“Ever since February 2020, when several clients cancelled the bookings, we have been affected. We were the first to suffer and will be affected until the end,” said Krishna Kumar, a tourist guide from Varanasi, while speaking to NewsClick. Covid-19 has disrupted the lives of everyone across the globe. Amongst the most to suffer were the tourist guides whose sole reliance was on the foreigners visiting India.
Domestic and foreign tourism has taken a massive dip due to the pandemic. Since the guides’ scope of earning is limited to the commissions they make at several stages of booking and travel, it has become difficult for them to make ends meet.
There are a total 10,700 Regional Level Tourist guides and tourist guides recognised by State Govt's along with Travel and Tourism stakeholders recognised by the Ministry of Tourism.. Although the number of people in this community is quite small, there is a lot of indirect employment associated with them, starting with cab drivers, hoteliers, travel agents, street vendors, and many more. However, they have been a victim of government negligence throughout the pandemic.
According to the data provided by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), global tourism has suffered a decline between 60-80% in 2020. With no measures taken, these figures are expected to go even further. While several associations of tourist guides kept raising their voices against the government, there was not much action taken to help them. In June this year, the Centre finally came up with a few provisions for the people associated with this occupation, but it was all in vain as the implementation deadline is set for March, 2022.
After suffering and pleading continuously for more than a year and a half, these guides expected some relief package. But the government brought in an option to avail loans up to Rs 1 lakh at an interest rate of 7.9%. Now, there are several narratives about whether or not this was a good plan, but the problem has been with the implementation.
Deepak Dhan, a resident of Agra and President of Uttar Pradesh Tourist Guide Association, told Newsclick, “Despite seeing that we are a small community, the government has not taken our matter seriously. I have visited almost all the banks, namely Bank of Baroda, Bank of India, SBI and a couple more, but the banks say that they have no instructions from the government to allow loans.” He added, “UP Govt even took the data of 600 guides under the Union government’s name, saying that they would forward this to the headquarters in Lucknow. This was a month back, and there is still no update.”
Deepak Dhan, President of Uttar Pradesh Tourist Guide Association along with his colleagues after the Taj Mahal was reopened for general public in October last year
The Centre also said that they would provide five lakh tourist visas for free, but there was no clarity on when would the process begin. A major source of revenue for these guides is people from countries like the United Kingdom, USA, Australia, and some European countries. These countries have a strong economy, and thus, the tourists have a higher buying capacity than those from India’s neighbouring countries.
The fear among the guides with the Centre’s policy is that these five lakh visas would majorly be taken by the people from countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, etc. Travel restrictions from the other countries would also not get better until India completes at least 90% of vaccination.
Manish Chaudhary, a Mandarin specialist guide from Sasaram, Bihar, expressed his problems saying, “Initially when the lockdown happened, I sat idle. Ultimately when I lost patience waiting for my work to resume, I had to put up a tea stall this year. My income has reduced to 30% of what it used to be, and now I am in heavy debt. My bills have still not been cleared from the travel company’s end, but I cannot even fight with them because finally when things get better, they will be the ones who would provide me with a job.”
When asked if he hoped the India-China relations to get better, considering the strained ties between the two nations for the past one year, he said, “I do not think this will be a long process. Tourists may not come that often; instead of a group of 20-30 people, there will be 3-5 people who would turn up. The only source of revenue according to me would be the people who would come here for trade. We Indians are very emotional when it comes to the country, but over there, people are quite professional and do not have any hatred towards our country. Even during the Doklam issue, our work came to a halt for about six-seven months with negligible tourist inflow, but things eventually improved.” He added that the pandemic period had taken a toll on his mental health, but he was hopeful that things would eventually get better.
There has been a major occupational shift among the tourist guides. Seeking a better future, they have now started to resort to different jobs, and the ones who have not found one rely solely on their savings and regular trading in the stock market. Some people are now working for call centres and some have even started to sell insurance. One such case was of Neeraj Kumar Singh from Bihar Sharif. He said, “I had to resort to farming when I lost all the hopes of my work resuming. My specialisation has been in English and French. Within the last year and a half, I have taken some loans from my relatives and friends. I have been doing farming since there is no scope for earning. I come from a small town, and therefore the opportunities available here are quite less. After working as a guide and doing well for myself, I could not do a job that would give me a salary of mere Rs 7,000. I would not be able to manage my expenses, plus there is a societal image that I have to tend to, for my family.”
With the start of the festive season, every family has additional expenses to cater to. Right now, if not anything, they expect the government to start the loan scheme that was introduced. It has been more than two months since the scheme’s introduction, but its implementation remains pending even after the hardships for about two years now. Currently a freelance journalist, Dharam Vir narrated, “Earlier, I was a guide registered under the Indian government. Now, seeing the conditions, I got into journalism as I had my education in mass communication. Two of our colleagues committed suicide, one recently in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. We are being deprived of all our rights as of now despite talking to all the government officials. The policies introduced are just for namesake and they have failed in all the commitments made.”
Tourist guides are a significant contributor to the tourist inflow. Based on their behaviour and the information that they give to the tourists, the tourism sector makes an image of the whole country. Reports from the Centre show that 21.5 million jobs have been lost alone in the tourism sector between April and December 2020. According to the Bureau of Immigration, the number of foreign tourist arrivals in India stood at 10.93 million in 2019, declining to 2.74 million in 2020 and about 0.42 million by June 2021. With this rate, it seems almost impossible for the condition of the guides to get better. The onus now lies on the State to alleviate the current situation of these tourist guides.
(Hrishi Raj Anand is a freelance journalist from Jharkhand working on the country’s rural, tribal and policy issues.)