Operating a boutique homestay nestled inside the evergreen jungles of Chikkamagaluru in Karnataka has proved to be a busy job in the past three months for Ravishankar BM, a planter-turned-proprietor of a homestay in the Shiravase hamlet. The picturesque property, bounded by meandering brooks, has been chock-a-block with travellers from across the country since January. It is unlikely to be free until the end of the monsoon.
The happy sight of travellers queuing up for lesser-known destinations is not a phenomenon that is confined to the hill-town of Chikkamagaluru but extends to all of India — from the clean beaches of Kerala to the snow-clad mountains of Jammu and Kashmir and the thick, unexplored forests in the Northeast.
“Restricted to home and work for the last two years due to the pandemic, people are desperate for long travel and to unwind. Giving wings to their wanderlust, many are setting out to secluded destinations or beaches,” noted K Syama Raju, president of the South India Hotels and Restaurant Association.
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The domestic travel industry is recovering fast, partially compensating for losses incurred because of the pandemic. Of all the sectors battered by Covid-19, tourism was probably the worst. According to the World Tourism Organisation, a United Nations agency that promotes tourism, South East Asia was impacted the most. India lost over 60% of foreign arrivals, affecting the livelihood of lakhs of families.
Though the sector gained some momentum after the second wave, it was short-lived because of the resurgence of Covid-19 infections with the coming of Omicron. The beleaguered sector finally received a much-needed shot in the arm a couple of months back with the government relaxing the travel restrictions following a shrinking epidemic.
Between November and March, the Kashmir valley received over 6.27 lakh tourists. The famed Tulip Garden received a footfall of 3.5 lakh visitors in just 20 days in March and April this year compared to 2.26 lakh visitors last year. A record number of 102 flights were operated out of Srinagar airport, ferrying over 16,000 passengers.
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“Kashmir was houseful this winter and it is the same during spring too. Besides the popular Gulmarg ski resort, other places such as Pahalgam and Sonmarg were abuzz with tourists. Homestays, guesthouses and boathouses at the famous Dal Lake were also fully booked which is unprecedented,” said Ahsan-ul-Haq, deputy director of Jammu and Kashmir tourism.
While outbound travel and international arrivals are yet to reach pre-pandemic levels, domestic travel has been high with tourist spots receiving unprecedented footfall. According to a National Council of Applied Economic Research report, domestic tourism is a key driving force for revenue in the sector even though a trip within the country costs only about a fraction of an international trip.
G Jagadeesh, managing director of the Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation, said all package tours and facilities across Karnataka were witnessing up to 85% occupancy.
“While we suffered losses of about Rs 20 crore, there is an opportunity to increase revenue to the tune of Rs 100 crore. We have even reduced package rates, reopening some popular trips. The pilgrim circuit focusing on Tirupati has been a much-sought-after package followed by the Dakshina Kannada package,” he said.
In the Northeast, tour operators are rejoicing over the return of travellers as the sector was hit even before the Covid pandemic due to agitations on a contentious law on citizenship. “Assam and Meghalaya are driving the boom in the Northeast along with temples. While Kaziranga in Assam, Shillong and Cherrapunji in Meghalaya are major crowd pullers, devotees are also descending on the famous Kamakhya temple,” said Aparup Deka, a Guwahati-based tour operator.
At a recent government function, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said, “The rush at Kamakhya and Kaziranga is more than what it was before the pandemic. At times, we (the government) have found it difficult to find a place around Kaziranga to hold meetings.” The park, known for its one-horned rhinos, saw the footfall of over 2.20 lakh visitors in 2021-22 which is the highest in the last decade.
Talking about hardships that the sector faced, Syama Raju said, “with Covid-19 around, we have made it to the lifeboat somehow but dry land remains far. In south India alone, the sector had to cut about 60% of jobs besides keeping payment pending to suppliers.”
“Luckily, in Karnataka, the government offered us a 50% rebate in property taxes and waiving of the minimum demand charges for the three-months duration. Today, we are able to witness near 80% occupancy largely due to the young and working professional crowd. It was the outbound segment of travellers that had now converted to the domestic circuits.”
The growth in domestic tourism comes from homestays and resorts and not conventional hotels. “Travellers prefer homestays and resorts with vast open space and private accommodations similar to houses. Hotels in urban localities and towns are yet to get bookings,” he said.
N Chandrasekar, secretary of Nilgiris Hoteliers’ Association in Udhagamandalam popularly known as Ooty observed, “If not for any new Covid variants, the hills will regain their lost sheen this summer. Whatever jobs were cut during the pandemic, have been recreated following the sudden rush.”
The appetite for ‘sea-cations’ is also growing in Goa, Karnataka and Kerala. R Venkatesh Kumar, director of Karnataka Tourism observed that the beaches of Karnataka are buzzing with tourists. Krishna Teja Mylavarapu, director of Kerala Tourism also acknowledged a similar trend along the Kerala coast. “All destinations have been booked in advance until July 2022,” he said.
What, however, may emerge as a new threat is rising inflation affecting the small and medium players. “Hotels are providing 10-15% discount and adding multiple attractions to the packages. The same can not be maintained all through the summer given the rising cost of essential commodities and fuel,” said Syama Raju.
With an impressive turnout of domestic travellers, the sector is setting its eye on foreign arrivals with Kerala and Goa at the forefront. “We have already received a flood of inquiries and bookings from the international circuit. People generally start coming in from August-September in Kerala,” noted Krishna Teja.
Rajeev Kale, a top executive of Visa-Thomas Cook (India) Ltd said, “Short-haul destinations are currently seeing the maximum interest with Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, and island destinations like Maldives and Mauritius witnessing a surge in demand.” Queries for destinations across Western Europe have grown by three times over the last year. The Middle East has also accounted for 40-50% growth in demand compared to last year.” Mega sporting events such as the FIFA world cup in Qatar and the T-20 world cup in Australia later this year have also spurred interest among the corporate.
Smothered by losses for two consecutive years, the sector is starting from scratch by rebuilding and reinventing what was lost. The sector also keeps an eye out for grey areas that could pose a major challenge in the coming days.
“We need wide support from the state government and academic circles. While it is the duty of governments to attract tourists, academia must help by producing skilled and quality manpower. Catering colleges have to be set up in every district. This is perhaps the only industry that employs people without any educational qualification. Yet, they require some amount of skill for which training programmes are required,” said Syama Raju.
(With inputs from Zulfikar Majid, Sumir Karmakar, ETB Sivapriyan, Mohammed Safi Shamsi and Arjun Raghunath)
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