On Monday, 45-year-old Parvesh Kumar walked up to the Ridge Maidan in Shimla with a hope that he might get some customers on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr. But no customer found his way to Kumar, who earns his living by photographing people visiting the Ridge. He said that after the lockdown was implemented, he has been coming here since May 4, when the curfew was significantly relaxed. “But I’m yet to have my bohni (first sale). I only come here because it gives me a sense of purpose,” he added.
He is among four photographers out of around a hundred who have started coming to the Ridge in the hope of finding work. But visitors even from nearby areas are rare in the absence of public transport, and the tourist hotspot remains deserted except for local residents.
This is in sharp contrast to a usual May in Shimla, when tourists from other states throng the hill station to escape the summer heat. “The pandemic has coincided with the peak tourist season. I used to make a thousand rupees a day before the lockdown. These days, it has been reduced to a hundred rupees or so. It’s hardly sufficient to pay my house rent, which is three months overdue,” said Satish Kumar, 52, a roadside vendor who sells bangles and other wares. He, too, is one of the few vendors out of hundreds who have restarted work post the lockdown.
But most of the small businesses dependent on tourists – those offering horse rides, trolleys for infants, taxi service, or sellers of toys and food items – have vanished for now, while hotels, guesthouses and homestays are shut.
Last year, more than 18.66 lakh tourists had visited Shimla district till June, according to the state’s tourism department. For the same period, it was the most preferred tourist destination in the state, witnessing a footfall of nearly 17.87 lakh domestic and 80,000 foreign tourists.
According to Raaja Bhasin, a city-based historian and convenor of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, Shimla, the city has been a tourist destination since the British era, but there was a dip in tourist arrivals for over two decades following independence. “It picked up once Himachal Pradesh came into being as a state in 1971, but the surge in tourism came following economic liberalisation in the 1990s. People now had surplus income to spend on travel, and road connectivity to the hill state had also improved,” he said.
Back at the Ridge, Parvesh, the photographer, said that he has never before seen a complete absence of tourists here since he started working in 1986. “There was a brief period of low footfall during the water crisis two years ago. This time though, it seems we’re in it for the long haul,” he remarked.
According to Shimla Hotel and Restaurant Association president Sanjay Sood, there are 500 to 600 registered hotels, guesthouess and homestay units in the city. “There is usually 100 per cent occupancy in these units during the summer peak season, that is April 15 to July 10,” he said, adding that the occupancy is zero now.
A delegation from the industry met Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur Saturday and asked for a financial package and other relief measures for the sector which has suffered massive losses during the peak season, unlike other tourism in other states such as Goa and Kerala where it’s currently the lean season. Shimla (Rural) MLA Vikramaditya Singh, who accompanied the delegation, said that the CM assured them that the state government is planning to announce various relief measures for the hotel industry.
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