The number of COVID-19 cases is on the rise in countries around the world; this, irrespective of the political, social or economic status of the nations in question. Despite that, several governments, including India, have already started relaxing travel restrictions and requirements in the hope of reviving the ‘hardest-hit’ tourism industry.
In the third week of August, Vaishno Devi temple opened its gates for devotees and travellers after being shut for five months at a stretch. Several states have resumed tourist activities and others are getting ready to follow suit. The guidelines are in place as the stakeholders adapt and implement the ‘new normal’. India’s tourism industry is evolving and fast turning challenges into opportunities to grow.
In the first week of reopening, Vaishno Devi, one of the most visited temples in the country saw 2,000 pilgrim visits per day (as permitted by the authorities) which included 1,900 from Jammu and Kashmir itself and only 100 devotees from outside the state. All the pilgrims have to register themselves online, well in advance, in order to visit the temple. Special guidelines have been laid down for pilgrims from other states and red zones have to show a COVID-19 negative report. At all entry points, travellers will undergo automatic thermal screening. Additionally, vulnerable persons such as senior citizens, children below the age of ten, pregnant women and those with pre-existing co-morbidities have been advised not to visit Vaishno Devi. Before opening the gates, under an enormous sanitisation campaign, the zone was sanitised as well.
Mounting economic losses
According to the Ministry of Tourism’s annual report 2019-20, over 87 million people were employed, directly and indirectly, in the tourism industry in 2018-19. The travel and tourism sector makes significant contributions to the country’s economy, accounting for nearly 13 per cent of the total employment. One in every eight jobs in India is directly or indirectly linked to tourism. The tourism industry has taken a more severe hit than most others due to its intrinsic dependence on ‘free’ and ‘smooth’ movement of people.
The abrupt lull in physical movement caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in India and popular tourist destinations around the world, has led to colossal loss of economy and employment in the tourism sector. And, the future remains uncertain. A report by financial services and business advisory firm KPMG states that due to COVID-19 “the Indian tourism and hospitality industry is staring at a potential job loss of around 38 million which is 70 per cent of the total workforce”. World Travel and Tourism Council, a global forum for awareness, reports “as many as nine million jobs – six times the population of Goa – in the travel and tourism sector are at risk in India”.
Affiliated businesses in deep waters
Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) estimates, “of the total losses, the organised sector in the industry i.e. branded hotels, tour operators, travel agencies which are the mainstay of the sector – may be hit the hardest with an estimated loss of around Rs 1.58 lakh crore”. Branded hotel groups are set to lose as much as “Rs 1.10 lakh crore, online travel agencies Rs 4,312 crore, tour operators (inbound and domestic) Rs 25,000 crore, adventure tour operators Rs nearly 19,000 crore and cruise tourism Rs 419 crore”.
Tourism industry is a big umbrella with innumerable entities mushrooming under its cover. So, a host of people have been affected due to the slump in tourism. These include: Tour operators, travel agents, travel consultants, hotel workers, home-stay owners, BnB providers, restaurant and cafeteria owners and workers, cab drivers, tourist vehicle drivers and transporters, tour guides, small traders, craftsmen, artisans, cultural performers and even hawkers. A range of service providers are also facing a bleak future. Tourism has deep linkages with other domestic sectors such as handloom, food, transport, agriculture, FMCG, telecom, etc. Employment is ripe in the affiliated sectors too.
High fixed costs, taxes, diminishing footfalls, uncertain future, limited government support, lack of alternatives due to the pandemic and limited financially viable options has wreaked havoc among those working in the tourism industry. Federation of Associations of Tourism and Hospitality industry (FAITH) estimates a loss of Rs 10 lakh crore for the industry due to COVID-19. The impact on the inflow of foreign tourists has been significant and has led to a drastic fall in foreign exchange earnings.
Government relief inadequate
India is yet to address the disruptions and the concerns in the tourism sector. The government had initiated several schemes and programmes to boost inclusive tourism in the last few years. However, in the recovery package announced by the government, no special efforts were listed to revive the Indian tourism industry.
Countries around the world that are heavily dependent on tourism have launched innovative and inclusive efforts to provide relief to workers and help boost tourism in the post COVID world. For instance:
• One of the worst-hit nations, Italy announced a four billion euro bailout package ‘for tourism’. It will incentivise domestic tourists ‘to holiday on home soil’.
• France too has announced an eighteen billion euros ‘Marshall Plan for Tourism’ bailout for tourism in the country.
• The EU has provided benefits in the form of liquidity support, fiscal relief and easing of state aid rules for tourism-related businesses. The union is also considering a tourism recovery plan.
• South Africa, another tourism-friendly nation has initiated a relief package of approximately 11 million dollars only for MSMEs in the hospitality and tourism sector.
• Indonesia announced a 725 million dollar stimulus package to revive its tourism and civil aviation industry. The country has also provided for additional tax waivers to hotels and restaurants.
• Several other nations like Singapore, USA and UK have initiated efforts to revive domestic and international tourism.
Delhi-based travel consultant Suchitra Sen maintains, “There has been a sharp drop in the number of tourists including foreign tourists leading to loss of millions of jobs in the travel and hospitality industries. Several small businesses and owners are facing cash crunch. Even mid-size businesses are unsure of the future and gasping for government aid.”
States taking initiatives to resume tourism
Several states in the country such as Kerala, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and other north-eastern states have been highly dependent on tourism. The revenue generated from tourism and travel activities makes a significant contribution to the states’ economies. State governments are racing to resume domestic tourism. Reviving international tourism to the states is a long-drawn battle given international travel restrictions by India and other countries. A major overhaul of tourism policies and regulations is needed.
It’s also important to ensure safety of domestic and international travellers. Moreover, the onus of protecting and safeguarding native communities lies on the state governments where culture tourism and heritage tourism are in high demand.
It will need a collaborative effort and extensive use of technology to swim in the choppy future ahead. Google has taken the lead in the technology domain as it has been making things a little easier for travellers by adding useful new tools that can offer pandemic-related information for better planning. For instance, highlighting the number of local Covid-19 cases, including details of hotels that offer free cancellations, travel trends, flight operation details, etc.
Evidently, it`s time to create sustainable COVID-ready destinations. And, it will have to be a complete package.