With COVID-19 cases and deaths piling up, the country's second biggest tourism destination of Aurangabad in Maharashtra has taken a severe hit with estimated losses of over Rs 1,000 crore and counting.
This week, Aurangabad District - famed for its Ajanta and Ellora Caves - the twin World Heritage Sites, besides other National Heritage sites - crossed the 10,000 mark to touch 10,629 coronavirus cases with 416 deaths, becoming the fifth major hotspot in the state after Mumbai, Thane, Pune and Jalgaon in terms of total fatalities.
Accusing the government of "utter lethargy" for the past few months, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) MP Syed Imtiaz Jaleel said the situation has somewhat improved in Aurangabad this month after pressure from the elected representatives.
"There is better planning and coordination, but lockdowns cannot continue. People are losing jobs, businesses are shutting, tourism is in shambles. They must be allowed to reopen with all Covid-19 protocols," Jaleel said.
"The Covid pandemic has virtually killed tourism here. We hope that after resumption of international flights to Mumbai and Pune and onward domestic connections to Aurangabad, the situation may improve," Travel Agents Association of Aurangabad committee member Mangesh Kapote gloomily said.
Though road travel is permitted with restrictions, he said people need to get e-passes which are given only for emergencies, not for tourism, besides compulsory quarantine rules continuing, driving away tourists.
Aurangabad district has a population of nearly 4 million, of which nearly one-third is in Aurangabad city with over 25,000 people directly engaged in tourism, besides many more indirectly in the hospitality sector, according to Kapote.
"We have more than 1,400 hotels including 4 five-stars, others in various categories right down to budget accommodation, besides restaurants, around 3,500 tourist taxis, guides, and allied sectors, which are all at a standstill," said Kapote.
From the tourism aspect, Aurangabad ranks No 2, attracting the maximum foreign and domestic visitors after Agra's iconic Taj Mahal, one of the ï¿½Seven Wonders of the World'.
The UNESCO-listed Ajanta and Ellora ancient cave temples daily attract hordes of tourists from China, Japan and other South Asian, Far East Asian nations, and are a must-see on most global and Indian Buddhist tourism circuits.
Though the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) permitted reopening of prominent locations here like Ajanta & Ellora, Bibi-ka-Maqbara or ï¿½mini-Taj', the Daulatabad Fort, Nehar-e-Panchakki, the Grishneshwar Jyotirlinga Temple, the famed sari town of Paithan, the tomb of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in Khuldabad, Soneri Mahal, among others.
"But where are the tourists? Ellora and Ajanta are the top preferred sites by tourists, but since March nobody is coming here in the absence of flights, quarantine conditions, stringent travel rules, etc," rued tour guide operator Areef Shaikh.
Aurangabad tourism also helps others in the region prosper, like the Shirdi Saibaba Temple and Shani Shingnapure Temple in Ahmednagar, the Lonar Lake in Buldhana, Jalgaon's Swinging Towers of Farkande, the Gandhi Research Foundation (GRF), etc, pointed out GRF Curator Bhujang Bobade.
Jaleel hopes that after the pandemic situation stabilizes, trade, commerce and tourism in and around Aurangabad region will start thriving again and bring succor to the people.