Wednesday, 10 August, 2022
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Himachal Pradesh ‘unlocks’ hotels, but industry in no hurry to welcome hill tourists back

At a meeting convened by Himachal Tourism secretary to explore ways to unlock the state, the hotel industry conveyed its unanimous decision to remain shut.

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Shimla: The Himachal Pradesh government has decided to reopen businesses, including restaurants and hotels, as part of ‘Unlock 1.0’, but the state’s hotel and tourism sector stakeholders are not looking at restarting operations as of now.

Uncertain of footfalls, the industry has resolved to keep out of business until at least September, given that the inter-state borders, the principal gateway of mobility to Himachal, are still closed for tourists and outsiders. It is also concerned about operational safety.

Himachal Tourism Secretary Devesh Kumar had last week convened a high-level meeting to explore ways to unlock the state where tourism is one of the biggest sources of economic activity. The industry leaders present at the meeting, however, conveyed their unanimous decision to remain shut.

The state government has allowed the hotel industry to start bookings, but with restrictions on entertaining non-resident tourists from other states and abroad. Locals or those travelling for official meetings, business tie-ups and emergencies are the only ones allowed to book rooms. The restaurants can’t serve food but are allowed ‘carry home’ service.

Sanjay Sood, president of the Shimla Hotels’ and Restaurants Association, said, “We are not considering opening of the commercial operations till we have normalcy in the domestic and international air traffic, and all inter-state borders restrictions are lifted.”

Sood said safety of tourists visiting the state is paramount to promote Himachal Pradesh as Covid-free destination, pointing out that cases of coronavirus “are still on rise” in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi, Punjab, Rajasthan and other places.

“We know people are looking towards Himachal Pradesh to escape the infection… But we can’t let ourselves be exposed. Moreover, the hoteliers have no wherewithal or gadgets to medically scan every visitor. Safety is paramount in tourism business under existing conditions,” he said.

According to norms, anyone entering the state is required to undergo a 14-day home quarantine. Those coming from abroad are required to be sent to seven-day institutional quarantine and seven-day home quarantine. There is strict monitoring by health officials and police too.

“We were asked to give views on a proposal under which it was said the tourists coming to Himachal Pradesh will be allowed restricted/conditional access. This means they will not be permitted to freely roam around in the markets, go for sight-seeing, buying and eating outside the hotels. They would have to stay confined to the hotel,” he said. “We outright rejected it.”

Speaking to ThePrint last week, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur said the tourism sector is likely to bear a direct brunt of Covid-19 in Himachal Pradesh. “The government is trying its best to extend some reliefs and also facilitate them to resume business.”


Also read: No India–China trade through Himachal’s Shipki-La this year as Covid fear keeps traders away


‘We are completely ruined’

Himachal Pradesh’s tourism sector contributes 7 per cent to the GDP of the state, which is known for its hill destinations. At least 30 per cent of the local population earns livelihoods directly or indirectly from the tourism sector.

There are a total of 3,200 registered hotels and 1,300 home stays in Himachal Pradesh. A hill station like Manali has nearly 2,000 hotels, both registered and unregistered. More than 95 per cent of the tourism units are small and medium enterprises, according to the tourism associations.

Due to Covid-19 and the two-month lockdown, these units hardly have any cash reserves to ensure payment of staff wages, electricity and water bills, loan interest, lease money and other costs.

Atul Sharma, who owns the leading Apple Valley Resort in Kullu, said, “We are completely ruined. The lockdown was announced in March this year. This is exactly the time when the hoteliers spruce up for the summers i.e., April-May-June season.”

He said at least 40 per cent of the business is done during peak summers. “This is a good corporate business time also. I can’t foresee revival for at least one year,” he said.

Dinesh Sood, another prominent Manali hotelier, also has no hope of getting seasonal guests in Manali. “There are no flights coming. The inter-state borders are closed. How can it be business as usual? Even if the government tells us to resume, who is going to venture out of their safe homes and get exposed?” Sood asked.

Major hotel chain Radisson is ready to begin operations in Shimla but is waiting for a green signal from the state government to book non-resident tourists from outside.

“We are fully prepared to open with all necessary precautions. But the state’s boundaries are still closed. The hoteliers have been advised against booking any outside tourists,” said Vikas Kapoor, general manager, Radisson Shimla.

“The lockdown has really hit the hotel business in Himachal Pradesh. Our own losses are between Rs 6 and 7 crore during this period,” said Kapoor, who retained his entire staff and paid their salaries. “Till now, we managed but if things don’t work, it will be a problem.”

Leading hospitality chain, The Oberoi Group, which owns three prime properties in Shimla including The Oberoi Cecil and Wild Flower Hall, is also awaiting a similar go-ahead from the state government.

“We have always prioritised the health and safety of our guests and colleagues. In Shimla or elsewhere, we are working relentlessly to welcome guests back at the hotels. Our stringent health and safety standards are now available on the Oberoi Hotels website. It is imperative to take extraordinary measures in extraordinary situations,” the group managing director and chief executive officer Vikram Oberoi told ThePrint.


Also read: World Bank forecasts worst recession in eight decades due to coronavirus


What the government says

Tourism Secretary Devesh Kumar told ThePrint that the government is in the process of framing a detailed standard operating procedure (SoP) for the hotel industry.

Their views have already been taken in, he said, adding that the SOP being proposed is on the lines of what the Government of India has worked out in consultation with the health ministry.

“The hoteliers want time to train their staff and undertake necessary changes to secure their properties. The government has no problem,” he said.

However, he clarified that there is “some wrong message being spread that we are going to prohibit the mobility of the tourists outside their hotels”.

“It’s not true. Yet, under the new normal situation there will be some mandatory protocols and guidelines. It is for the safety of the tourists and the hotel staff,” he said.

Meanwhile, government-owned Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC), which mans a chain of hotels in the state, has also not started commercial operations. “Nearly 25 to 30 HPTDC hotels are currently running institutional quarantine or paid quarantine centres for those returning home from outside and hotspots. We are not open to tourists,” said a senior HPTDC official in Shimla, who didn’t wish to be named.


Also read: New Zealand eliminates coronavirus as active cases touch zero


 

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