With Himachal Pradesh witnessing a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases, the already grim state of employment in the state is worsening. Along with it, the apathetic attitude of the state government has taken a toll on one of it’s biggest jobs providing sectors- the tourism sector.
As per the state Tourism Department’s data, there are 3,679 hotels with 1.03 lakh bed capacity and 2,189 home stay facilities with a bed capacity of 12,181. However, the actual figures are far higher. There are more than 8,000 hotels and over 4,000 home stay facilities in Shimla, Kullu-Manali, Dharamsala, Dalhousie and Kasauli- rendering a considerable size of the population dependent on this sector and contributing nearly 7 % to the state’s GDP.
However, ever since the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24 by Prime Minister Modi, the tourism sector in the state has suffered a severe blow. As per local reports, due to a complete standstill in the sector, most hoteliers have paid salaries to their employees for the month of March but have laid off 90% of their staff ever since. The unemployment figure in the state is close to 11 lakh.
While hotel employees constitute a group which is directly getting affected by the adversity, a sizable chunk of businesses indirectly dependent on the sector like taxi owners, drivers, guides, porters and dhaba owners are also feeling the blow. Indirect employment and gains of tourism were reaching out to even remotest areas like Lahaul and Spiti and Kinnaur.
Added to this is the contingent of the youth, who have returned from places like Goa, Delhi and Maharashtra where they were employed. While the highest workforce of 3.50 lakh is employed in the industrial sector, trade and tourism are the second biggest job providers for a little over three lakh out of a workforce totalling 9.77 lakh in the private sector.
In the face of adversity, a question that begs for an answer is- what measures have the state government taken to ease the situation? Interestingly, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur of the Bharatiya Janata Party- led state government has had very little to say about the relief measures being undertaken by his government.
“Past couple of years have not been so good for tourism in Himachal Pradesh. If you remember there was a water crisis in the summer of 2018 in Shimla city and the government had issued an advisory for tourists to not come to HP. Then, again last winter the government issued an advisory to not come due to heavy snowfall and erratic weather. So the state’s tourism has been suffering since a couple of years and now this pandemic has put it on a standstill altogether. The need of the hour is that the government at the Centre and state, announce relief packages solely dedicated to reviving tourism or else it would be very hard to bring tourism back to life,” said Sanjay Chauhan, former Mayor of Shimla.
Also read: HP Govt Reduces Relaxation in Curfew Due to Threat of Resurgence of COVID-19
Sanjay Sood, president of Shimla Hoteliers and Restaurant Association was quoted by The Tribune, as saying,“It is a dark future ahead for the hotel industry and unless the government comes to our rescue, survival will be tough for most of us.”
Sanjeev Gandhi, general secretary of the Smart City Dharamshala Hotel Association, said that the government should constitute a task force, taking the hoteliers on board, to formulate a strategy to save and revive the sector, as they were clueless about how to move forward.
EXPECTATION vs REALITY
While scores of people have raised concerns about the nearly dead tourism industry of the state, masses have once again placed their faith in the elected state government for the resurrection of the tourism industry.
People expect immediate relief packages to be announced to ease out their woes. However, the Chief Minister seems to have something else on his mind. In a recent interview with NDTV, CM Jairam Thakur has suggested a rather novel idea to revive the tourism sector in HP- Quarantine Tourism.
While speaking to NDTV’s Prannoy Roy, CM Thakur said that his government is fiddling with the idea of Himachal becoming a quarantine destination in which people from other states could choose Himachal Pradesh to quarantine owing to its picturesque landscape and cleaner air. He also said he has received several suggestions for the same and that this could help boost the tourism in the state.
Thakur's idea to promote the hill state as a place where people from across the country can come and spend their quarantine days has not gone down well with many. Even the local hoteliers' association is not too keen, saying it will put off regular tourists.
“The CM’s remarks are absolutely thoughtless. His advisors should be questioned. There is no mention of tourism in the Rs 20 lakh crore announced by the Centre and our CM is also making such statements. It seems he is not serious about the situation. People have lost a lot and are suffering. They need immediate relief,” Chauhan, who is a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told NewsClick.
“Besides, with already questionable healthcare facilities in the state, who will be responsible for casualties if said proposal comes to force? We have lost two corona positive patients because one hospital had no ventilators and the other patient could not get timely medical assistance,” Chauhan added.
The Opposition, Congress has also rejected the CM’s idea. "It is not only wrong to present Himachal as a quarantine destination but it may prove dangerous for the state. The Congress will not accept this decision to give an open invitation to the pandemic," state Congress president Kuldeep Singh Rathore said in a statement on Sunday to NDTV.
"It has already become difficult to control coronavirus in Himachal Pradesh due to the recent spurt in cases and if the state is turned into a quarantine destination, the situation might get out of hand," he said.
Instead, he suggested, the state should seek a financial package from the Centre.
If sources are to be believed, the CM’s comments have not gone down too well with his own official advisors as well- who were unavailable for comment. The miscommunication within the state government’s apparatus has only added to the problems within the lifeless tourism sector. The sorry state of healthcare in the state is another story altogether. However, collectively it speaks volumes about the capabilities and the abilities of not only the saffron party’s leadership in the state but also the state’s bureaucracy.
Also read: Amid COVID-19 Lockdown, Tourism and Hospitality Sector Stare at Over 3.8 Crore Job Losses