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Tourism in a lockdown



The Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, over a hundred kilometres south of Bihar’s capital Patna, is a renowned world heritage site. It was here that Prince Siddhartha of the Shakya clan is said to have attained “total enlightenment” under the Bodhi tree and become the Buddha in 623 B.C. Visited by domestic and international tourists and pilgrims alike, the site has helped boost tourism in Bihar, with the number of tourists going up from 28.9 million, including 923,000 foreign tourists, in 2015, to 35 million in 2019, with over 500,000 foreigners visiting Bodh Gaya and Gaya, a holy city besidethe Falgu river, in 2019 alone. But the COVID-19 scare and the subsequent shutdown have put paid to tourism of any sort, leaving the site deserted.

Tourist footfalls had fallen sharply even before the national lockdown as international travel tripped on the novel coronavirus scare, says Sanjay Kumar Singh, general secretary of the Bodhgaya Hotel Association, which represents around 100 hotels in the holy town. Tourists from China, Thailand, Japan and Sri Lanka, where Buddhism is widely practised, cancelled their hotel reservations even before the lockdown. Revival in touristfootfalls may take a year or more as it hinges on international travel getting normalised.

The story repeats itself at all tourist destinations in India, as the pandemic upends lives and livelihoods. In his Independence Day speech in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had urged peopleto visit at least 15 tourist centres by 2022 in a bid to promote domestic tourism. During January-November 2019, India saw 9.67 million foreign tourist arrivals. The sector earned Rs 2.14 lakh crore in 2018, and provided jobs to 42 million. As per India Brand Equity Foundationestimates, revenues could have touched Rs3.75 lakh crore by 2022.

All those plansare now in disarray. Though the number of foreign tourist arrivals usually dips in March and April, these two months still account for around one-sixth of India’s foreign tourist arrivals in a year. “The travel bans in place translate to forgone revenue of around Rs 37,500 crore for the industry from foreign tourists alone,” says Arun Singh, chief economist with Dun & Bradstreet, a business intelligence firm. The impact is much higher if you factor in forgone revenue from domestic tourists, he adds.

When Mumbai hosted India’s biggest travel exposition, One World Travel Mart, in January, agreements worth more than Rs 2,000 crore were signed, and advance payments released. While several airlines have offered to reschedule tickets to September, tourists may not like to visit the same destination again, says Abhijit Patil, chairman of Raja-Rani Travels. Refunding cancelled tours is another nightmare. At least 18 cruise liners slated to touch Mumbai between April and May have stayed away. Cancellation of film shoots hasn’t helped either. “We predict Indians may start travelling post-monsoon,” says Jane D’Cruze, a Malaysia Tourism representative. Meanwhile, the Travel and Tourism Association of Goa says the statewill lose over Rs 1,000 crore due to the pandemic, along with some 60,000 to 75,000 jobs, and has demanded a moratorium on loan repayments.

Despite two successive floods and the Nipah virus scare in 2018, Kerala’s tourism grew 17.2 per cent in 2019, receiving 19.6 million tourists. Tourism revenues rose 24.4 per cent year-on-year to Rs 45,011 crore in 2019. However, since March 23, Kerala’s 7,022 hotels and home stays remain closed. “We have survived two floods and were hoping for a good season this year. But Covid -19 has nearly killed us,” says Ashish Nair of the Raviz group. Raviz Kovalam,a wedding destination, saw all foreign bookings getting cancelled from January-end onwards.

In Alappuzha, known for its backwaters and houseboats, cancellations and refunds are now routine. “We have been sitting idle for the past 40 days,” says Jojy Mathew, MD of Rainbow Cruise . Houseboat owners have allowed the government to set up corona isolation rooms in their yachts. Some 2,500 houseboats operate in Vembanad lake, supporting over 20,000 families. “Most houseboat owners started business on loans and are in a debt trap,” says T.J. Anjalose, former member of Parliament. The state government is spreading hope. “Once the lockdown ends, we will design strategies to support the industry,” tourism minister Kadakampally Surendran said. Asmany as 232 foreign tourists trapped in 11 districts have been sent back home.

With the pandemic wiping out the last two months of the tourist season in Rajasthan–February and March–Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has relaxed loanrepayment terms for the sector. But the industry needs more relief,including a year-long moratorium on loan repayments, lower electricity tariffs, tax waiver on tourist vehicles as well as incometax and GST waivers fora year, says Kuldeep Singh Chandela, president of the Rajasthan Association of Tour Operators. Though some hotels are retaining experienced staff atfull wages, theupcoming summer can be a nightmare for the sector. Bookingsfor the next season startingSeptember also remain elusive at this point.

“February to the first week of June is the tourism season in the Darjeeling Hills in Bengal, and coronavirus is going to cause huge damage,” laments Goutam Deb, the state tourism minister. With a footfall of nearly 8 million tourists,Bengal contributes close to 5 per cent of India’s total tourist footfalls. During Durga Puja in October, the state sees an inflow of 13 million tourists, mostly foreigners.Its target to reach Rs 5,000 crore in revenue by2023 now looks ambitious. Neighbouring Sikkim is staring at Rs 1,000 crore in losses if the lockdown continues through the peak tourism season till June.

Khajuraho and Orchha in Madhya Pradesh, which see huge foreign tourist inflow from Italy, Spain, the UK, South Korea and France, saw COVID-19 hit just as the peak season (October-March) was ending. “Cancellations began in March and are continuing,” says Nitendra Singh Rathore of Amar Mahal Hotel in Orchha. The silver lining is that bookings made for October and November have not been cancelled as yet. In March and April alone, 9,616 room nights were cancelled, says Anay Dwivedi, MD of the state’s tourism development corporation. Most hotels in Orchha have sent their staff home, paying them half their salaries.

“This is the worst period in my career as travel operator, says Manish Sharma of the Ahmedabad-based Akshar travels. “Idon’t see any hope at least till Diwali.” Gujarat, with 35 big tourist operators and 4,000 small ones, provides jobs to 380,000 people in the sector, and sees an annual business of Rs 1,200 crore, which peaks with outbound tourists to Europe and the US in the April-June period. Some 60 tourists from around eight countries are stranded in the state. The state government is looking after those who can’t affordtheir own stay, says Jenu Devan, MD, Gujarat Tourism Corporation. source indiatoday

With Amitabh Srivastava, Kiran D. Tare, Jeemon Jacob, Rohit Parihar, Rahul Noronha, Romita Datta and Uday Mahurkar

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