Tourism, one of Himachal’s key industries, faces an uncertain year even as economic activity in other sectors such as manufacturing and agriculture has begun to resume following relaxations by the government.
With international and domestic travel likely to stay restricted for some time to come, peak tourist season in the state has been disrupted, leading to lay-offs and heavy losses for those directly and indirectly dependent on it.
“Chances of revival of tourism this year are slim, and hoteliers who work on leased land have been affected the most. Unable to pay salaries to their employees, many guesthouses and hotels in our area have been forced to downsize while advance bookings for even June and July have been cancelled. Around 80 per cent of those engaged in the hospitality sector here have no other source of income,” said Manmohan Singh, 32, who runs a home stay in Jibhi.
According to the state economic survey 2019-20, tourism accounts for around 7 per cent of the state Gross Domestic Product. Approximately seven lakh families in the state are directly or indirectly engaged in the sector, according to an estimate by Himalaya Niti Abhiyan, a civic society organisation.
“The pandemic has completely ruined the tourism industry in the state,” Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur said during a video conference with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, according to a press statement.
A joint representation to the CM by various hospitality and tourism associations in the state has said that it might take 12 to 18 months for the industry to get back on its feet, and demanded monetary support for all registered employees by bringing out a special package for the sector.
A group of stakeholders and experts have also approached the state government appealing for a fiscal stimulus and relief measures, including a year-long moratorium on term loans, interest waiver, subsidies on electricity and water charges, and unemployment benefits to those who have lost tourism-related jobs as a direct fallout of the COVID-19 crisis.
They have also demanded that unorganised sector seasonal employees such as guides, porters, housekeeping staff, and others be brought under MGNREGA for a guaranteed income.
“The post COVID-19 restoration of tourism offers an opportunity for the government to promote responsible community-based tourism and decongest overcrowded hotspots such as Shimla, Manali, Dharamshala and Dalhousie. After this, even tourists would prefer to avoid crowded locations,” said Ankit Sood, an ADB consultant and former professor of tourism.
Sood said rural communities must be trained in health, hygiene, and environmental sustainability and tourism must be redefined so that it does not threaten local resources.
Stephan Marchal, founder of a tourism cooperative in Kullu, said that the pandemic has taught people not to be entirely dependent on tourism and also have alternate means of livelihood.
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