COVID-19: North Bengal tourism takes a hit as wildlife parks keep visitors out

Hotels and homestays empty; shut sanctuaries hit businesses 

By Gurvinder Singh
Published: Monday 12 July 2021
Wildlife sanctuaries and parks have been shut across north Bengal because of COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Gurvidner Singh

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has put much of the country on hold: Several popular places, otherwise buzzing with tourist activity, look eerily empty.

North Bengal, flocked by tourists for its idyllic mountains and walks in the tea gardens, is in a rocky situation. The pandemic has robbed tourists of a rendezvous with nature — and tour operators of their livelihoods.

The region is the gateway to north-eastern states and has 28 wildlife sanctuaries that attract thousands of wildlife enthusiasts from within and outside India.

Livelihoods lost 

Hotels and homestays look haunted, the reporter who visited the region recently observed. Survival, owners said, has become challenging.

“My home-stay has been vacant since the lockdown was announced in 2020. I used to earn Rs 1,000 a day earlier. Now I depend on odd jobs,” said Sunil Tamang (45), who runs a hotel in Kalimpong.

Others had similar stories to tell. “There seems to be no end to this (the pandemic). We were gearing to resume our business after the first COVID-19 wave. But the second dashed our hopes. We are planning to shift to other businesses,” said Rahul Chhetri, who runs a homestay at Dalgaon in North Bengal’s Alipurduar district.

Several have rented their establishments to the state government departments. Amit Chhetri, who lives in Melli bazaar close to Rangpo border in Sikkim, had inaugurated his 20-room hotel a month before the lockdown.

“I faced heavy losses and decided to rent the hotel to a government department,” he said.

 Sanctuaries closure hits business

Those living near wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, who depend on wildlife tourism for livelihood, have been hit badly.

“It is still not clear when things would become normal. It boils down to the safety of the wildlife,” said Krishnendu Mondal, who runs a home stay near Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary.

Several eateries near the sanctuary stare at losses too. The business, many claimed, has dipped by 70-80 per cent.

“We had to retrench our staff from 14 to 5. We get very few customers, who do not order much anyway. We have to throw the food away,” said Anup Biswas, who runs a restaurant close to the Mahananda sanctuary.

The state has put several restrictions to protect the animals: Forest officials said that staff members are not allowed near the animals if they do not follow COVID-19-appropriate behaviour.

Badal Debnath, director, North Bengal Wild Animal Park, said: “The state forest department allows those working with the animals to enter the sanctuaries. They have to change clothes and wear the ones provided by us. Wearing face masks and hand gloves is mandatory”.

He, however, added that they have lost a chunk of their revenue due to the closure.

Those associated with the tourism industry have pegged the losses to the tune of Rs 25-30 crore every day since the announcement of lockdown in 2020.

“Around 0.5 million people living in Dooars, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts are directly and indirectly involved in tourism in north Bengal. The business was cruising profitably before the lockdown. Many had purchased new cars; several had ventured into the business of hotels and eateries,” said Tanmoy Goswami, co-ordinator of Himalayan Hospitality and Tourism Development Network.  

The pandemic compelled them to sell everything off, he added: “The state government has offered relaxation but people are still scared.”

Sikkim offers respite

The Sikkim government recently eased restrictions on the entry of tourists, bringing some cheer to tour operators.

The hill state has allowed entry to partially vaccinated individuals, if at least one member of their family has been fully vaccinated. It has also allowed unvaccinated children if they are accompanied by vaccinated parents. 

Manoranjan Das, a tour operator in Siliguri, said the amended rules have offered some respite: “Things may just turn better.”

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