October 30, 2021 6:06:58 am
Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Uttarakhand are high on the priority list for Gujaratis who would be vacationing this Diwali, after being confined to their homes for almost 18 months due to Covid restrictions.
Tour operators point out that South India, especially Kerala, which was among Gujaratis’ favourite destination, is off their tour radar, due to the Covid-19 situation in that state. International travel also has become restricted due the pandemic curbs in various countries.
“Despite terrorist attacks on civilians from Gujarat, about 30 per cent of our bookings for this Diwali is for Jammu and Kashmir. It has been the first choice for a lot of middle-class families who have booked with us. Till now we have got 700 bookings for Kashmir. This is also because it is the cheapest where the cost for six days and five nights trip for a single person starts from Rs 15,000,” says Ajay Modi, who operates a travel firm by the same name in Ahmedabad.
Gujarati tourists were targeted by terrorists in Kashmir in the past including the attack on tourist buses from the state in 2006 and attack on Amarnath pilgrims from state in 2017. The recent incidents of terrorism in Kashmir valley and the targeted killing of minority communities is happening at a time when the Union territory is seeing an upsurge in tourists from across India.
“For tourists who are booking with us, Uttarakhand is the second preferred option despite reports of heavy rains and landslides. The travel time by road is more for this state, compared to Kashmir,” says Modi. Rajasthan continues to remain hot destinations for people from Gujarat as they fall in the 500-kilometre radius, where people ride to.
But the biggest void in the tourism map is Kerala which is not being preferred by many. “Tourism to South India, especially Kerala, has taken a backseat. Every year we have at least 1,000 tourists visiting the state for 10 days. This year, the requests are fewer and we as tour operators are not encouraging people to travel to Kerala due to the Covid situation there,” he added.
Foreign destinations are also a no-go zone this year for many. Vadodara-based trader Namit Bhatt has decided to take his family on a three-day outing to Kevadia this year, instead of the usual foreign vacation. Bhatt, who put on hold his vacation to Sri Lanka in 2020 following the Covid-19 outbreak, said, “We have not stepped out even for an outing since March 2020 and have not planned a foreign trip this year. Instead, we decided to explore Kevadia… It is driving distance, which ensures that we do not need to travel by public transport.”
Bank executive Ranjit Patel based in Vadodara has decided to drive down to Jambughoda in the Panchmahals, known for its wild life sanctuary. “We thought Jambughoda sanctuary and lodging options make for a peaceful getaway. We decided to go somewhere nearby to be able to spend more time relaxing after such a stressful year… The location is also perfect for our senior citizen family members,” Patel said.
The Global Advantage, a firm that opened after the lockdown, has been getting inquiries from Gujarati tourists who are keen to travel to J&K, Andaman and Nicobar islands. “Group tours is the trend for J&K. Most tours are starting after the Bestu Varas (Gujarati New Year) on November 5 and they will have time till Labh Pancham (the fifth day of the new year, considered auspicious to reopen businesses) which falls on November 9. These are the days seeing the maximum rush,” says Kuntal Rajani, a partner in Global Advantage.
Travel Agents Federation of India (TAFI) says that most Gujaratis prefer domestic destinations due to strict Covid protocols for tourists overseas. “There are a lot of inquiries for Maldivies and Europe. But when we tell them about the Covid protocols and tests they need to undertake, they choose to travel within the country. For instance, in Dubai, a tourist has to take RT-PCR test everyday,” says Hitank Shah, treasurer of TAFI.
Shah who operates Alka Airlink, says people are travelling this Diwali despite the prohibitive airfares and hotel tariffs. “The hospitality and tourism industry did no business for more than 1.5 years. Now the rates up by 25 per cent or more compared to Covid times. One-way airfare between Ahmedabad and Kolkata costs Rs 11,000-Rs 12,000 this time. Usually it is available between Rs Rs 4,500 and Rs 6,000. Those who can afford are choosing to travel as they are coming out after a long period of Covid restrictions,” he added.
TAFI also said there are very few bookings for Kerala, while a higher number are headed to north-eastern states like Assam, Meghayala and Tripura.
Due to the heavy demand, most hotels near destinations in Gujarat are fully booked for Diwali holidays. During the Covid pandemic, even as the state was unlocking, Gujarat government upgraded some tourist sites such as the Statue of Unity and launched the Girnar ropeway.
The administration of Statue of Unity in Kevadia, Narmada district, is gearing up for a heavy inflow of tourists. Assistant Commissioner of Statue of Unity Area Development and Tourism Governance Authority (SOUADTGA) Nilesh Dubey said, “Now that the pandemic is seemingly under control, the footfall has increased. We are expecting a rush during the Diwali week and also the week after. Arrangements are in place to ensure that Covid guidelines are followed.”
Jenu Devan, managing director of Tourism Corporation of Gujarat Ltd (TCGL), says, “People are desperate to go out and Diwali is the first big opportunity. Tourists spots within the state such as Gir sanctuary and Little Rann of Kutch are attracting domestic visitors. Pilgrimage spots will continue to remain crowded through Diwali holidays. At the Statue of Unity, numbers are going up to 25,000 visitors per day.”
While there are no hotels available for popular holiday wildlife destinations, even weekend getaways like Polo Forest have no rooms. The hotel availibility at Statue of Unity for a single night during the Diwali week Rs 13,700.
Gujarat saw an influx of 52 lakh tourists during 2001-02 and the number was 6.09 crore in 2019-20, with most visited related to business and trade. The numbers, however, fell after the Covid outbreak.
In Saurashtra, Mount Girnar and Sasan, are seeing heavy rush this season. Girnar ropeway ferried 6.60 lakh tourists its inaugural year ending on October 23 and executives of Usha Breco Limited (UBL), the owner and operator of the service, said the response has been overwhelming.
“We had to suspend the services for part of April and for the entire month of May due to Covid-19 pandemic. Also, inclement weather during monsoon forced suspension of service for 10 days. In all, we could operate the ropeway only for 250 days in the inaugural year and yet the response has been overwhelming. People from Saurashtra form the bulk of tourists. But in recent months, the number of tourists from other parts of the state as well as from outside the state have started increasing,” said Deepak Kaplish, UBL’s western regional head.
“The designed capacity of the ropeway is to ferry 1,000 passengers per hour and we are planning to increase our capacity utilisation as tourist flow is increasing,” Kaplish said adding one more waiting room has been created in the base station of the ropeway in Bhavnath Taleti and a helipad near upper station at Ambaji temple is also being converted into a waiting area.
Sasan, the eco-tourism hub known for its lion safaris inside Gir forest, has been a beehive of activity since Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary (GNPWLS) was reopened to tourists on October 16. Forest officers say that all safari slots have been booked till the first week of November. Hotels have also received good bookings, says Mukesh Metha, president of Sasan Hotel Association (SHA), an organisation of 32 hotels located in Sasan.
“This season, the business is double that of the normal years as people who want safety while enjoying the outdoor environment are preferring Sasan. Also, instead of the usual four-five days’ stay, tourists are staying longer and bookings are very good till November 14,” said Mehta adding that with ease in Covid-19 restrictions, flow of tourists from outside Gujarat has increased.
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