One of the more unsavoury, man-made consequences of the pandemic has been the almost total concentration of power in the executive arm of governments. There is now no legislative oversight, consultation with civil society, dialogue with stake holders or even scrutiny by the press. All decisions are taken by a socially distanced Chief Minister and a handful of bureaucrats. Now, the IAS may be the cream of administration (actually, the whipped cream, but that is another story) but it does not represent the sumum bonum of all wisdom, and much of the confusion that prevails today is the result of this delusion. If any proof of this were needed, one need look no further than the current policies of the Himachal govt. to reopen tourism in the state.
Given the importance of tourism to the state’s GDP and its employment potential there can be no doubt that it needed to be revived. But any plan to do so had to factor in the rising graph of covid cases, the sentiments of the local population and the concerns of the local hotel and hospitality industry. What was needed was a carefully calibrated, phased out reopening, not an abrupt lifting of the flood gates, which is what the state did in the first week of July.
Clearly, there was no urgency to immediately allow the ingress of tourists into the state. Himachal typically has two tourist seasons: March to June and then again from September to December. The first season had already been lost due to the lockdowns and the second was still a couple of months away, so there was no hurry to open up right now. As I had suggested in my earlier piece on the subject the govt should have used this period to wait for the infection graph to decline and then to draw up a phased- out plan, opening up the state gradually: home stays, rural areas, adventure sports and outdoor tourism first and then moving to urban based tourism in the second phase. This time should also have been utilised to register all hospitality units, weed out the illegal ones, list the approved ones on its Tourism Deptt website, and insist that any prospective tourist would have to have a prior booking in one of these units to qualify for entry. I had also warned that there could be resistance from local communities and panchayats and the govt. would have to engage with them and bring them on board. This type of planning would have struck a balance between livelihoods and lives and would have had the endorsement of all participants.
The state tourism department, however, appears to have taken the reckless and lazy route and has thrown open the whole state at one go last week. The consequence has been utter chaos as thousands swarmed the state’s borders. It is a lose-lose situation. Hundreds of tourists, unable to comply with the stringent conditions for entry are being turned back. Those who meet the requirements encounter resistance from local panchayats. The HILL POST has reported that entry into Kullu is allowed only if the panchayat Pradhan gives his/her consent (something not required by the rules), and many families had to spend nights at the border in their cars because the Pradhan’s phone was switched off! Hotel associations in Manali, Shimla and Kangra have unanimously refused to open their hotels, as have taxi unions, for fear of the disease spreading and in protest against the prescribed SOPs for them. The few tourists who have entered are a harried lot, with no place to stay and nowhere to go. Everyone is unhappy- the tourist, the hoteliers, local communities, an over worked police force. And most worrying of all, in the last few days the state’s covid positive cases have increased significantly. The only ones who gain are the illegal and unregistered home stays and guest houses which the department has failed to capture on its radar.
Even the rules and conditions for entry may not stand scrutiny. Since every tourist has to carry an RT-PCR negative certificate, what is the logic of prescribing a minimum stay of five days? Weekend tourism is the mainstay of tourism in Himachal, and the average stay is only two days. If the idea was to limit the number of tourists overall then why open up at all now? Especially if, with almost all major cities from where tourists generally come on the negative (instituitional quarantine) list, no tourist from there would even consider coming? A leading Shimla hotelier I spoke to expressed his frustration in no uncertain terms: SOPs and rules were being changed every second day, hoteliers were caught between the panchayats and the government, the govt. had offloaded its own responsibilities of verification of tourists on to the hotels, who had no means of doing so. The govt. had still not withdrawn its earlier threat that the hotel management would be held liable if any of their guests was caught flouting rules or tested positive. He was very clear that he would not open up unless all this confusion was cleared up- reopening a unit which has been shut for months requires a lot of investment in both time and money, and it would all come to naught if either the tourists did not turn up or the govt. again changed the rules to his disadvantage. He said that it was more prudent to wait and watch. That, unfortunately, appears to be the general attitude of the industry.
Granted that it is not an easy job to find the perfect formula, if there is one. Other states like Goa and Uttarakhand are also struggling to discover the right protocols. But copy-pasting each others’ wrong ideas is not the answer. (Goa already appears to have conceded defeat by imposing another lock down from the 16th July). Himachal should scrap the current policy in its entirety, reimpose a ban on external tourists till end of August, and go back to the drawing board. Its tourism sector is far too important to be handled in a cavalier and ad-hoc fashion. The government should listen to all the stakeholders and first address their concerns- after all, it has been elected by the people and not by a virus. Its legitimacy comes from the former and not the latter. A lesson worth remembering in these authoritarian times.