BOOSTING THE ECONOMY

Indians consider holiday options as states ease curbs despite infections rising

Visitors near the Taj Mahal in the city of Agra last Tuesday. States in India are taking tentative steps to attract domestic tourists to bolster revenues that took a hit when tough restrictions imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19 crippled economic
Visitors near the Taj Mahal in the city of Agra last Tuesday. States in India are taking tentative steps to attract domestic tourists to bolster revenues that took a hit when tough restrictions imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19 crippled economic activity. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

When Mrs Bhavna Chopra Srikrishna put forward the idea of a family vacation last month, her two teenage children were horrified.

"The kids were absolutely against (it). They were like 'We are not going anywhere. If you want to get Covid, you can go,'" said Mrs Srikrishna, a skills development expert at the Confederation of Indian Industry.

India has seen a steady increase in Covid-19 cases, with more than 4.7 million reported so far, moving the country up a notch this month to being the second-worst hit in the world.

Despite this, its people - apparently tired of being confined after five months - are looking at holiday options as states take tentative steps to attract tourists as part of an effort to bolster revenues that plunged because of tough restrictions which crippled economic activity.

Mrs Srikrishna, 47, eventually prevailed in her holiday plans. Her family and friends, with the youngest aged seven, drove five hours from the city of Gurugram in Haryana state to a five-star hotel near Jim Corbett National Park, a tiger reserve, in the state of Uttarakhand.

The state mandates a seven-day quarantine period or a Covid-19 test for outsiders.

"So we decided on the quarantine. We just didn't feel the need to move out of the property. Cleaning was done by staff wearing PPE (personal protective equipment), which they changed as they went from room to room," Mrs Srikrishna said.

"We chose Jim Corbett because we could drive down in our own car. I wanted to be safe."

She is now planning another trip.

India has gradually lifted most of the restrictions imposed in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus, even though Covid-19 cases have continued to mount in the populous South Asian country.

There is wide acceptance that economic activity has to resume to prevent the loss of livelihoods.

 
 

Tourism is a money-spinner for many states, so they are welcoming visitors cautiously.

Uttarakhand is offering tourists a cashback incentive of 1,000 rupees (S$18.60) if they book a hotel room for a minimum of three days. It has also removed a cap of 2,000 visitors a day.

The southern state of Goa, a popular beach destination, has scrapped Covid-19 tests for tourists and home isolation.

In Himachal Pradesh, the compulsory stay has been reduced from seven days to a minimum of two days, provided a test is taken 96 hours before the travel date.

Tourism contributed 9.2 per cent to India's gross domestic product in 2018, and more than 42 million people are employed in the industry. Many believe domestic tourism will be key to recovery in the sector.

 
 

"A lot of people are travelling by car. They are going to destinations which are accessible by road rather than taking public transport, including flights," said Mr Subhash Goyal, chairman of the Tourism and Hospitality Council at the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India, an industry body.

"As the situation improves further, domestic tourism will be first to revive. After that it will be regional tourism, with people going to neighbouring countries like Nepal, Bhutan or Sri Lanka and then (other) international destinations."

The tourism sector is still a long way from recovery, though, as many challenges remain. Domestic air travel, for instance, has yet to pick up.

"We haven't really got queries to fly for travel. But taking a vacation is not easy because of the different state rules. The central government is saying something and states say something else. They are not in sync. Even people with Covid tests are getting harassed," said Ms Shilpi Singh, co-founder of The Unhotel, which curates personal travel experiences.

Not everyone is in favour of taking a Covid-19 test for travel.

 
 
 

"Definitely, you have to think twice. A Covid test is just now readily available in my city (Gurugram), and you don't want to waste a test for travel," said Ms Vinita Gursahani Singh, 50, who works in the area of capacity building.

Another challenge has been local reactions to the resumption of tourism. In Goa, residents have pleaded with tourists to stay away, saying the state's fragile healthcare system could not handle the tourist inflow or huge spikes in numbers.

Travel influencer and actor Shenaz Treasury was at the centre of a controversy after posting a picture of herself without a mask, riding a motorcycle in Goa.

She was forced to issue an apology for even visiting the city.

"I didn't realise that the locals felt so strongly against having visitors and didn't want tourists here," she wrote in her apology.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2020, with the headline 'Indians consider holiday options as states ease curbs despite infections rising'. Print Edition | Subscribe