Although tourists have been flocking to Himachal Pradesh ever since it opened up its borders two months ago, health officials are attributing the ongoing Covid wave in the state primarily to weddings and social functions among the local residents.
Covid-related fatalities in Himachal have doubled in the past one month, and the total infections have increased by more than 75 per cent. The state has reported nearly 36,000 cases including 572 deaths, and there are more than seven thousand active cases at present. The surge comes after a period of decline in active cases in October, when daily recoveries had started exceeding the daily new infections.
In mid-September, the state government lifted all restrictions on inter-state movement, following which tourists started arriving in the state in large numbers (conditional entry of tourists had been permitted July 3 onwards, but only around 2,400 tourists had entered the state since then till September 15 due to the stringent conditions involved).
“Not a single tourist has tested positive for the coronavirus till date. No hotel has been sealed, and tourists have not brought Covid into the state as was being feared,” said Mohinder Seth, representative of the All Himachal Associations of Hospitality and Tourism Forum.
Health officials admitted that Covid cases are not being reported among tourists, but said that they may have contributed in the spread of the disease by not adhering to precautions.
The Lahaul valley, for instance, saw a rise in infections after it became a tourist hotspot with the opening of the Atal tunnel at Rohtang. The valley, which has received several spells of snow, can now be visited in around an hour’s time from Manali.
“No tourists have tested positive here. But most of them visit for a day or less. And many of them are seen not wearing masks. Tourism seems to have contributed somewhat to the Covid spike because more cases have been reported from areas where tourist influx is high,” said Lahaul-Spiti chief medical officer Dr Paljor.
A majority of the tourists coming to Himachal are from neighbouring states who visit for a weekend or less. Seth said that hotel occupancy in the state has been low despite the lifting of restrictions. “It had increased to 20-25 per cent, but has fallen again because night curfew has been imposed in parts of the state,” he said.
The current Covid hotspots in the state are the districts of Shimla, Kullu, Kangra and Mandi where night curfew has been enforced. Three of these districts – Shimla, Kullu and Kangra – are tourist hotspots as well, having the hill stations of Dharamshala, Manali and Shimla.
However, the festive season earlier this month and the ongoing wedding season are the main causes of Covid spread, according to health officials.
Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur said social functions at night are being organised indoor within a single room or hall because temperatures have gone down in the hill state with the onset of winter.
“In such cases, when the celebration and the naati (folk dance) lasts the entire night, even a single Covid positive person can spread around the virus. And this is the report we have been getting from throughout the state, especially rural areas,” he told the press on Tuesday.
In the Spiti valley, where tourism is still closed, around 40 people from Rangrik village tested positive last month after they went to Manali in a wedding procession. Similar mass infections have been reported from other parts of the state as well.
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