Every weekend from 9 am until 9 pm, constable Ankush Gavari is parked in the middle of the road at Lonavala’s entry point. His job is to stop every vehicle entering the tourist town.
Since August 5, following unlockdown guidelines and government permissions, many hotels in the hill town have reopened. Most of the 57,000 residents of Lonavala are almost entirely dependent on tourism for a livelihood.
But with an e-pass mandatory for entering Lonavala, and the tourist spots in the area still shut, these hotels are yet to see any occupancy. In other years, tourists would flock to Lonavala during the monsoon, but this year, despite the relaxations in lockdown, there are plenty of other obstacles to visiting the place.
Drenched in Sunday’s pouring rain, Gavari checked if visitors were carrying an e-pass and if they were wearing masks. “People from other districts don’t know they can’t enter Lonavala without an e-pass. Several book hotels and come. We have to ask them to return,” he says.
At the intersection where Gavari is posted, of over 1,000 vehicles attempting entry into the town through the day on a Saturday or Sunday, about 80 per cent have no permit to enter, he says. “About 20-25 persons still insist or try to fight. We register a case under Section 188 against them,” he said.
The city has four such checkpoints. The main traffic is from Mumbai, followed by Pune. “Since intra-district travel is allowed, we only ask tourists from Mumbai for e-pass, not Pune,” said Navneet Kanwal, assistant superintendent of police, Lonavala.
The Lonavala Municipal Corporation has shut all tourist points — Bhushi dam, Tiger point, Lion’s point, Andharbhan trek, even as hotels, lodges and restaurants are allowed to operate on these routes with 33 per cent occupancy. Across Pune district, of which Lonavala is a part, over 30 tourist spots remain shut.
Nilesh Sancheti, owner of Sancheti Lawns with 10 rooms, invested in a handheld thermometer, a pulse oximeter, disinfectant spray for rooms and face shield and masks for staff. Every day the rooms are sanitised. Till date his rooms are empty. “Even if a booking is made, guests are not able to make beyond the checkpost if they don’t have an e-pass,” he said.
Down the road, Hotel Grand Vistara has over 30 rooms and has kept 11 of them open. “Only two rooms are occupied right now. We have 15 staffers, but there is no work for so many,” said manager Shubham Lahore. One of the guests, requesting anonymity, said they managed to enter the town via a village from Pune which had no checkpost.
Corporator Manik Marathe, who also owns Motiram hotel, said, “Unless tourist points open, we will have no business. I advise all guests booking with me to first apply for e-pass,” he said.
With tourist points shut, local street hawkers, cafes have no business too. Suraj Mewat, a paan stall owner, stares at empty parking lot across Bhushi dam. “Last monsoon, there was no space to park. This road was so crowded people found it difficult to walk,” he said. Mewat keeps his shop open hoping to get some business from locals. His father is retired, so he is the sole breadwinner for the family of four.
Near Bhushi dam, Ajay Vikram owns a ceramic artifacts shop that caters to tourists. When the lockdown began, he went back home to Uttar Pradesh but was forced to return a month ago when his savings ran out. But, he says, “There is no income here anymore. Hardly anybody comes on this road now.”
Street hawkers have relocated to newer spots with the closure of tourists spots. Several now park themselves on the highway leading to Lonavala. Tourists turned away from checkposts stop by to eat and enjoy whatever view the highway offers of the valley. Cars line up by the roadside for tea or spiced corn.
Lonavala has 133 Covid-19 cases so far. Since the town receives an unrestricted flow of hundreds of tourists from Pune, from next week local police plan to restrict tourist movement in city market area. Police said they are getting requests from hotel owners to lift travel restrictions in a bid to boost tourism.
The Lonavala police have registered 1,619 offences since June 1 related to violation of lockdown norms in Lonavala city, Lonavala rural, Kamshet, and Vadgaon. Under Section 188 (violation of public order) and 269 (act causing spread of infection) of IPC, 402 cases have been registered. Another 490 cases are related to tourists coming into the hill station and 50 cases with respect to e-pass violation.
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