Akshay Patil is a young, first-generation, small-time entrepreneur from Aurangabad. He started his own tourism company four years back. He is in an agreement with an international conglomeration of smaller tourism companies. So, he sends tourists to other countries and arranges services in and around Aurangabad for the international travellers.
Aurangabad is the district headquarter housing the famous Ajantha and Verul caves and home to a number of sites like Bibi Ka Makbara, Daulatabad fort, etc. As Ajantha caves is one of the UNESCO world heritage sites, thousands of tourists mainly from East Asian countries visit every year.
"Owing to the summer vacations, March first week to June 15 makes for one of the two key business seasons for us. For the last four years, I have catered to two to four tourist families per day, providing them with hotel accommodations, vehicles and all other necessary arrangements. But, this year, due to COVID, not a single booking has been made. No international business, nor any domestic business," said Akshay.
Prashant Naikwadi owns a 12-room hotel in one of the most popular hill stations of the state, Mahabaleshwar. He has employed a 10-strong staff including chefs, waiters and room attendants. With advance bookings pouring in for April and May, he had hoped for good business this season. But after imposition of the lockdown, he had to cancel all reservations.
“I returned the booking amount to the customers. But I am facing losses right now as I have to pay salaries to the employees; I have to pay electricity and water bills. And there is no income," said Naikwadi. Three of the room attendants working for him were from Jharkhand's Latehar district. "On May 3, they went back to their homes. I gave them Rs 5,000 each. They told me that they walked down till Pune and there, they got a truck to take them to Madhya Pradesh," he said.
Maharashtra is not especially known for its tourism industry. Rather, experts have always pointed out how the state is lagging behind in attracting tourists despite its many impressive locations. Governments after governments are guilty of having neglected the industry at large. So, whatever little tourist inflow the state witnesses is catered to by these smaller private entrepreneurs.
For the last few years, Konkan beaches have been one of the tourism hotspots for the domestic tourists after Goa, witnessing many North Indian tourists between December and May. However, this year, with the report of COVID-19 threat looming, the number of tourists went down. Then came the lockdown shutting all activities completely from March 22.
Sunil Mhapankar is a fisherman from Devbaug village of Malwan tehsil. As small-time fishermen are struggling to survive in this traditional profession, Sunil took a loan from the district bank and bought three rafting boats in November 2018. He rented these out to the tourists at the Devbaug Creek. He is yet to repay Rs 2.5 lakh of the loan amount. He is the sole breadwinner in his family and the pandemic has made it very difficult for him to earn any money. "Neither fishing nor rafting. I will have to repay my loan as well as look after my family. Now the monsoon will come. So no fishing and no rafting till August. There is a serious challenge before us of survival," said Mhapankar.
The Maharashtra government, under the leadership of state Tourism Minister Aditya Thackeray, was in the process of formulating a new tourism policy for the state. However, with the outbreak of COVID-19, it has come to a halt.
Anshuman Dhiware, a 27-year-old from Chandrapur takes tourists to Tadoba tiger sanctuary in a car he has purchased for the tourists’ movement. But this season, his car remains parked outside his room in Chandrapur. "My family has been involved in farming, but I took a different path. I have to repay a loan of Rs 4 lakh. I have to pay the rent of my room here in Chandrapur. But tourism is completely shut. I expect governments to look after us, at least in terms of waiving of loans for one year," Anshuman said.
Unlike the big or international travel agencies, these smaller operators, car, hotel and boat owners are staring at bankruptcy and becoming jobless.
Minister of State for Tourism department Aditi Tatkare told NewsClick, "I have given instructions for the survey of losses. In this survey, all the related industries like hotels, resorts, service providers, smaller operators and others will be included. This will give us an idea about the immediate needs of the industry.”
"I personally think that tourism will be the last industry to open up. It will have to be opened up in phases. For this, we will have to consider a number of things including the health-related concerns. Also, we will have to give confidence to people as well as industry stakeholders. So, right now, we are unable to speak about opening of industry," she said.
The survey is expected to begin by the first week of June. "We will be able to speak about the needs of industry and the losses only once the survey is in our hands. It is true that the tourism industry has faced severe losses. But to consider extending financial or any other help, we will have to go through the findings of the survey," said Tatkare.
When asked about the smaller players in the tourism sector, the minister said, "I can say that the government will sincerely consider all their issues. We are thinking about opening the industry but also by taking all the stakeholders on board. So, the small operators’ grievances will also be considered along with [formulation of] a policy to help overcome losses after the lockdown."