Pushkar, Rajasthan: Every year, between October and March, thousands of tourists flock to Pushkar, Rajasthan’s famous holy town in the Ajmer district. Now, in the middle of a national lockdown, only 349 foreign tourists remain, trapped with nowhere to go except for a stroll within the compounds of their hotels. Yet they are grateful to be in a city that has not reported a single case of novel coronavirus even as cases across India are on the rise.
Claudia from Italy is stranded at the city’s Moon Café with her family. “We came here for a holiday with our two children. We planned to go back on 7 April, but that ticket was cancelled. Now we have another one for 25 April, and we don’t know what will happen,” she tells ThePrint. “It’s safe here, and we’re happy to stay here if we have to, but I do long to be home at a time like this.”
Pushkar has thrown up no cases of Covid-19 so far, despite attracting tourists from all over the world. After 23 March, 240 tourists were evacuated over the period of a few weeks and allowed to go back to their home countries, depending on which embassies organised transport back.
“The Italian embassy has not been very helpful for us. They had organised some flights back, but with commercial airlines. The prices went from 400 euros to 1,100 euros in a matter of a few hours. It was too much for us to pay,” Claudia says.
A combination of luck and swift action
When the coronavirus pandemic unfolded across the world, the authorities in Pushkar were prepared for a storm — but it hasn’t hit yet. And that may be a matter of luck, but it’s also because the town’s administration acted fast.
“We began screening all tourists here from 4 March onwards, after we learned 14 countries had been affected,” sub-divisional magistrate of Pushkar, Devika Tomar, tells ThePrint. “After that, when matters worsened, we changed our containment strategy to make it more rigid.”
While many other states woke up to the crisis only late last month, the small town of Pushkar had already screened 2,300 tourists between 4 and 12 March. They were taken to hospitals for screening, and when none presented symptoms of illness, screening became more aggressive with 8 teams of ASHA and anganwadi workers as well as medical staff going door to door.
“The screening is daily now, and we’re doing our third round. We’ve kept a log of each tourist, and they’re asked every day whether they have any influenza-like symptoms. If yes, they’re immediately taken for a test,” said Pushkar’s medical officer in-charge, Dr R.K. Gupta.
To rule out any possibility of infection from the virus, Pushkar has also started collecting random samples from its 25 wards. All have been negative so far. “We are really very fortunate,” Gupta said.
How tourists and hotel owners are coping
Authorities say it’s a stroke of luck that no one carried the virus into the area, but that one can never be too cautious, so they have implemented stringent rules. Stranded tourists and those who chose to stay have been strictly banned from venturing out into the streets. School teachers installed as guards, stand outside hotels to watch the tourists’ movements and report to the district authorities if someone breaks the rules.
“It’s beautiful here, and I’ve visited so often that I have built a very supportive community here,” says Marrisa, an Argentinian. “But they just won’t let us step outside, even to go to the ATM or buy fruits. We’re told to stay inside or called ‘corona.’ I understand why the administration has taken these steps, but it’s frustrating because we have done nothing wrong.”
For some tourists, this unwelcome extended holiday has meant being unable to be at home even during a family crisis, or being unable to communicate properly with loved ones. “My father died two days ago, and I couldn’t be there,” says Michael Habboncave from Australia. He planned to go back in early April, but wasn’t able to because of the lockdown. Habboncave’s ticket back home has been cancelled several times, and commercial airline numbers are constantly unresponsive.
Yury Sorokin from Russia came to India in December with his wife and children, and planned to leave on 7 April but is now stuck at Moon Café. “My SIM card was valid for three months and now won’t work. I can’t get it recharged either or step out to buy it, and that’s making it difficult to communicate with anyone at home,” he says.
Hotel owners, for their part, have slashed rates and are ensuring a steady supply of food and water for their guests.
“Our business has taken a hit for sure. I only have nine guests now, when I would have had more than double normally. We’ve lowered the per night charge and are ensuring they get food and water,” says Jay Narayan Jagdi, the owner of Pushkar Inn, which is just off the banks of the town’s holy lake.
Other tourists who came without a return ticket are passing the time playing games and music, painting and getting to know one another. All of them are simply grateful to have a safe space to stay in while the pandemic wreaks havoc across the globe.
“I feel lucky to be here right now. It’s a beautiful place, it’s spacious, close to nature, and we’re being taken care of so well. It’s been easy,” said Paul Jeylot from France.