COVID has changed tourism. Will it also make it more responsible?

YEAR END SERIES 2021: SUSTAINABLE TOURISM

A tourist travelling in Jaipur on a cycle. Cyclin' Jaipur is one of the sustainable tourism initiatives in the pink city: Photo: Eleonore/Cyclin Jaipur

“COVID-19 has hit us really hard, we are finding it really difficult to survive,” says B.S. Ranawat, owner of a tour agency in Jaipur . “I had three branch offices in Jaipur but had to shut down two of them, release a majority of the staff and take credit from the family for payment of loans. I have lost 80% of my business,”says Ranawat, who worked with Railways in Delhi, had come back to Jaipur in 2007 and started his own tour agency. Today, his business and dreams seem to be falling apart because of the impact of COVID-19 on the city’s tourism industry.

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Ranawat is not the only one, there are several like him who have been devastated due to the pandemic. 

Rajasthan’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism revenue. A study suggests that the state witnessed a drop of almost 60% in the arrival of foriegn tourists and 70% in domestic tourists which has had a deep impact on the industry.

As per another study by JLL property consultancy, 11 major cities across the country witnessed a decline of  29% in revenue per available room (RevPAR) during January-March 2020. The Pink City, now declared UNESCO heritage city, was at fifth spot, witnessing a fall of 19.6% in RevPAR. 

RevPAR is a performance measure used in the hospitality industry,calculated by multiplying a hotel’s average daily room rate by its occupancy rate

Heavy losses

It is not just Jaipur that has witnessed such a drastic downfall in tourist arrivals. Every major tourist city across the country is facing the same revenue crunch. The impact of the pandemic has left the Indian economy gasping, requiring special and effective interventions to reboot.

Tourism has been an important earner for the Indian economy, having contributed 9.20% to the GDP in 2018. That came down to 6.8% in 2019. Yet, the Indian tourism sector remains at the tenth spot in terms of travel and tourism spend and created 8% of the total employment in 2019. 

In 2020 however,  COVID-19, has left the  sector in tatters. As per a Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Hotelivate study, the Indian tourism industry is set to lose around Rs 5 lakh crore. These estimates are only for the organized industry. The report further adds that tour operators and agencies are expected to incur a loss of Rs 35,070 crore with hotels likely to  see 80% to 85% erosion in the revenue streams. The study has projected that occupancy rates in hotels will remain low till the end of 2020. 

As per information shared by Tourism Secretary Yogendra Tripathi with the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture, 2 to 5.5 crore employed in the sector,directly or indirectly, have lost their jobs. The secretary also informed the panel that revenue loss was pegged at Rs. 1.58 lakh crore.

“I used to employ 12 people, now we are just 3 to 4, that is also temporary,” says Ranawat. “Also, I am unable to keep up with loans on my cabs. I am looking to sell two of the six, even if below the market rate.  I am now driving the taxi myself and coordinating all the itinerary activities. I cannot afford an extra driver or staff.” 

Ranawat says he incurred a loss of Rs 10 to 12 lakh from March 2020 until now. This includes payment of installments, rent, fuel for cabs, electricity bills etc. On being asked if he has ever faced a similar crisis before, he remembers the time of ‘demonetization’, but says even that was not this bad.

The fate of Agra

Agra, a well known heritage tourism city, is facing the same crisis as Jaipur. Tourist footfalls dipped by 60% in 2020 and more than 4.5 lakh people have been estimated to be impacted. And the road to recovery has been tough.

Moreover, reports suggest that it is not only the hotel industry but also other tourism dependent earners  like guides, tour operators, cab drivers, emporium owners that have suffered hugely due to the Corona crisis. As per the data available, 650 hotels, 3500 guides, 800 photographers are officially registered with the district administration. 

Taj Mahal, a major tourist attraction, was shut down on March 17 2020 amid coronavirus fears, and was reopened for public on September 21st. In a recent notification, the Archaeological Survey of India has also lifted the cap on the number of tourists visiting centrally protected monuments like the Taj Mahal. Before this, there have been only three instances (World war II, 1971 Indo Pak war and 1978 floods) when the Taj Mahal was shut down. 

“Taj Mahal has been opened but we are hardly getting any tourists,” says Rajeev Upadhyay, a city-based antique and jewellery shop owner, who also used to help tourists to get guides, cab services and more. “Most of those visiting are locals and from nearby places. Several hotels, restaurants and emporiums in the city are still closed. Agra has been largely dependent on foreign tourists and we have zero foreign tourists coming in.” 

In 2018, Taj Mahal was the most visited tourist site in India with 7,95,000 foreign tourists visiting the famous monument. Moreover, before the pandemic, the city reported an average footfall of 25,000 to 30,000 tourists during the weekend – during long weekends it would reach 50,000. However, since its reopening in September, the monument site has failed to witness the footfall of even 5000 tourists per day, a benchmarking done by the Ministry of Culture to reboot the UNESCO heritage sites. 

“Since March we have been sitting at home but continue to pay our installments and other bills,” says Rajeev. “In Agra, almost 50% of the households are directly or indirectly related to the tourism business and everyone is struggling to revamp the sector. There is no government support. There is a lot of confusion with respect to rules and COVID-19 precaution norms, which is discouraging the tourists.” 

On being asked if he is looking to make a switch to a new business, Rajeev says, “I don’t think I have adequate experience in any new field, my family is dependent on me and I cannot take a risk”.

For Rajeev and several others like him in Agra, the COVID-19 vaccine has created hopes of bringing some vibrancy back to the city’s tourism segment. 

A way to revive the sector

Amidst the present chaos in the sector, experts have been talking about how sustainable tourism can be a way ahead. The World Economic Forum, at its Sustainable Development Impact Summit, emphasized on prioritizing “sustainability in rebuilding tourism”. 

The pandemic has significantly changed the tourist’s attitudes. Personal sanitation and hygiene is now being given priority. Tourists are also avoiding crowded spots and visiting more isolated places. Travelling patterns have also changed.  Nearby places and short travel along with importance to local food are some of the new trends  emerging in the sector. 

In the past few months, all reports, webinars and op-eds on sustainable tourism have prominently highlighted one major learning—– it cannot be business as usual for the industry. It is time for the stakeholders to formulate a plan that will keep principles of sustainable tourism at the front. The pandemic has forced consumers to be more cautious and have a higher degree of orientation towards sustainability and local communities. 

This is being understood and accepted by the industry. Restaurants are introducing more locally sourced and fresh dishes, homestays are getting a boost with ‘workation’ becoming the new trend, tourists are going for more local and domestic (and less explored) destinations and walking and cycling clubs are becoming prominent in tourist cities. 

“Domestic tourism is the new opportunity” says Saeed Shervani, Former President, Federation of Hotels and Restaurants Association of India (FHRAI) in a webinar on sustainable tourism organized by SDC Foundation. “People are now travelling with their own cars and over short distances. Hotels need to adhere strictly to COVID-19 norms issued by the Ministry of Tourism. This will ensure safety and build confidence amongst the tourists. It also gives a good opportunity to revive the industry,” adds Shervani. “I am sure things will improve slowly. Till then, I urge hoteliers and tourists to observe all the necessary protocols,” he says. 

For a city like Jaipur, adopting a sustainable tourism model can ease pressure on the city’s infra as well as provide more quality tourism services. As per a study, garbage, dust, long traffic jams, open urination, broken footpaths are some of the urban challenges for the heritage city, which are only getting worse with time. Under such circumstances, having initiatives or startups that promote more sustainable ways of tourism will have better chances to thrive.

Cycling initiatives

One encouraging example of sustainable initiatives in the Pink City is Cyclin’ Jaipur. Started by two french friends, Eléonore and Ophélie, they launched the first cycle tour of the city in 2013. Since then, Cyclin’ Jaipur has become a well known name in responsible tourism.

Cyclin’ Jaipur provides tourists with an opportunity to explore Jaipur’s local and street life intimately . The company ensures that the local community benefits in terms of employment and other economic opportunities. Cyclin’ Jaipur was also shortlisted amongst the final three entries for the Indian Responsible Tourism Award in 2018. 

“We started in 2015 and our objective was to show the tourists the backstage of the city – the streets, bazars, local people, their life – all on cycle,” says Eleonore, Co-Founder, Cyclin’ Jaipur. “This made our initiative sustainable. Today, several domestic ventures are offering tourism on cycle. In fact, a number of big companies are also starting tourism on cycle in Jaipur. Our model is entirely based on the local community. We have 10 to 15 guides and all of them are from Jaipur, we even offer cooking classes to the tourists with the help of local families.” 

“We do cycling tours in the morning hours when there is less traffic and crowd. Before COVID-19, we used to do 3 to 4 tours a day. We are hopeful that around March-April 2021 things will get better,” adds Eleonore who believes that awareness can play a key role in making sustainable tourism the new normal. 

Tourists in Jaipur with the Cyclin Jaipur team. Photo: Eleonore 

The role of government will be the most crucial to promote sustainable tourism in Indian cities. Studying the carrying capacity of major tourist destinations has been a long  pending agenda. It should be undertaken on an immediate basis. This will not only ensure proper maintenance and conservation of the tourist spots but also quality tourism.

The Ministry of Tourism has already in place the Principles and Indicators for Tour Operator and Accommodation Sector promoting sustainable tourism. However, these are more like standards and not legally binding.

Having a regulatory structure that is obligatory to follow can ensure the implementation of sustainable tourism at the grassroots level. Most importantly, the government should also identify early stage startups and companies who are already practising sustainable tourism (like Cyclin Jaipur) and help them in scaling up and creating best practices to be replicated. 

SoP highlights for hotels and guests

  • Hotels have to ensure adequate availability of hygiene and sanitation related instruments like thermal gun thermometer, sanitizers, masks, gloves, garbage bags (separate ones for used masks and other protective equipment) etc. 
  • Posters/Standees to be displayed with instructions like dos and don’ts, emergency helpline numbers, handwashing, social distancing etc. 
  • Adequate isolation facilities to be kept ready in case of any hotel staff or a tourist suspected to have contracted the virus. 
  • Make it mandatory for all the hotel staff and guests to download the Aarogya Setu mobile application. 
  • Deploy a rapid response team at hotels, responsible for preventing incidents effectively
  • Manage cases and mitigate impact among guests, staff and other involved parties. 
  • Urge guests to stay inside the rooms and keep their doors closed to avoid unnecessary contact. Also, they must observe social distancing norms and frequently wash hands with water and soap or a sanitizer. 
  • Details of the guest (Travel history, medical condition etc.) along with ID and Self declaration form must be provided by the guest at the reception.
About Rishabh Shrivastava 18 Articles
Rishabh Shrivastava is an independent journalist.