Tour operators and guides are struggling to make ends meet because of pandemic-induced international travel restrictions. With no assistance for them in the economic stimulus package, they want the government to resume issuing tourist visas.
“Covid-19 has affected the travel industry the most. It has sent us five years back (economically). Millions of lives have been affected,” Mahendra Singh, Director, India Personal Tours, informed The Observer.
A report published by the World Tourism Organisation in the first quarter of 2020 reported a loss of Rs 5.92 lakh for the tourism industry due to travel restrictions around the world. The curbs caused a decline of 67 million in international arrivals.
“When tourists come to India, they stay, travel, eat and visit monuments. The lives of all the people who are involved in these businesses have been affected.”
Data published by the National Sample Survey office mentioned that Delhi hosted 2.26 crore foreign tourists in the year 2014-15, the highest in India. Twelve hundred licensed tour guides are registered with the tourism ministry in the northern region.
Mahendra Singh, who has been in the industry for 17 years now, has laid off eight of his ten guides. His office has remained shut since the first lockdown. “Even if I invest in a new business, there is little hope. I have worked most of my life in the tourism industry.”
Harjinder Singh, director of 24x7travels.com, an inbound and outbound tour operator, said only 10% of the company’s volume has been operational since September. He has laid-off three of his employees.
“We have no business. This has been another demonetisation for us. We used to hire naturalists, drivers and guides. Seventy per cent of the support staff has moved to different occupations,” he said.
“We are not behaving like a country. Each state has its own rules which is causing confusion and has hurt us badly. One has to know the restrictions imposed by the states.”
Guides who often freelance with tour operators have returned to their hometowns. Narendra Chhangani, a regional tour guide who has gone back to Rajasthan, said many guides like him who have gained expertise in the field are finding it difficult to find new jobs. “Some have started farming and some of them have started selling vegetables. A few of them even had to take their own lives.”
Chhangani, who works with a tour guides’ union, said he and a few union members had in vain approached an MLA for help.
August to April are the busiest months for tour operators and guides. Their incomes were first hit in February when European countries started imposing lockdowns. Later, a nationwide lockdown was enforced on March 24, 2020, in India
“This time the offseason arrived a month early. We have been sitting at home for more than eight months. There has been no help provided to us by the government. The Kerala government is the only state which helped tour guides by giving them Rs 10,000 once,” said Chhangani.
Dimple Maggoo, a former tour guide driver, has set up a shop selling spices and dry fruits for his livelihood. “Travelling is my passion; I will never leave it. One has to earn to survive, so I started this business when tour operators stopped hiring me to drive passengers to different parts of India.” Maggoo’s children have been helping him promote his new business on social media.
Gulab Singh, a tour guide, said the lockdown had its positives. “I used to be on the field with guests all through the season. This is the longest I have spent time with my family. I have started meditating and looking for new opportunities to earn money. I have learnt the importance of having multiple sources of income because things are very unpredictable.”
In a series of five announcements starting May 13, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman introduced the economic stimulus package to counter the downward economic spiral. The package was largely aimed towards the revival of MSMEs, but the tourism industry got no relief.
“The government has done nothing. They should start issuing tourist visas again to keep the industry afloat. We are ready to take all sorts of measures. There can be multiple levels of screening put in place. Infected passengers can be quarantined. I used to arrange groups of 1,200 tourists for multiple trips till last year. Now, even if I manage to get five trips of 200 passengers, I will be able to sustain my business,” said Mahendra Singh.
The government of India has started reissuing existing visas to all foreign travelers, except for those who are either on tourist, medical or electronic visa.
A Ministry of Tourism official said they did not take tour guides and operators into consideration as most freelance guides are not registered with the government. Hence, it is difficult for the government to extend help.
“There are industries such as the hospitality sector which are also dependent on foreign travellers for their income. They bring foreign exchange. A few pro-tourism states such as Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have brought in policies to help these people,” she added.
“The ministry has been pushing to promote domestic travelers to travel within the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also talked about ministry’s Apna Desh Dekho campaign,”
With increasing Covid-19 numbers and a second wave of infections forcing European countries into another lockdown, uncertainty looms over the livelihood of tour operators and guides.