The sudden ban on tourism-related activities in Tamil Nadu, in view of the increasing number of COVID-19 cases, has left vendors, traders and workers in the hospitality industry perplexed. The state government gave no prior intimation of such a possibility. People dependent on the industry were, meanwhile, hoping that they could make up for last year’s losses this summer season.
Lakhs of families dependent on tourism in hill stations like Ooty, Kodaikanal and Yercaud had just begun recuperating from last year's lockdown due to the pandemic. But now, resort workers, boatmen, taxi drivers, roadside shop keepers and guides are fearing the devastating effects on the loss of livelihood for the second consecutive year.
Resort and restaurant owners, and shopkeepers claim that they had even made necessary investments awaiting the peak summer tourists. However, the sudden ban has shattered their hopes and pushed them into further debt.
As such, the affected people have held protests demanding the ban to be lifted and tourism to be permitted.
They are also raising questions on the government’s hasty decision, which according to them, did not consider the effects it would have on the livelihoods of common people.
INDEFINITE PROTEST TO EASE BAN
A day after the ban on tourism was announced, a last minute call for protest gathered huge numbers at Moonjikal, Kodaikanal, a popular hill station in Dindigul district. Traders and workers took to the streets - on the call of the hoteliers’ association, cab drivers’ association and guides - demanding a lift on the complete ban on tourism.
Protest in Kodaikanal against ban on tourism
The spontaneous protest call has now turned into an indefinite protest, continuing into its fourth day on April 22. It is led by the umbrella organisation ‘Kodai People’s Livelihood Rescue Front’, which includes traders’ and workers’ unions, and political parties.
Speaking from the protest site, Muhammad Ibrahim, former Municipal Council Chairman and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader, said “Theatres are allowed to run with 50% occupancy. The liquor outlet TASMACs are open till 9 PM. Why not allow tourism with added COVID-19 precautions?”
“There are no mills or factories in Kodaikanal, tourism is the only hope. The government should allow 50% tourism in hill stations” said Senthamari, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader.
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He also said, “During elections, thousands of people were allowed to gather in campaign rallies. But, when it is about the livelihood of common people, the government does not consider it as a priority. Tribals, SCs (Scheduled Castes) and minorities form a huge part of Kodaikanal’s population, and the ban is severely affecting their livelihoods.”
Members of the Thamizhaga Hire Goods Owners’ Association (THGOA) took out a rally across the state on April 19 demanding compensation for boatmen, cooks and shop owners.
UNEXPECTED BAN HAS INCREASED DEBT
With over six months of no business last year due to the COVID-19 lockdown, people dependent on the hospitality industry claim that they are now in terrible debt.
Ibrahim said, “Only if tourists visit Kodaikanal, we have food on our plates. Guides, drivers, boatmen, shopkeepers, workers in hotels... all their livelihoods have dwindled due to last year’s Corona lockdown. We took lots of finance loans, and now the financiers are after us for money.”
He further added, “Moreover, we pay default interest, which means the loans keep rising exponentially over time. We are drenched in debt. Many taxis have also been seized because the owners could not pay three consecutive dues.”
Ramesh, office bearer of Travels Drivers and Owners’ Association, Kodaikanal, said, “Government is collecting insurance funds from us regularly, but we are asking for relief. We have sent our memorandum to the Chief Minister, Transport Minister and Collector, and are awaiting a response.”
One of the roadside shopkeepers in Yercaud hill station said, “We have not finished paying the loans we took during last year’s lockdown. The government has gone ahead and imposed another lockdown, without any thought or concern for our livelihoods.”
Shops remain shut in Yercaud hill station. Image courtesy: Bhagavatha Singh
Bhagavatha Singh, a journalist based in Yercaud, said, “Lack of tourists is the major problem here, not Corona. The situation had improved since November 2020, but the government suddenly imposed another lockdown without any prior notice.”
Many hotels and shops said that they had borrowed more funds and invested ahead of the peak summer tourist season, and now they are out of business.
Bhagavatha said, “Awaiting the summer tourists, roadside shopkeepers stocked up fruits, especially mangoes, and now it is a big loss for them. Hotel owners also invested in renovation work expecting tourists, but that is also a waste.”
People dependent on the tourism industry are of the opinion that the government should have issued sufficient warning prior to the second wave and an accompanying lockdown. They believe that at lease the people dependent on tourism could have been saved from being further embroiled in debt if the government taken the initiative to warn about a second wave.