No COVID-19 negative certificates needed for tourists entering Sikkim
Gangtok: Sikkim to issue 'travel card's' for tourists coming to the state following the tourism unlock from October 10. Previously, the state had opted for a compulsory COVID-19 negative certificate either issued by the ICMR or a valid certificate of RT-PCR testing. But, it has now has been dropped and made 'optional' as inter-state movement is allowed since October 1.
The travel card can be obtained from Sikkim Tourism's web portal sikkimtourism.gov.in. The generation of travel cards will ensure pre-booking of hotels, travel agencies and also vehicles for commute. Offline travel cards will be available at tourism information centres of the state in various cities.
Travel Cards are compulsory for entry into Sikkim from Rangpo or Melli check post. A single travel card will be issued to a group. There is no ceiling to how many individuals can be included in one travel card.
State Tourism Department, Additional Secretary Kapil Meena stated, "Around 75 cards have been generated till October 7, these cards do not mean that 75 tourists are coming but rather over 150 tourists coming. One card will suffice for a family or a group."
The travel card will have one main member who will receive an OTP once to register. There is no ceiling on the number of individuals, but tour operators have been advised against groups larger than 10-15. Individual travel is being discouraged.
The card will have stay and travel details. Travelcard generation is very simple through the web portal and will take less than 5 minutes.
Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation chairman Lukendra Rasaily maintained, "The decision to include the COVID negative certificate seemed to be an expensive affair for the tourists coming to Sikkim. Further, the showing of COVID negative certificates in Rangpo and Melli Checkpost seemed to be a tedious task even for the authorities there. It would be difficult to check every certificate, when the numbers would range in thousands later. Better than that, the option would be village monitoring at where the tourists would reach. We are requesting panchayats to do the same, as tourism stakeholders in Sikkim have been out of business throughout the year with zero income".
Restriction by local bodies in rural areas
Earlier, Lachung Dzomsa laid the precedence of not allowing tourists to enter their village. The same created a ripple effect with almost a dozen villages deciding to bar tourist entry. Most have opted to not open for tourism till November 30.
Speaking on the concern, STDC chairman stated, "We are internally negotiating, we understand that COVID-19 spread is a big concern and cannot forcibly tell them to open their villages. An amicable settlement is being considered while under the purview of the law and State's Home Department no village can impose their restriction in such a manner. The concerns are genuine from villages, as homestays have families staying together along with the elderly who may be at risk of getting infected. In Lachung's scenario, they are opting to open once there is normalcy ensured".
On being asked if the policies being framed by the government to be centred around Gangtok, Rasaily stated, "In rural areas there are 130 homestays which centred around different pockets, most of the hotels are in Gangtok, Lachung, Lachen, and Pelling. But a place like Assam Lingzey is not a tourism hub nor are their many hotels, but we have to be concerned about colder places of quick spread. Lachung and Lachen's decision through Dzomsa, we are accepting the same but also negotiating that they may reconsider. Even in Yuksom, being gateway to Mt Kanchenjunga, they fear that in 10-12 day trek to Goechela, if a person tests positive, the tourist may have to be carried all the way for 10-12 days with no motor-able road, so their concerns are genuine. We will have to see for a few days, whether to play defence or offence ".
On fears of COVID spread in the largely populous and the obvious drop point at State capital Gangtok, Kapil Meena stated, "It is for this reason, that we wanted the rural areas to remain open. We are hopeful, and we appeal that rural towns that imposed their lockdown against tourists coming, to reconsider their decision. Currently, it is an evolving situation, and we will monitor the situation later, if suppose there is a huge number of tourists coming to Gangtok and if there is a violation of SOP, we will make our rules more stricter and change SOP".
The State Tourism Department denied of being under pressure by the Gangtok based tourism stakeholders. "Restrictions have come from most of the rural areas, but there are also tourism towns like Pelling who have welcomed the tourism unlock saying they will ensure self-monitoring mechanism. We want all associations to follow similarly. We are not making it a compulsion to open; it is an appeal, not an order. All associations are supporting on opening, but apprehensions are understood".
On trekking to far-flung areas raising concerns of trouble in following COVID-19 related SOPs, "Not all the treks will be open in the first phase, but smaller treks will be allowed in the first phase, they are not dangerous; it has guidelines for social distancing which tour operators must abide".
Two-Tier Task Force
To welcome tourists into the State, the government has opted for a tourism task force. The task force will be led by the tourism secretary along with Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation chairman Lukendra Rasaily, District Magistrates, Health Principal Secretary, Transport Department General Manager and Sikkim Police DIG Range. The task force constituted on September 23, will review and monitor the situation with consideration for decisions to be taken in the future. It also has the presence of stakeholders along with various association members such as Travel Agents Association of Sikkim, Sikkim Hotel and Restaurants Association and others.
Furthermore, the government is considering setting up COVID Care Centres in Tourism hubs.
How will the smaller hotels follow SOP?
Tourism additional secretary stated, "Initially we had proposed that only 50% of the rooms can be occupied in hotels. But we received a lot of appeals from homestays and smaller hotels, claiming to keep half the room capacity vacant, would mean a loss and will add to additional cost when other rooms are allowed. They felt they could not sustain as most rural areas face the difficulty on whether tourists would come or not. Hence, we removed the 50% occupancy part, but every hotel will have one room devoted to emergency COVID-19 isolation if there is a positive case. Small hotels have to cautious; they should not have a buffet system; food must be served in the rooms. Those staff who frequent the rooms must wear gloves or face shields, but it is up to the hotels and stakeholders, how much they follow the SOP".
On the expectation of tourists, the State Tourism maintained that only 25-30% of the actual tourists could come, as they are also not travelling in large numbers. It will be lesser, but the SOP being well maintained will lay the precedence for tourists to feel confident about coming to Sikkim, then the numbers could increase. We want to encourage high-quality tourism in a limited way and want to unlock in a phase-wise manner