April 15, 2021 11:00:58 pm
If things had gone according to plan, a group of people from Pune would have been in Ratnagiri on a trip to learn about mangoes and feast on the king of fruits. Many more would have been in the jungles of central India, sighting tigers, other wildlife and birds that come out in this weather. The surge in coronavirus infections, as India finds itself in the middle of a brutal second wave, has put paid to these travel plans.
For a number of travel operators in Pune, this has meant a series of phone calls, from clients who want to cancel their bookings, and to hotels, airlines and other travel partners for refunds on booking amounts. All the while, their bank balance is steadily dwindling as the cash inflow is affected for the second summer in a row, but rents and staff salaries still have to be paid.
“Things were starting to look good after the unlockdown but, as news of the second wave hit us in February, people began to cancel. I cancelled a trip last night, and another this morning. We don’t know how things will pan out for May amid the uncertainty over the pandemic,” says Paresh Deshmukh of Footloose Journeys. Most groups have fully-booked trip in May for places, such as the ones to Tadoba, but these are in limbo.
“It was, unfortunately, necessary for the government to put curbs on travel but it is frustrating when we see so many people at Kumbh mela or at election rallies while we, as businesses, are suffering. There seem to be different rules for different sets of people,” says Jayesh Paranjape of Western Routes.
The second wave has hit the sweet spot for the travel industry — between April and the first week of June — when families travel as children’s exams are over and schools are on vacation. “This is the window when every tour operator is the most active. We, usually, have around 35 trips in this period of an average 12 people per trip. In the remaining nine months, there are 40 trips. Unfortunately, the lockdown, even last year, was announced around this time,” says Devendra Gogate, director of Planning and Operation, Globe-N-Beyond.
A number of travel operators have started downsizing their staff and drawing out their savings while several have gone bankrupt and a few have switched to other occupations. “What most people do not realise is that travel groups sustain the economy of local communities in remote places in India. We focus on wildlife exploration, birding and safaris but we also take people to meet local communities to understand their way of life, food, culture, dance and music. When there is no footfall, the livelihood of locals, from drivers and tour guides to the small shop that sells tea outside a forest reserve, gets impacted,” says Deshmukh.
After last year’s lockdown, most operators changed their policies and processes to make travel safer, such as reducing the size of the groups, getting bigger buses and vehicles to transport them, living in sanitised homesteads and hotels and following travel protocol such as masking and sanitising, among others.
“Agents take a lot of precautions, which results in traveling being safer than crowding in the markets of a metro city. Everything is contained and controlled, unlike in a lot of places in cities,” says Sushil Chikane of Journeys. “People are also eager to travel because they are tired of being stuck at home. We are receiving a lot of enquiries but the major problem that the tourism sector is facing is the uncertainty of policies. Travelling policies of Maharashtra are different from those in other states and it keeps changing without any notice period. That is what scares clients. In March, we had clients flying to Nagpur to get to Pench and the night before, we were told that there is a new policy that taxis can’t take more than three people. Now, these people who were supposed to go in two cabs, we had to book four cabs for them. The profit went into the extra cars,” he adds.
The travel industry, especially niche businesses, have done all they could on their own and now hope for a push from the government. “The forest departments in a few states, such as Madhya Pradesh, have started giving refunds for safaris but besides that, we have not heard from the government. Last year, when the Union finance minister gave her statement, the tourism sector was not mentioned. It is even more difficult for travel agents this year,” adds Chikane.
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