A solitary pony grazes at the ridge abutting the Mahasu peak near Kufri, the tingling of its bells the only sound to ring the air. Rows of deserted shacks with worn-out tarpaulins line the ridge located more than 2,500 metres above the sea level, with some signboards proclaiming telescope views and rides on the “world’s highest go-kart track”.
At this time in the years past, the ridge would be bustling with visitors, small businesses, adventure activities and ponies.
With tourist season lost to Covid-19 pandemic, and nearly all their apple crop destroyed in hailstorms, residents of Kufri and its surrounding villages, where nearly all households are engaged in tourism, struggle to pick up the pieces this monsoon.
Residents said that many of them are now engaged in farming of vegetables such as potatoes and peas, while some have taken up MNREGA jobs. The area is prone to hailstorms, which occurred frequently this year, damaging most of the apple crop.
Lalit Chauhan, a floriculturist, said that he used to sell a carnation bunch for Rs 150 to 300 in pre-Covid times, mostly for weddings. “Now, I’ve sold a bunch for as low as Rs 15. The highest price I have fetched during the pandemic has been Rs 70, and it’s barely enough to cover the cost of cultivation and packaging,” he said.
Sanjeev Attri, who runs a row of homestays in his property, said that operational costs of keeping his business running is emptying his pockets. “The commercial tariffs for electricity and water are high. I was forced to send some of my staff back home, but even they’re desperate to return due to lack of alternatives. There’s hardly been any relief given by the government for our industry,” he said.
There are three hotels, 10 homestays and two resorts in Kufri, Attri said. Pony rides to the Mahasu peak are popular among tourists, and there are around a thousand ponies here, all left for grazing these days.
Near the starting point for the short trek to Mahasu peak, Sheeshpal Gupta awaits customers at his tea stall amidst a row of deserted food shacks. Three people working at the nearby Central Potato Research Institute have been his only patrons till afternoon. “I was finding it hard to sit idle at home, so I started coming here. Perhaps I’ll go set up my stall at the highway below for a better footfall,” he remarked.
Meanwhile, Himachal Pradesh has allowed entry of tourists with certain conditions as part of the phased reopening under Unlock 2.0. An official order said that “tourists with valid booking, preferably for durations not less than five days and having been tested for Covid-19 by an ICMR-accredited laboratory not earlier than 72 hours at the time of entry may also be exempted from the requirement of quarantine”.
“The people coming to Himachal Pradesh from other states shall strictly adhere to the prevailing guidelines/standard operating procedure (SOP) issued by the health and revenue departments of the state,” the order stated.
The order, however, did not mention the exact date from which tourists may visit the state. The state barred entry of tourists in March to check the spread of the novel coronavirus.
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