India decided to close its borders in March 2020 following the first few cases of Covid-19 in the country, bringing all international travel to a halt. With international flights, to and from India, banned, all players in Rajasthan’s tourism industry — from heritage and luxury hotels to destination management companies and cab services — have suffered huge losses.
“At one level, trade has been impacted which includes hotels, in-bound foreign travel companies and at another level, there has been a social impact through which educated guides, heritage shops, safaris and other small businesses have been affected. And the social impact has been really big,” explained Rahul Ranjan, General Manager Commercial at Le Passage to India, a destination management company.
Rajasthan is a culturally rich destination and tourists get a chance to explore widespread heritage in every city of the state. The state, along with luxury and commercial hotels, has a significant number of heritage and palace hotels which used to be a delight for foreign tourists.
Suroth Mahal, a heritage hotel located in a small town by the same name, once catered only to foreign tourists. “The hotel has been badly affected. We haven’t earned enough money to pay the staff or maintain the building. So, all expenses have been going from our own pockets. We have always catered to foreigners and we wish to keep it that way but it has been difficult to stay afloat as it was a new business. But at the end of the day, it is our property and we have to maintain it,” said Neeru Singh, owner.
Marwa Fort, a palace hotel, had bookings for February and March next year but with the new variant Omicron prompting the government to continue the international travel ban, the uncertainty continues. “Foreign tourists like this place a lot since it is an off-beat property which gives a complete experience of the heritage of Rajasthan. Domestic tourists don’t want that. Domestic tourists mostly wish to explore the city they are travelling to and not experience the culture of a village or a state. Heritage hotels can only function if in-bound tours begin again after international travel starts,” said Kamlendra Singh, the owner.
While some heritage and luxury hotels have been struggling to continue functioning, some have changed their operations to cater to domestic tourists. Ranjan said that many in-bound foreign companies and hotels have also had to shut down with some even facing bankruptcy.
“Hotels that serviced foreign clients made no business during the lockdown for five months straight. Even after that only 15-20 per cent occupancies could be filled with domestic tourists,” Ranjan said, adding how as a result even leisure hotels lowered their rates. “Corporate hotels have bled and family-owned hotels in Rajasthan have suffered the most,” Ranjan said, giving good reasons for why most have opted for concepts like staycations.
Jaisalkot, a luxury boutique hotel in Jaisalmer, has changed the very way it used to operate. “We have changed our menus, especially breakfast, to include more Indian oriented meals and less continental meals, like it was earlier,” said Manvendra Singh Chauhan, Director of Operations & Quality Support at Jaisalkot.
“Covid hit us bad, financially, but we are on the road to recovery. While we have seen no foreign tourists, we have welcomed domestic tourists and the wedding season has been a relief. But, we haven’t really been open for a whole season yet and have been only working in quarters, which doesn’t paint much of a picture,” he added.
Set in Bishangarh village, Alila is another luxury hotel that has brought changes in operations, including offering packages and add-on experiences to suit the needs of domestic travellers. “We are open to change and cater to the needs of tourists within and outside India. We are not a business hotel, we are located in the middle of a village. So, we had to offer more than rooms and meals to domestic guests. Hence, we started with creating packages with all the meals and additional experiences for guests. These experiences included gypsy rides, a tour of the fort, sundowner menus, archery, cycling, walk-in organic gardens and unique dining experiences,” explained Saji Joseph, General Manager at Alila. He added that while foreign travellers have more propensity to pay, domestic travellers pay for experiences and value add-ons.
Ranjan said that rural tourism has suffered more from the lack of foreign travellers who are better patrons of this segment.
Le tour de India, a tourism firm organising cycling tours for the last 11 years, has been organising tours mainly for foreign travellers. Owner Khushal Rathore is among those impacted by this lack of foreign visitors. He said that many in the industry have shut shop, picked up farming, gone back to family businesses or taken up other jobs.
Speaking about domestic tourists, Khushal said, “We are getting domestic tours but can’t please them because our packages are extremely localised and customised. We used to focus on the cultural aspect of the city on the tours but we are changing that for domestic tourists. Indian tourists do not want to pay as much as foreign tourists and want the duration of the tours to be shorter. To accommodate domestic tourists, we have reduced the prices of our tours and decreased the timings, too.”
Ajay Singh Dhamli, the owner of tour firm Rajputana adventures, received his first tour booking in the last two years, in January. “Travel for domestic guests is more about monuments and sites and less about cultural interaction, which poses an issue because our cycling and trekking tours are very localised,” he reiterated.
“Foreign tourists look at travel as a comprehensive experience where they require assistance and fully packaged tours. Hence, the beneficiaries also include cab and guide services. Whereas, 99 per cent of domestic travellers do not require any assistance. So, as an industry, we are bleeding,” Ranjan elaborated.
Luxury and vintage cab services were a huge market assisting foreign travellers in Rajasthan, and for the last two years, these businesses, too, have found it an uphill climb. “We have sold 50 per cent of our cars and more than 70 per cent of the staff has been relieved. The effect of the pandemic has been extremely bad and while there is no transportation at all, the increase in fuel prices is eating what’s left of the business,” said Vijendra Singh, the owner of Heritage cabs. “Cancellation for a few bookings made for the next three months has begun with news of the new variant. If the third wave comes, it will only get worse for us.”
Dilip, the owner of Rajputana cabs, now has only 20 per cent of the business he had in pre-covid times. “The luxury cabs have not been used for the last two years. The only thing keeping business afloat is bookings for yatras.”
With the news of borders reopening from December 15 this year, many foreign tourists had made bookings to travel to Rajasthan. “What was appearing to be a relief in January and the coming summer has now been pushed back for a while. We think we’d be looking at October to open. We have two seasons washed out and we might be looking at a third. Even after borders open, it would take four to five months for tourism to pick up,” Ranjan said.
But, it’s not all gloom as Joseph wrapped it up: “What the pandemic has taught us is to be flexible, act at the right time and be open to change. We will be evolving as the time requires us to.”