Amid COVID-19, Assam's tourism industry screaming for govt aid
New Delhi: No one saw COVID-19 coming; the world watched helplessly as it ravaged through continents, leaving thousands dead and institutions paralysed. One industry that has suffered the most in the face of the global outbreak of the pandemic is the tourism industry. This is even more prevalent if you consider a nation like India. The impact the global and national lockdown had on its tourism industry is larger than anyone could have predicted.
The Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism and Hospitality (FAITH) previously made an attempt to estimate how much of a hit the industry would take. Their prediction was Rs 5 lakh crore in losses to the tourism industry, resulting in 5.5 crore people — directly or indirectly employed by the industry- put out of work.
The rampaging virus has surpassed that estimate by three-fold in a period of five months. This is the greatest hit the tourism industry has taken in over a century. Every aspect of the Indian tourism industry has been affected and the only way to help it through this period is for government to take proactive and decisive steps pending when the pandemic goes away or a potent vaccine is provided.
More specifically, the tourism industry in Assam, a major industrial and tourism hub, is one of the worst hit in the country. This is because Assam's tourism industry has been suffering even before the pandemic was in full effect. In December 2019, the industry took a hit from the Citizenship Amendment Act protests which led to several curfews and bouts of violence. From October 2019 to April 2020, the tourism and hospitality industry in Assam was battered severely, and has slowly become a shadow of itself.
This, many people fear, may result in massive jobs losses. About 90% people working in several tourism businesses may lose their jobs, which can be avoided if something drastic is done by the government. Sources of livelihood across Northeast is not guaranteed. Nobody is certain about the depth of impact this pandemic will leave on the lives of people across Assam and Northeast.
Some states in the country are now fighting back. The pandemic has had a negative effect on the economy, and the state governments are motivated to restore some form of normalcy. Kerala, for instance, will once again allow domestic travels from September. To ensure safety, the minister of tourism, Kadakampally Surendran notes that all COVID-19 safety guidelines will be enforced as strictly as possible. The government of Kerala is pulling all the stops to ensure the dark days are quickly put behind them, as it plans to utilise a Rs 455 crore loan scheme to revive the tourism industry in Kerala and attempt to recover all the losses incurred.
In addition to Kerala, some other states like Himachal Pradesh, Goa, and Uttarakhand are preparing to begin receiving tourists from other parts of India. However, tourists will be required to present an accurate COVID-19 test certificate and will remain in the state for at least 5 days. We have also witnessed the government of Himachal Pradesh launch the Interest Subvention on Working Capital Loan for Hospitality Industry scheme. Regrettably, there's not so much that can be said about the Government of Assam. Operators are now calling on the government to help the travel industry in Assam find a solid footing in a similar way as other state governments.
Tourism entrepreneurs in Assam are coping with the pandemic crisis in different ways. Founder of Encamp Tourism Pvt Ltd, Ratan Kumar Ghimire, explains how his company has been affected by this pandemic; "I believe going into any business, you also sign up for the tough times that go with it. This pandemic has been beneficial to Encamp Tourism in ways that are only known to us. We have been able to train some of our staff, create new plans for our business and develop new initiatives that are synonymous with Encamp Tourism. We also cannot dismiss the place of connecting with our customers, the pandemic has given us the avenue to do exactly that," he said.
Ghimire also highlighted new projects his company has been able to begin as a result of the pandemic. He notes that infrastructural development, hassle-free adventure planning, adventure booking travel platform and travel footprint calculator for low carbon travel. Ghimire also strongly believes in the importance of technology in the post pandemic era. He believes technology is pivotal in assuring visitors of their safety travelling to the state.
Encamp Adventure campsite, in alignment with safety guidelines, is improving the available infrastructure to ensure safety of all Encampers. Ghimire also believes in the ability of the government to give the main industries in Assam – tourism, agriculture, handicrafts and handloom – a major boost to facilitate recovery. He strongly advocates that the government empowers start-up businesses to begin big projects and continue to improve the creative process.
Ghimire adds that grants and mentorship from leaders of the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati and the Indian Institute of Management will be great for start-up businesses. "Media and publications can also communicate the good work the government is doing to allay the fear of the masses", he adds.
Nishiraj A Baruah, founder of Homestay by the Tea Garden says he has been fortunate during the pandemic. "I've invested my entire passion for interior design into Homestay by the Tea Garden. People come from all over the world either for holiday or for business", he begins. Baruah admits to never being in a crisis since the start of the pandemic. Some of his rooms had guests before the pandemic forced a 'shelter-in-place' and these guests had to retain their rooms. Nishiraj however had to reduce his rates by 50% to help more people afford it and this helped pay salaries and cover other bills so that staff would be able to keep their jobs.
Due to the constant fear of traveling long distances, Baruah reveals that he is mostly focused on people from nearby areas; professionals working from home and people looking to change their environment.
Baruah also highlights some important measures that will improve the state tourism department. "I think the state tourism department should pay for ads and TV commercials promoting smaller hotels and homestays. They can also introduce a nice book that is comprehensive on accommodations and their location. Now that the lockdown has been relaxed, it is important to get back to business and take the industry to higher heights," he adds.
Founder of Bhaskar Homestay, Pallav Gogoi who began his business in 2017 after quitting his job explains the effect of the pandemic on his business. Gogoi says; "Ours is a small homestay of six rooms, we're mostly famous for our home cooked, hygienic meals. My mother and maid make up our team and we aim to provide the guests with a more homely environment when they stay," he says passionately.
"During the period of the pandemic, we shut our doors for the first few months, we are now just opening our doors to only those people we know and have tested negative for the virus. I stay with my 75-year-old parents who have ailments, so I'm not taking any chances. We also sanitise our property regularly. Before the pandemic, the turnover was between Rs 50,000 to 1 lakh per month, excluding the rainy season which is from June-August. Now, the current turnover is below Rs 50,000," he says.
Gogoi stresses on the need for a new approach and planning. "There is a need to re-strategize as there has been a temporary cessation of foreigners who were our primary guests. Now, we are most focused on local travellers who want a more hygienic environment to stay in. Presently, part of our target is those who travel to Dibrugarh for medical related works," he says with a stint of sadness on his face. Gogoi believes that once there is a solution to the problem affecting the society, the government should concentrate mainly on the local infrastructure. He believes that the Northeast is much more than just the tea state and that it should be highlighted through travel exhibitions.
"The only way forward is to retain positivity and remain focused. It is easy to lose heart and become despaired, we should, however, remember that it is always darkest before dawn. I also believe that Fishery, organic farming, and animal husbandry is a good way to help a family sustain themselves."
Owner of Solitude Travel Solutions Pvt Ltd, Joy Protim Majumdar, speaks on his personal pandemic experience; "In these trying times, I have been learning more about new places and new perspectives on tourism by attending several webinars and, occasionally, hosting them. Prior to this pandemic, our revenues were mostly generated through tour packages, mostly inbound and outbound. And sometimes only through air tickets and vehicle bookings.”
"Before the Pandemic, we were doing many tours outbound, which included International tours as well as tours within the country. We also promoted Assam Tourism by conducting some inbound tours from other states of the country. However, the current pandemic situation is very depressing as there is a shortage of revenues. The only strategy right now is only to ensure survival till some form of normalcy. I also appeal to our government to provide collateral free loans with a longer paying back period. Also, we would like to appeal to the government to allow us to work from home.
"The Government should reconsider and relax the rules it had for the travel agencies to get approved. Under these rules, travel agencies need to get an office space, thereby discrediting working from home. A cessation of this rule will enable business owners not take up extra expenses like paying for the rent of their office space."
On his part, the Director of Koyeli Tours and Travels Ltd, Arijit Purkayastha, who is also the Chapter Chairman of Northeast Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India (ADTOI), explains the direct effect of this pandemic to the industry. "Coping with the current pandemic is like dealing with anxiety; anxiety over the future of our jobs and the future of the industry as a whole. To overcome the feeling of isolation, I do things like watch comedy videos to rest, while pondering on how to revive the industry after the pandemic", he notes.
Speaking about his revenue generation plan, he says, “I would not outrightly say it is a formal plan. The dynamics of the industry enables me to operate under a broad spectrum where operations and marketing are designed to generate 70% from domestic tourists and 30% from foreign tourists.”
More on the negative effect of the pandemic, he says, "Before the start of the pandemic, generation of revenue was satisfactory as we were able to provide employment to about 20 youths, including drivers. Since March 2020 I would say it is Rs 0. Although we have ideas and plans on how to ensure safe and wonderful travel experiences for people, that can happen only when travel begins once again. Now with intermittent lockdowns and other restrictions there can be no feasible strategy.
"We have made several appeals to the government to bail us from bankruptcy all to no avail. We even utilised the power of social media in our pleas," Purkayastha notes quite frustratingly.
Purkayastha has earlier submitted a list of requests that will enable the government to bail out the tourism industry. He says the government of Assam should facilitate soft loans to tourism businesses, and not grant financial aid. The list also states that the amount of loan should not be restricted to just 20% of existing loans, but instead should be on the basis of meeting all the requirements for a loan. The government has to ensure the borrowers are genuine tour operators to guarantee they'll pay back.
Furthermore, Purkayastha writes that the state government should serve as a guarantor to 5-6 percent of interest rate of loans that are disbursed. For instance, if the interest rate is 8 percent, tour operators would need to pay 2-3 percent, while the balance would be paid by the government. He also says the repayment period may also be increased from the current 1-3 years, where the first year is interest-free and the total period is 4 years.
The Tourism sector in Assam is currently in shambles. Many people are suffering the impact and many more are yet to feel it. However, the government can save the only source of livelihood of over 500,000 people resident in Assam by being proactive in their approach. This will ensure that when the pandemic is over, things can return to normal or, at least, be easy for people to cope, the tourism and travel industry will continue to blossom.