Chirag Sharma spent the last winter giving finishing touches to his newly-built 12-bedroom guesthouse-cum-cafe near Dharamshala bus stand. To give shape to the venture, close to his heart, the 31-year-old used up all his savings and took a bank loan of Rs 1 crore. By mid-March, he had hired 11 employees, made the elevator functional and got the food menu printed. He was now ready to welcome the summertime rush of tourists.
Instead came the an unwanted guest in the form of novel coronavirus. As the virus spread, was declared a pandemic and induced a lockdown, a nightmare began for Sharma. More than two months later, Sharma is struggling to pay his staff or deposit his EMIs. There seems to be no end to Sharma’s nightmare that began in the last week of March when the lockdown was first announced before being extended at least three times — the last till May 31.
Sharma’s venture is one of the thousand-odd registered hotels and homestays in the district, according to the Dharamshala Hotel and Restaurant Association, which estimates that there are as many unregistered units.
“Around 70 percent of the tourism sector revenue in Kangra is generated during March to July, the summer season, although the presence of the Dalai Lama, the international cricket stadium and proximity to Punjab ensure a steady stream of visitors round the year. In June, hotels witness a hundred per cent occupancy. People employed in this industry have small land-holdings and hardly any alternative source of livelihood for such times as these,” says Ashwani Bamba, president of the association.
He estimates that around 70,000 people in the district are directly engaged in the tourism industry, while another 50-60,000, including vegetable vendors, washermen and electricians, are indirectly dependent on the hospitality sector.
“The only demand for my service these days comes from people stranded in other states wanting to return home. But who will go to Gurgaon or Rajasthan and get quarantined for 28 days upon return?” asks Vinod Kumar (26), who runs a taxi service in the area. There are over 2,000 taxi operators in the district, most of whom are now out of work with no other source of income, he says.
Mahender Kumar, who runs a homestay in Kareri village, says that many people prefer to visit the area for long periods of stay during this time of the year. “We offer them not just food and stay, but also guided tours and treks. The lucrative business, the ever-increasing footfall of visitors and increasing road connectivity has turned many people here away from their traditional occupation of pastoralism,” he says.
Bamba says that the government needs to provide interest-free loans and waive off existing loan installments for at least a year to help the hospitality sector recover from the losses. “Even when closed, hotels are getting electricity bills of Rs 12 to 14,000 a month due to commercial tariffs falling in the highest slab. We need immediate relief,” he says.
Four hotels in the district, including two government-owned units, have been converted into quarantine centres. Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur said last week that the state government is mulling on promoting the state as a quarantine destination to boost tourism when the pandemic becomes less severe.
“Managing a quarantine centre may be difficult in a town hotel, but it’s a good idea for camping sites, where social distancing is easier to follow due to large, open spaces,” says Sharma.
Earlier, opposition Congress had rejected the CM’s idea saying it may prove dangerous for the state. Even Shimla Hotel and Restaurant Association (SHRA) had suggested that regular tourists would stop coming to the state if hotels were developed as quarantine centres. It had, instead, suggested that hotels and restaurants with adequate space should be allowed to run as normal, serving customers on their premises itself, while maintaining social distancing.
According to one estimate, hotels in Himachal Pradesh have already lost around Rs 800 crore due to the lockdown.
An international hotspot
According to Arvind Sharma, a Dharamshala-based cartoonist, the tourist economy of the town developed during the 1960s, after the Tibetan community-in-exile, led by the Dalai Lama, settled in the suburbs of Mcleodganj. “Foreign travellers, drawn towards Buddhist teachings, started arriving here, including renowned people such as (anti-apartheid and human rights activist) Desmond Tutu and (Hollywood actor) Richard Gere,” he says.
Kangra also has a number of temples such as the Jwalamukhi and Brijeshwari temples, which attract a large number of pilgrims, besides historical sites such as the Kangra Fort and the monolithic rock-cut temples of Masroor.
For adventure enthusiasts, the Dhauladhar mountain range, which flanks the low hills of Kangra offers plenty of trekking routes, high-altitude lakes and the world-renowned paragliding site of Bir Billing
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