. It was the first time in Australia that a travel agency was using chartered flights. There was a range of emotions starting from incredulity to scepticism to doubt—is it authentic or is it a scam. The first two-three days the office was like a war room, so many things to be done, we were being swamped with queries,” ” recalls Ashwini, the excitement in his tone still to pale.
They had initially expected they could fly two-three chartered flights carrying around 500 travellers. By the end of October, such an expectation would prove to be just modest.
“We flew over 20 flights with over 5000 travellers,” he said.
The traveller profiles are of three basic types. Some came to Australia to visit relatives or friends with return tickets before the pandemic struck and forced lockdowns both in India and Australia leaving them high and dry; there are those who are residents of Australia but need to go to India for emergencies and then there are students who are without jobs, studying remotely and not required to go to their educational institutes and thus want to save on cost, particularly rent, and may be come back later when things improve.
The two brothers, along with another team member, Atul, plunged into the entire operation headlong. It was not going to be merely about profit; it was a crisis where the human touch was of paramount concern.
“We would be at the airport for every single flight. Not to just stand around. We were there with water bottles to wheelchairs for the elderly, assisting the travellers with luggage to translation; relatives and friends seeing them off were not allowed to come in so they were on their own and we were there to help them out,” said Abhishek.
“The elderly in particular were moved, they would get emotional and bless us. We would think that even our parents could be in such a situation and just the thought would bring tears to our eyes,” he said while recalling an instance when around 20 people had come in from Adelaide and stayed overnight at the airport to catch their flight the following day. “When we came to know of it, we served them food brought from Hare Krishna temple,” he said.
With Diwali around the corner, they are expecting to come up with five-six flights flying out another about 1000 travellers. “Post Diwali, we expect students who are finishing studies would start returning… we are looking at two-three flights per month,” he said.
He also had his message for Diwali.
“It is time to be with family and friends. It is the time for good to win over evil; let us pray that we are out of this situation soon and can resume normal life.”
If the compliments in their Facebook and email are anything to go by, Team Gaura Travel will certainly not be short on blessings this Diwali.
By Tonee Sethi