After weeks of being locked down, when the central and state governments started ‘reopening’ businesses and activities, the biggest fear facing authorities and citizens was what if the phase-wise ‘unlock’ fails and the outbreak soars to even higher proportions?
Thankfully, the reopening or ‘Unlock’ 1.0 and then 2.0 is being implemented across states in a controlled manner with strict supervision and has garnered positive results. Tourism activities have still to see approval and similar relaxations. Even for the states that have resumed tourist activities, the uncertainties remain high. And that’s the ‘new normal’ the world’s bracing for.
Travel conditions including mandatory COVID-19 test, seven days’ hotel booking, social distancing, etc., no longer surprise travellers. That’s the least of the ‘new travel requirements’ in the post-COVID world. Countries around the world are taking cues from each other, keeping a close watch on initiatives, success stories to be able to make decisions for themselves. The Tourism E-Conclave by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) brought Tourism Ministers from six states on a digital platform along with the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India to discuss about the ways and means of re-starting tourism in the country. It was agreed to tap the domestic tourism market, State Tourism Departments will need to step forward, in cohesion and work with utmost synergy. But, travelling in the post-COVID world won’t be without conditions.
States step up to revive tourism
Additional Director General, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India Rupinder Brar said, “While we are going through extremely challenging times for tourism and hospitality, it has given us an opportunity to dive deep and delve in Incredible India, which earlier focused a lot on the inbound market…It is now a huge opportunity and a challenge on how to pitch the products of India to Indians. The whole narrative that the Prime Minister has built about ‘Atma Nirbharta’ can be seen at various levels. This is not an inward-looking view, but we should also develop our own domestic tourism.”
Uttarakhand was one of the first states in the country to remove travel restrictions and open the state for tourism and related activities. The state opened its borders in July 2020 for inter-state and inter-district travel for tourism-related activities. Travellers and bagpackers have welcomed the new-found freedom and ‘smooth’ travel option. “Now, tourists who wish to visit Uttarakhand will be able to move around freely in the state. But certain conditions apply, the most important being they need to produce a COVID-19 negative test result,” says Nainital-based tour guide Surinder Bisht.
State Tourism Minister Satpal Maharaj says, “Those working in the tourism sector will get employment once again. Any kind of infection in the state will be prohibited.” The state has taken several initiatives to encourage tourist arrival including planning to make a ‘Ramayana circuit featuring the holy places connected with the Ramayana’.
Also, tourist hubs like Mussoorie, one of the most-visited and famous hill stations in Uttarakhand, have laid down clear instructions for travellers. For instance, tourists visiting Mussoorie will be allowed entry ‘only after showing the proof of booking for seven days under Unlock 2.0’. No entry will be allowed after 10 pm and before 7 am. These tourists must have a negative COVID-19 report issued in the last 72 hours, in the absence of which the person will be quarantined for seven days. The Uttarakhand residents, however, can move freely without any restrictions.
Pilgrimage resumes, with conditions
“We have been informed that only residents of the state have been allowed to undertake the Char Dham yatra and enter the temple premises, for now,” says temple priest Madan Sharma. The yatra is all set for a low-key opening this year with no pilgrims allowed to visit Gangotri, Yamunotri and Kedarnath when they reopen after the six-month winter closure.
According to the minister, “In compliance with social distancing norms, we cannot allow pilgrims as of now to visit the temples…Our priority at the moment is opening the portals of the temples in accordance with religious beliefs and traditions associated with them. The rest of the decisions will be taken as per the Centre’s directives.”
The state government is contemplating a series of initiatives to offset the economic impact of the mandatory ‘social distancing’ condition during the yatra. “One such step may be to shift focus to ‘Dhyan Kendras’ and meditation caves near the temples where social distancing can happen automatically.”
International travel in an ‘air bubble’
When the lockdown was announced, India had suspended international travel completely. In the phase-wise unlock, India has now relaxed visa restrictions for travel to select countries. India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has eased visa and travel restrictions to and from countries with which the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) has entered into an Air Bubble i.e., bilateral air travel arrangement during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The MHA is also permitting entry into India to OCI cardholders (Overseas Indian Citizen) who belong to countries with which the Air Bubble agreement has been finalised. These countries include USA, UK, France, Germany, Canada, UAW, Kuwait. The Air Bubble allows travel depending upon the terms and conditions of the agreement between the two nations.
MHA spokesperson took to Twitter and said, “Foreigners from these countries have also been allowed to avail Indian visa facility for business, medical and employment purposes. Indian citizens have also been allowed to travel to such countries on any type of visa.” India and the UAE are working on an Air Bubble scheme that will supersede the special travel corridor set up to operate repatriation flights between both the countries till 31 August 2020.
Setting the new normal
Travel agencies, tour operators, airlines, transporters and most importantly government bodies and regulatory authorities have a colossal task ahead to set the framework – legal and operational – for the tourism industry. The new set of rules, terms and conditions will be flexible considering the ‘uncertain nature’ of the variables.
International borders for many countries may stay shut in the near future putting to standstill the movement of travellers. Some countries such as Italy, China, Spain and the US that registered record number of COVID-related deaths may not feature in the top travel destinations for a considerable time. Business travel has already reduced drastically.
Conferences, seminars, business meets may not happen for sometime. Most organisations are facilitating and encouraging a work from home culture and Zoom, Google Meet, etc., have already become the norm. Most multinational firms, international organisations are avoiding travel for their employees.
Several global trade and sports events have already been cancelled or postponed reducing travel drastically. Also, the number of students leaving the country to study overseas have reduced in number. With most educational institutes switching to online mode of lectures, the student visa requirements will have to be revisited.
Entities are working overtime to set the new rules for booking, cancelling, rescheduling for travel and for lodging and boarding. The uncertainty that has gripped the world caused by the unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a major factor in deciding the new normal.