New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur: As a group of Indian tourists approached the ticket counter of the famous Agra Fort, 29-year-old guide Salman Khan was optimistic of getting business.
Swiftly moving towards the travellers, he showed his pale ID card, tried to persuade them to hire him for his “reasonably priced” services, but to no avail. He made three more such attempts, but was rejected every time.
“I never had to beg for a living,” he said. “But this is the new normal for me. I do not have options.”
In the pre-pandemic era, Salman worked with a private firm that would hire him for Russian tourists, a language he is familiar with. He has been in the business for the last five years, but catering to Indian tourists has never been a priority.
Salman said this is because most domestic tourists only click photographs, and are not interested in understanding the history and importance of the place they are visiting. This is why the lack of foreign tourists has really hit home hard.
About a five-hour drive away, in Jaipur, Mohammad Ehsaan, a tourist guide at the Amer Palace, told a similar tale. Unlike Salman, however, he didn’t even have domestic tourists to try and woo.
“Even if I get one customer a day, I can at least manage some of my family’s expenses, but look how many tourists are visiting this palace,” he said, pointing towards the nearly empty tourist lobby.
The Narendra Modi government has decided to allow international tourists coming through chartered flights to visit India from 15 October, and those coming via regular routes from 15 November.
But for 18 months since the Covid-19 pandemic struck the country in March 2020, there have been no foreign tourist arrivals in India.
The pandemic and lockdowns have also meant that even domestic tourist numbers have not matched the pre-pandemic figures.
Now, as the country has opened up, other sectors are seeing a revival, but the tourism industry still has major issues to grapple with — the economy is sluggish and, combined with inflation hitting pockets hard, travel is increasingly being seen as a luxury.
The numbers, as a result, present a bleak picture for a sector that was among the hardest hit in the pandemic, with the problems having percolated down to all aspects of the tourism business.
Hotels have shut down, while those surviving have had to cull staff; taxi drivers operating in the golden triangle zone (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur) have had to sell their fleets as paying instalments for the cars without income has become unfeasible; some tourist guides are now working as domestic workers or e-rickshaw drivers; while those running souvenir shops have been forced to sit idle all day outside their shops.
Reading the numbers
Between 2018 and March 2020, on average, about 10 lakh international tourists visited India every month. That figure was decimated during the Covid pandemic. The few who the government has classified as foreign tourists now are those Indians living abroad who landed in the country.
The lockdowns have also meant domestic tourism stalled before picking up once the country opened up in the latter half of 2020.
Among the worst to suffer from this disruption has been the hospitality industry.
According to the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI), the country had about 55,000 hotels and five lakh restaurants, of which about 40 per cent have completely shut down due to the lack of business, with re-opening unlikely anytime soon.
“We are looking at a revenue loss to the tune of Rs 2-5 lakh crore. While domestic tourism has picked up pace, caps on capacity even at low Covid cases is elongating the recovery path for hoteliers … (We are) requesting the government to revisit its policies formulated during peak crisis,” FHRAI’s vice-president Gurbaxish Singh Kohli told ThePrint.
According to Subhash Goyal, president of the Confederation of Tourism Professionals, about 2.5 crore people who were dependent on tourism for their livelihoods have already left the business.
“The tourism industry was the first to be affected by Covid-19 and will be the last to recover,” Goyal said. “The industry indirectly employs about 7.5 crore people in India. Being labour-intensive in nature, it provides support to the informal sector of the economy. Every 1-in-9 people in this country is indirectly employed because of tourism and the industry also accounts for 10 per cent of the government’s taxes.”
His assessment is backed up by government numbers.
A study conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism, found that in the first quarter of 2020-21, about 1.45 crore jobs directly related to tourism were lost; about 1.85 crore jobs indirectly related to tourism were also lost, bringing the total job loss to 3.3 crore in the first lockdown alone.
The NCAER, in the most optimistic scenario, doesn’t expect the industry to come back to pre-pandemic levels anytime sooner than 2024-25.
The foreign tourist conundrum
Though both international and domestic tourism has fallen by about the same magnitude, the pain of foreign tourists not turning up for such a long time has exposed how fragile the industry is.
The high per capita income of Western tourists allowed them to pay more, which diverted the attention of the industry towards them.
“Foreign tourists paid the designated price but tipped us in euros and dollars,” said Ehsaan, a tourist guide at Jaipur’s Amer Palace, admitting that their absence has slashed his income to a third of what he earned in the “good days”.
It is, however, Agra, which receives the maximum footfall of foreign tourists compared to any other city in the country, where the impact has been the worst.
Vishal Sharma, secretary of the Agra Tourism Welfare Board, told ThePrint that half the people working in the city earn their income from tourism — directly or indirectly.
“The registered number of people working in the tourism sector amounts to about 2.5-3 lakh in Agra alone. However, if you look at the ancillary industries that supply inputs to the tourism industry, the number reaches 12-15 lakh, which is nearly half of the total number of people employed in the city,” Sharma told ThePrint.
Sharma also said that during the pandemic, Agra faced a revenue loss of about Rs 25 crore every month, which increased to Rs 50 crore during the peak season.
“Domestic tourists have started coming back, but the incoming international tourists are eagerly awaited. About 90 per cent of the handicrafts industry depends on them,” he added.
Jaipur looks to domestic tourists
From hawkers to luxury hoteliers, the focus of the tourism business in Jaipur has shifted to wooing domestic tourists.
Prithvi Singh, owner of the Narayan Niwas Palace, a heritage hotel in Jaipur, told ThePrint that he opened two restaurants on time, so he could at least make money from the restaurant business when tourists weren’t coming. The restaurants, according to him, are running fine.
“Despite giving hefty discounts, our occupancy rate remained about 30 per cent. We are also offering the option of conducting weddings at our palace. We are able to meet the costs, but are still far away from pre-pandemic earnings,” he said.
Deepak Nawani, who runs his family’s textile business near Hawa Mahal, said he was lucky his family had already bought the store. He is now managing expenses with the lifelong savings his family accumulated.
“The rent for this store is about Rs 60,000 a month. We were lucky to own this place, but people who had rented the nearby outlets had to give up their businesses and are now working as street vendors, selling vegetables near Hawa Mahal,” he said.
While other businessmen had an option to either diversify or switch jobs, it was a do-or-die situation at Hathi Gaon, located near Amer Fort, where all the elephants and their caretakers live.
According to Asif, a mahout who takes care of Rangoli, a 24-year-old Indian elephant, the animal requires feed and maintenance that cost about Rs 1,500-2,000 a day.
Asif said this was only feasible when they were ferrying tourists at the fort.
On a usual business day, one elephant ride takes four tourists and earns about Rs 1,100 per person. The elephants would often make four to five trips a day.
Mahouts like Asif in Jaipur’s Hathi Gaon are hopeful that they will benefit from ‘revenge tourism’ — people aggressively visiting places to end the monotony of lockdowns they went through.
“People will come back soon,” said an optimistic Asif. “They are also bored and stuck at their homes for such a long period of time and once they’re back, we will give them a grand maharaja-style elephant ride.”
During the pandemic when there was absolutely no business, the Rajasthan government did provide financial assistance twice — in December (Rs 4.2 crore) last year and in June (Rs 57.37 lakh) this year for the 85 elephants in the city, but the mahouts said these measures covered the expenses of elephants for a limited time only.
The Rajasthan tourism department acknowledged that the industry was hurt grievously, but said it took all the steps it could.
“The state government has given a 35 per cent concession on bar licences. We are in the process of disbursing Rs 5,000 to every folk artiste through the Art and Culture department. We have also increased the fixed rate of guides, which was a long-pending demand,” Upendra Singh Shekhawat, deputy director of the state’s tourism department, told ThePrint.
The Union Ministry of Finance, in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism, also laid out a plan under which registered tourist guides could avail a loan of Rs 1 lakh, and tour operators up to Rs 10 lakh, at 7.95 per cent rate of interest. The scheme is valid until 31 March 2022 or till Rs 250 crore is availed.
Most of the stakeholders, however, said the scheme came too late, as they had already borrowed money from family and friends.
Relaxation but with riders
A chief grouse of many in the tourism industry is that even when there was a relaxation in the repaying of loans, it came with riders.
Rajan Singh, who ran a tourist taxi business in Delhi, said he first laid off staff, who are now doing menial jobs, before selling his fleet of cars as he couldn’t afford to pay the instalments of the loans he had taken to buy them.
“The government did give an option to defer the payments, but banks continued to charge interest. We’ve had no business for the last year and a half, but we are from the private sector. Who cares for us?” he asked
According to Subhash Goyal, destitution is very high among taxi operators who chiefly ferried tourists.
“The taxi drivers who spent their entire lives paying the bank loan instalments have had their cars repossessed by banks,” Goyal said. “Government-approved tour guides have gone completely out of business. If international tourists do not come back, more people will die of economic starvation than Covid.”
And it isn’t just taxi operators.
Kush Singh, co-founder of luxury tour operating agency ‘Heart of India’, said he felt besieged after receiving an email requesting payment for renewal of his tourism licence.
“When they know we haven’t operated in the last two years, how do they have the audacity to ask for this money?” he asked. “I have been paying hefty taxes for decades and when the industry faces its biggest crisis, this is how we are treated.”
Kush, along with many stakeholders ranging from tourist guides to taxi owners, among others, has no option but to comply with the tourism department’s formalities, which includes renewal of their licences, irrespective of how much their businesses have suffered.
“People from developed countries received a stimulus check of $600 (around Rs 45,000) and we were offered loans,” added Parvez Alam, a tour-operator based in Jaipur. “My mother’s health had deteriorated and I couldn’t afford her healthcare. I told this to the foreign tourists I had catered to in good times, and they ran a crowdfunding campaign and came to my rescue. This is why we still believe in Atithi Devo Bhava (guests are God).”
Hopes of a recovery
Much of how the tourism industry revives now depends on the pace at which the world recovers from Covid.
Stakeholders hope for a regular flow of tourists for the next 1.5 to 2 years to recover a part of their losses.
“It’s not that after 15 November, foreign tourists will flock to the country. The unpredictability of the virus has left them afraid, and I don’t think that until the next season, we will see them coming in numbers,” said Prithvi Singh, the Jaipur hotelier.
Goyal added that a lot needs to be done from the policy side.
“The government has allowed non-chartered international tourists to arrive from 15 November, but hasn’t restarted international flights. How will the tourists come back like this? We request the government to rethink its policy and restore the flight connection agreement back to 2018-19 levels,” he said.
Goyal added that the government will also need to put in a lot of effort to quell the fears of international tourists.
“We have so much to offer; we have administered a billion doses in record time and our tourism ministry should promote all of that, saying how safe we are as a country, when it comes to Covid,” he said. “Yellow Fever still exists in Africa, but people have been visiting it for decades with vaccination. This is still Covid, and if the government wants, it can revive the industry.”
According to Parveen Chander, senior vice-president (sales and marketing) at the Indian Hotels Company Limited (Taj Hotel Group), things are returning to normalcy thanks to domestic spending.
“The Indian travel and tourism sector is unique with a high 87 per cent of total spends coming from domestic travel,” he said. “Overall, business is slowly and steadily growing back to regular levels and compared to the first wave, the industry has bounced back stronger and quicker. We are seeing pent-up demand surface in travel in the leisure segment. Corporate demand is showing early signs of recovery with key cities showing considerable improvement over the months.”
On the revival of the industry based on international tourists, Chander said they expect a good recovery, provided there are no economic shocks.
“We are hoping that this will improve once the travel restrictions are eased. The hospitality business will be able to reach the pre-pandemic levels only when international travel reaches a decent level,” he said. “Assuming all goes well and there is no third wave, we hope that industry will see good recovery in the next few quarters.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)