Earlier this week, the Ministry of Tourism launched the ‘Stranded in India’ website for international tourists. In its first two days, it received more than 500 queries/ requests for help. The ministry is now coordinating with the Ministry of External Affairs, state officials and respective embassies to help such tourists. Emergency requests like need for food, medicine and care for elderly tourists are being expedited. More importantly, from the data collected on the website, lists of passengers from countries which were COVID-19 hotspots have been circulated to the regional offices, asking them to track and monitor their movement and ensure health advisories are followed.
Union Tourism and Culture Minister Prahlad Patel talks to The Indian Express about the initiative, ways to send stranded tourists back to their countries, and how the Ministry plans to deal with the setback that the industry has received. Excerpts from an interview:
Indian Express: A big cause for concern for the government is the stranded foreigners. A portal was launched recently where they could seek help from the government. How exactly are you helping them out?
Prahlad Patel: We are waiting for a complete feedback to emerge from the portal from foreigners who may be stranded in any part of the country. We need to understand where they are, what kind of problems they are facing — boarding, lodging, food, health. Once all of this data can be collated, the tourism ministry will work as a nodal agency and coordinate with other ministries and state governments to ensure their safety. Once the lockdown opens, we will make arrangements for their return. If many of them come from one nation, we can request for a chartered flight to facilitate their return.
Indian Express: The tourism industry of India, which is worth Rs 17 lakh crore, has been worst-hit owing to the situation arising out of COVID-19. What are the steps you are going to take once the lockdown opens?
Prahlad Patel: Tourism industry — which generates 9 per cent of India’s GDP and 8 per cent of its total employment – has been worst hit. I have held a couple of meetings with the stakeholders — hotels, tour operators, travel agencies, ticketing portals — in the recent past, and will be holding another round of discussions in the next two days. I will hear them out, and have sought their suggestions on the recovery path. When the lockdown eases, we will have to take immediate mitigation measures so that the impact is not long-term.
Indian Express: What about contractual employees and those who are preoccupied with tourism-related odd jobs — like the guides? Has anything been decided on helping them?
Prahlad Patel: At all the monuments, the external agencies who employ security guards have been instructed to not take this lockdown as gap period, and continue to pay them. Same in the case of drivers employed in the sector. However, one has to admit that tourist guides are the only gap — they were asked to register on our website before the lockdown began but not many came forward. If they had registered, we would have figured some way to transfer some benefit directly into their accounts.
Indian Express: Even when the worst is over, foreign travel will be curtailed for some time owing to apprehensions among many of us. Will you use the opportunity to boost domestic tourism?
Prahlad Patel: Not only among Indians, even in the minds of foreigners, the lockdown has created an image of India as a safe tourist destination where authorities are proactive and take adequate steps on time. Many around the world would now want to visit India once things ease, rather than travelling to Europe or other parts of the world that have been badly hit. Having said that we will continue to ensure safe and hygienic practices in our monuments and tourist sites once everything opens up.
Indian Express: How far do you think the lockdown has been able to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
Prahlad Patel: Prime Minister Narendra Modi sensed the proportion of the epidemic much before it hit us. India is a country with dense population and facilities are scarce. Even countries that are much more developed and sparsely populated have suffered so much, one can’t even imagine the how much we would have suffered it lockdown had come in late. This was perhaps the only way and it came at the right time.
Indian Express: How is the Madhya Pradesh government handling the situation in the wake of the Indore incident where paramedics were attacked by a group?
Prahlad Patel: It was a right move by the state government to invoke the National Security Act (NSA) against those hooligans, nothing less would have worked for those who attacked the saviours — the medics who have taken it upon themselves to protect us.
Indian Express: How are you dealing with the lockdown?
Prahlad Patel: I am in Jabalpur, spending time with my family, which I don’t get to do much owing to official responsibilities. Also, I have visited my constituency (Damoh) twice in the last few days to take stock of the situation there. Initially in Jabalpur, sanitation workers were apprehensive of working in the area where positive cases were found. So I offered to volunteer for a day in those areas to help change that perception.
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