COVID-19: Himachal gears up to meet post-lockdown challenges

From economic relief to different use of premises to regulation of hotels, hoteliers are considering a number of options

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Tuesday 05 May 2020
Photo: Shimla Railway Station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Entrepreneurs in Himachal Pradesh’s tourism sector are chalking out a roadmap for the post-lockdown phase in the state. With hotels shut down for an uncertain period, there are many who are thinking in terms of utilising their premises in a different manner.  

Amit Pratap Sachdeva, who has been running a resort in Solan for the last two decades, has decided for the time being to convert his premises into a paying- guest accommodation for girls.

“We will have to look for alternatives to survive and keep things going. Since I have 15 rooms at my disposal, I can accommodate 30 girl students,” he said.

“We know that the hotel industry will take a long time to open and run profitability. There are people who are thinking of converting hotels into residential sets that can be rented out at least for the next year or so,” Sachdeva added.

Running a paying-guest accommodation can work in places like Solan, which has emerged as an educational hub. But things are different in other places.

Sanjay Sood, who is the president of Shimla Hotel and Restaurant Association, says the big hoteliers are left with no option but to remain shut.

“We told Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur that 98 per cent of the hoteliers’ work is based on the principle of first earning and then spending. We do not have any capital corpus,” Sood said.

Citing no current earnings, the hoteliers have asked for relief on power, water and garbage collection bills. They have asked to be billed on actual or domestic charges since they won't be able to pay commercial rates, Sood added.

This reporter asked Sood about relief for hotel staff, who are largely from within the state and have returned home.

“One positive aspect is that the staff members own small pieces of land back home that they can work on. We have stood by them and will provide all the help that we can to them in the days to come,” he claimed.

In the post-lockdown period, the hotel industry wants the government to spend money on detailed screenings of tourists at the entrance points to the state, instead of carrying out marketing campaigns. If this can be done, it will keep everyone safe.

An important concern that the government needs to address is the regulation of hotels, guest houses and homes offering bed and breakfast. It is estimated that there are more than 5,000 units across Himachal, out of which, more than 1,000 are in Shimla alone. These include both, legal and illegal units.

Himachal has witnessed mushrooming of hospitality units and a large number of them have been illegal. Apart from denying tax revenue to the government, such units have been hotspots of nefarious activities where people have been coming for binge drinking, gambling etc.

There are also several examples where people have purchased residential flats that are being run for commercial activity, with the owners coming just for a couple of weeks on an annual holiday.

“All this cannot be allowed, particularly at a time when the world has dealt with a pandemic and a lockdown. The biggest example that can highlight the danger emerging from such scenarios is the incident of six Chinese nationals who were tracked to a home stay in Lakkar Bazar area of Shimla in late February,” Sood said.

“If such units are allowed to function in the post-lockdown period, who is going to keep track of people coming to stay there?” he asked, adding that a complete relook at the tourism policy was the need of the hour.

BS Marh, an expert in geography, further elaborated on the issue. “The numbers have to be controlled. A mechanism has to be thought of and it is for researchers on tourism to come out with solutions,” he said.

Marh noted the scenario that was prevailing till last year where people came in very large numbers by all modes of transport to choke tourist destinations where even parking space was not available, could not be allowed to be repeated.

“Tourism by its nature, is a crowd gatherer. The industry is in a shock not only during the pandemic but will remain in the same state even after that. But this sector definitely needs to be streamlined,” he added.

Apart from the screening, things will change on all fronts in the post-lockdown period, Marh said. Social distancing would become a norm; transport vehicles would not be filled to the optimum.

Similarly, hotel rooms that earlier accommodated a complete family, would no longer be the same. All this would mean an escalation in cost.

Himachal saw a footfall of more than 17 million tourists in 2019 out of which, 0.35 million were from other parts of the world. The tourism industry reportedly contributes around Rs 6,000 crore to the state exchequer. 

The lockdown came at a time when tourism activities normally pick up for the summer season and thousands of people earn an income that would sustain them for the remaining part of the year.

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