The tourism industry remains one of the most affected due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Tamil Nadu doing no better. Ever since the lockdown came into force, tourist destinations have remained closed, throwing the lives of several lakhs of workers out of gear. Small vendors, hawkers, tourist homes, tourist guides and taxi operators continue to bear the brunt of the lockdown, despite the various stages of unlock measures.
From temple towns to hill stations, all wear a deserted look, save for a few visitors on the weekends. With the rightful fear of a pandemic persisting, a recovery seems unlikely in the near future.
Though the state government has announced relaxations for tourists visiting major hill stations since September 10, people remain undecided.
A Deserted Kanyakumari
Kanyakumari, one of the most famous tourist destinations in the country, has been left without visitors since March. The city, which attracts lakhs of international and visitors from across the country, including pilgrims, hardly has any at the moment. Ferry services, which attract scores of visitors to the Vivekananda and poet Tiruvalluvar memorials in the sea, also remain suspended.
“There are hardly any visitors since the lockdown began in March. Over the past few weeks, some local tourists have visited the town. Only 40% of the shops are open at the moment, since business volume is too low to earn. We are finding it hard to survive,” said Mani, secretary of Kanyakumari All Traders Union.
The small city is home to several thousand workers, including migrant workers, who work in hotels and restaurants which rely solely on tourists.
Not Much Relief for Workers
The tourism sector, which is a major contributor to the state’s GDP, has hardly received any support from the government. The relief for workers courtesy welfare boards has been paltry.
John, a street vendor said: “Workers who have registered with the welfare boards received around Rs 2,000 as relief from the government. That was too low considering the duration of the lockdown. Since the industry is mostly unorganised and seasonal, many workers have not registered with the welfare board, leaving them without any relief.”
Shopkeepers in the Devaswom Board buildings in Kanyakumari have demanded a relaxation of rent. “Since we have not opened our shops from March to September, we have demanded a relaxation from paying rent for six months. Even now there is hardly any business. At least such a relaxation will give us some relief,” added Mani.
The situation is no different in tourist spots like Mahabalipuram, Madurai, Hogenakkal, Kutralam, Coimbatore and Dhanushkodi. With rail and air services yet to be completely restored, the situation could remain grim for workers.
Hill Stations Face the Heat
Famous hill stations in the state, including Kodaikanal, Ooty and Yercaud have been facing the heat since the lockdown was announced. The pandemic period coincided with the summer vacation, a time when lakhs of tourists pay a visit. Tourist homes and home-stays continue to wait for visitors since the lockdown was relaxed in September.
“The government has made an e-pass compulsory for tourists visiting Kodaikanal and Ooty, which again plays spoilsport. The government has to encourage the sector and ensure COVID-19 protocols for the safety of the tourists, but insisting on more restrictions won’t help the industry in such a crucial period,” a home-stay owner from Kodaikanal said.
Hotels in different parts of the state have had very few visitors despite major relaxations in the lockdown. Tourist operators also continue to face the impact of the pandemic, forcing them to demand a relaxation from the e-pass system for the tourists.
Five Lakh Lost Jobs
The state had attracted 61 lakh international and 39 crore domestic tourists in 2018, having had made a name for itself in the industry since 2014. The lockdown has forced the industry to come to a standstill, leaving around five lakh workers without jobs and income, say the tour operators association.
“Rebooting the sector would be challenging, because the lockdown has substantially weakened the financial health of tourism and its allied activities,” Krishanu Pradhan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) told the Financial Express.
V.K.T Balan, chairman, Association of Domestic Tour Operator of India’s (ADTOI) Tamil Nadu chapter, urged the Centre and state governments to waive off road tax and insurance on tourist vehicles not plying since the lockdown was enforced. He also urged to refund the GST paid for at least one year, in order to pay drivers and other employees, the newspaper reported.
The pandemic has affected every socio-economic class making a living from tourism. From street vendors to owners of hotels, incomes have been choked. However, a large section of the people who depend on a daily income remain those facing the toughest challenges, and hardly meriting any attention from the government.