Tour operators selling vegetable in Manali, absence of basic medicare keep tourists away from Spiti
Adventure sports have taken a back seat post-lockdown. Private hotels and resorts are struggling to maintain properties. And the informal tourism sector resent radio silence of the governments
Non-existent medical facilities and suspicion of outsiders who could bring in the dreaded virus have caused havoc.
Karanbir Bedi, Partner Hotel Dayzor Kaza, Spiti Valley.
Bedi, a former journalist, has been spending the better part of the year from February to October in the KazaSpiti Valley, running the elegant hotel along with his local partner, Skalzang Dorje, an Olympian who represented India in archery.
The European-themed restaurant and the hotel has been a favourite among foreign tourists for the past eight years. He also uses the establishment to promote local handicrafts and preserves made from apricot, apples and other fruits that grow in Spiti. But 2020 has been a nightmare so far.
“I have around 20 full-time people to run the place. Even during the winters, when the place is shut, I pay them. Some of them have been with me for many years now,” says Bedi.
But the lockdown has exposed the vulnerability of this remote region, which shares border with China.
“The administration is virtually absent on the ground. The healthcare facilities in Kaza are rudimentary. For anything more serious than a common cold, we have to go to Shimla— a 12-hour drive—for treatment,” he points out.
In such a situation, people are also very afraid of the pandemic coming to Spiti. They are also not enthusiastic for opening up tourism anytime soon. Being a closed and conservative society, there is the big issue of social boycott of anyone who might get infected.
“Ideally, the administration should have built a COVID-19 care facility in Kaza,” says Bedi. “The low awareness level about the disease and the lack of medical facility in the region have stoked the worst fear in the people.”
“I have been trying to pay the staff out of my pocket, but can’t say how long I will be able to hold on. Personally, I will lose in excess of Rs. 30 lakh after all expenses this year,” he informs.
Selling vegetables not easy
Vishal Mehra, Tour Operator, Manali
When Lockdown 1.0 was extended beyond May 14, Mehra understood he needed to look for an alternative source of livelihood.
During a regular season, he would offer logistical support service to about 10-15 film crews that would camp in the hill station for extended shooting in the nearby areas. His job entailed, location identification, organising various permissions and clearances from government departments, providing transportation and catering service. But with the lockdown, all bookings were cancelled overnight.
To ensure his family’s survival, Mehra converted his office near the Mall Road into a vegetable shop, where he spends most of the days shooting the breeze.
“There was no other option. We don’t figure anywhere in the government’s plans for any financial package. As long as we can provide revenue to the government through tourism, they are fine. The day it stops, we are forgotten in quick time,” says Mehra bitterly.
But even selling vegetables to earn a living is proving tougher than he expected. “It’s not that customers are coming everyday to buy fresh vegetables. They come once in two or three days after making one trip to the market. People have cut down on their food consumption,” he says
Rishikesh rafters left in the lurch
Vipin Sharma & Arvind Bhardwaj Partners, Red Chilli Adventure
The rafting community in Rishikesh provides direct employment to close to two to two and a half thousand people, including over 900 river guides in the season that starts around February end to the start of the monsoon.
This is biggest window of business for the 280 rafting outfits that operate out Rishikesh. The post-monsoon season from September to November is more like a jam topping on the bread for lakh, added part of our savings and invested in gear worth Rs. 20 lakh for this season,” says Bhardwaj. “But now, we are struggling to pay the EMIs.”
On paper it’s fine to say that the government has directed banks for a moratorium on loan repayment, but the interest has not been written off. In fact, the loan has become even more expensive with deferred payment. We are caught between a rock and hard place, he explains.
Every agency employs some support staff on a permanent basis, who are critical for running the operation. The permanent support staff is not easily replaceable.
“We employ around 25 people. Even though we are not able to pay their full salaries, we are trying to do what we can. It’s a big drain on whatever little savings we made. It will take us a minimum of two years just to get back to the level where we were before the lockdown,” says Sharma.
But the hardest bit is that no one from the government has offered any concrete relief measure.
When the 2013 Uttarakhand floods happened, we deployed our guides, rafts and vehicles to ferry relief material to the villages that remained cut off for days.
“Now, we are on our own,”says Sharma wryly.
Published: 20 Jul 2020, 9:31 AM