Silence of the hills

By Vishal Gulati

The serenity and tranquility prevailing in Himachal Pradesh’s resort town of Manali is haunting tourists ever since the Covid-19 outbreak in March, with the much-preferred tourist destination turning virtually into a ghost town, literally.
Estimates say no less than 1,500 hotels, lodges and home-stay accommodations in and around Manali are yet to pull up the shutters giving the town a tranquil, yet forlorn look.
“There is an eerie emptiness everywhere in Manali, be it the streets, the shops or the selfie points,” remarked Abhishek Dubey, a tourist from New Delhi.
His wife Nikita added: “The local transportation for sight-seeing is mostly devoid of commuters and tourists. You can see only mountain goats roaming the quiet streets of Manali.”
Members of the hospitality industry say 20-25 per cent hotels, mainly high-end and those who have taken the units on high lease, have opened their doors for the guests.
They say in their lifetimes they have never seen such a stillness of public spaces with the footfall of tourists almost abysmal and the bookings almost nil, impacting their livelihoods.
“The hotel industry is suffering catastrophic losses,” Manali Hotelier Association President Anoop Thakur told IANS.
He said from tour guides to adventure tour and travel operators, everyone who depends on visitor spending is feeling the pain.
Thakur, whose association has 650 plus members, blamed the state for adopting discriminatory standard operating procedures (SOPs) framed by the Central government mainly for the hotels located in cities and metros.
Also lack of Covid-19 care facility in Manali is a major hindrance.
“In Manali, almost 90 per cent of the hotels are operating on the periphery where the existing SOPs are practically not possible to implement,” he said.
“These SOPs are basically for high-end hotels and restaurants operating in major cities. Since most of the hospitality units are budget and located in villages, there is a lot of anxiety, fear and apprehensions amongst the owners, who are largely locals. So they prefer to keep their units shut till a separate SOP keeping in mind the local requirements is reframed,” he said.
Also, there is no Covid-19 rapid testing facility for the tourists.
“One has to visit Kullu town to get the Covid test and that is 40 km away from here. Time and again we are requesting the government to provide the testing facility within Manali itself to boost the confidence of the locals, but nobody is paying the heed,a he said.
According to him, the association has also been demanding to set up a rapid testing lab in Bajaura town, the entry point to Manali, to cater to the tourists only so that the hoteliers could get confidence that their guests are virus-free.
Himachal Pradesh is a major tourism destination. The contribution of the tourism sector to the state GDP is about seven per cent, a significant one.
The worst affected by the virus is the home-stay units that is promoted with an aim to drive tourists to the interiors.
Under this scheme any house owner in a village could let out a maximum of three rooms for guests.
Currently, some 800 home-stay units have been registered in the state. Out of these, 250 are in the Kullu-Manali region. Shimla district has 211 units, followed by Kangra 111.
Officials of the state-run Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC) say the occupancy in most of their hotels in all tourist destinations is almost negligible.
Varun Malhotra, owner of Grace Resort and Spa, said, “In the past weekend, there was a noticeable arrival of the tourists for the first time since the March shutdown. We are hopeful that their arrival will pick up pace slowly and slowly and it might take two-three months.”
Lack of public connectivity is the major bottleneck for the tourist arrival, he said.
“The state has still kept its borders closed for the plying of interstate buses. A major chunk of tourists prefer to come to Manali via Volvo buses from Delhi and Chandigarh owing to long-distance travel. Since the state has not allowed them, the arrival of the guests is low,a said Malhotra, also the Manali Super Luxury Volvo Owners Association President.
On an average nearly 90 luxury Volvo buses ply to and fro daily between this tourist resort and Delhi via Chandigarh.
As per estimates of the local hospitality industry, the current occupancy rate on normal days in five per cent and on weekends it spikes to 15-20 per cent.
The winter tourist season in Manali starts from Dussehra holidays and lasts till New Year’s Eve.
Corporate executive Deepali Sood from Chandigarh said she was earlier planning to visit Manali during the week-long Kullu Dussehra festivity.
“I have postponed my visit with friends as tourists are still facing restrictions amid fears of coronavirus spikes,” she said.
Contrary to state’s trends, OYO’s consumer survey says with state borders opening up and relaxation of restrictions across the country, travellers are back into action.
It says 57 per cent of respondents said their next trip would be for leisure, while 61 per cent have already decided the destination for their coming vacation.
“OYO’s booking trends for the long weekend between October 2 and 4 clearly reflect India’s travel aspirations and confidence to hit the roads once again. We saw a whopping 72 per cent surge in bookings for leisure destinations during this period,” Rohit Kapoor, CEO, India and South Asia, OYO, told IANS.
Himachal Pradesh’s economy is highly dependent on tourism, besides hydroelectric power generation and horticulture.
The other hill destinations in the state like Shimla, Kufri, Narkanda, Kasauli, Chail, Dharamsala and Palampur also reel under virus fears.
State’s tourist footfall in 2019 increased to 172.12 lakh, which included 3.83 lakh foreigners, from 164.50 lakh in 2018.
The highest arrival in 14 years was at 196.02 lakh in 2017.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at [email protected])

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