Updated: May 27, 2021 7:16:14 pm
There has never been a more challenging period in his life, admits Anish Kumar PK. In 1999, he began as a single-man tour operator in Kerala and gradually built his company ‘The Travel Planners’ into one of the major inbound travel firms in the state. His rise in the industry coincided with Kerala’s own flourish as a destination that offered the most diverse climes and topographies for visitors — from the verdant tea-gardens of Munnar to the backwaters of Alappuzha, from the rich cultural heritage of Malabar to the beaches of Thiruvananthapuram. But starting 2018, when Kerala was hit by a devastating flood, Kumar says he hasn’t been able to eke out a profit from his firm. And now, battered by a pandemic, he says he has had to sell off his apartment to pay wages of his 25-odd staff.
“I can’t lay them off because they have been with me for so many years. They don’t know any other work. I have to be humane right now,” says Kumar over a phone call from Thiruvananthapuram.
An award-winning tour operator, Kumar’s struggle for survival is sure to resonate with the lakhs of people directly and indirectly employed with Kerala’s otherwise thriving tourism sector. Back-to-back years of floods followed by an alarming public health crisis has pummelled an industry that contributes nearly 11 per cent to the state’s GDP and offers livelihood opportunities directly or indirectly for nearly 15 lakh people. Many like Kumar are scraping the last of their personal savings to keep their businesses afloat. The less fortunate are hanging on to government rations. With the state still firmly in the grip of the second wave of Covid-19 under a harsh lockdown that’s entered its third week, industry leaders are hesitant to put their finger on a timeline of the revival of the sector.
Survival first, then revival
“Survival of those attached to the sector is the first priority. We can only think of revival (of the sector) after that. If vaccination of the general public proceeds at a good pace, perhaps by October we could achieve a sense of herd immunity and people would be more confident of travelling then,” says Kumar, who has also been the president of the Association of Tourism Trade Organisations of India (ATTOI).
Towards that goal, as demanded by industry leaders, the Kerala government has begun vaccinating those employed in the hotel and hospitality sectors by categorising them as ‘frontline workers.’ Employers can register their staff on a state government portal and slots are allotted to them by health officials after verifying documents.
“If the tourism industry is fully vaccinated, we can promote Kerala as a fully-vaccinated safe destination for inbound travellers. Right now, those attached to hotels are being inoculated,” adds Kumar.
While Kerala’s peak tourist season between November and February had helped businesses and operators shave off losses to a small extent, the beginning of the second wave brought the industry to a complete standstill again. As infections rose gradually in the state, other states demanded that travellers carry negative Covid-test results while returning from Kerala. This further reduced the flow of tourist.
“It is a complete zero revenue system after the second wave. People (associated with the industry) are really feeling the pinch now and they are struggling. I think each of the business units are holding just about 10 percent of the staff they used to hold. So you can imagine the job losses,” says Sejoe Jose, chairman of the southern region of Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO).
In addition to vaccination of tourism staff, associations like IATO have petitioned the new Pinarayi Vijayan-led government in the state and the Narendra Modi-led Centre to fulfill their promises on financially supporting the sector through loans and incentives. “The state government had sanctioned a relief of Rs 425 crore last year, divided into three groups (of beneficiaries). First, for hotel owners and businesses as a Rs 25 lakh capital. Very few people have got it and banks have denied loans completely. We have asked the new minister to look into it. Second, for hotel and hospitality staff as a Rs 30,000 loan against gold and repayment in six months. With the second wave hitting, a lot of people are unable to pay so we have asked for more time and waiver of the interest. Third, relief for guides which have been paid based on whoever has registered. Inspections of houseboats are going on and they (govt) have promised grants based on submission of bills of repairs,” says Jose.
With regard to the Centre, the industry is hoping for disbursal of funds under the Services Export from India Scheme (SEIS) normally given to tour operators for bringing in foreign exchange, explains Jose. Funds for the 2019-20 financial year have reportedly not been released which could have provided huge support for the operators. Funds under the Emergency Credit Line Guarantee Scheme (ECLGS) are also on hold despite being declared in April, he adds.
Finally, when it comes to revival of the sector, Jose says the Centre needs to put a proper plan in place to announce to the world as to when India can reopen to tourists as a safe destination. “If India can say, on a specified date we will reopen, it can give a ray of hope to the industry. Businesses will know when to invest money. Banks will have an idea of flow of revenue and can give loans accordingly. We will get ample time to train our staff before inviting tourists. Vehicles can get their maintenance done and be ready. Gradually, the sector can revive smoothly.”
Scope for medical-wellness tourism
In the light of the devastating effects of the second wave of the pandemic and the vaccination process dragging on due to shortage of supplies, most travel businesses and operators in Kerala understand that a quick resumption of leisure travel is not possible. Even if tourists were to come from other parts of India, stand-alone resorts in destinations like Munnar, Alappuzha, Wayanad and Kumarakom are simply not ready to cater to them due to staff shortage, poor upkeep and low capital.
But if there is one area that could see a quick turnaround, it’s the medical-wellness sector, particularly Ayurveda for which there’s great interest especially among people in the Middle East. “Ayurveda is one of our unique products. The treatment one gets here is incomparable. There are people (particularly from the Middle East) who come here for regular, annual treatment. Then there are older people who depend on Ayurveda for rehabilitation. I have received more than 30 queries from people outside India. As soon as flights reopen, they are ready to come,” says Jihad Hussain, managing director of Gateway Malabar, a tour operator.
“They don’t have a lot of concerns about Kerala because our health department has a good image outside.”
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