The recent order by Himachal Pradesh government to allow entry of tourists has put the locals and travellers in a divide.
While a large section of tourists welcome the move, fingers were raised over the safety, feasibility and preparedness to tackle spread of the novel corona virus. Is this a well thought out move or another case of ‘haste makes waste’ played out poorly. Let’s investigate.
The State Government Quarantine requirements for tourism
As per the order issued on 2nd July 2020, the state government exempts tourists from the quarantine requirement with compliance to the following;
- A hotel booking of at least 5 days in advance
- A COVID negative report (RT-PCR) from an ICMR-accredited laboratory not earlier than 72 hours at the time of entry.
- Online registration on the State E-portal is required. You no longer need an E-Pass. All persons willing to enter into the State of Himachal Pradesh are advised to register on this portal and carry the acknowledgement receipt of registration while travelling. In case of non-registration prior to travel, you will be asked the details which will be entered manually at the barrier which may lead to unnecessary delay and inconvenience.
- All tourists to adhere to safety norms, practice social distancing, wear safety masks, best sanitation practices.
The Problems faced with the influx of tourists
There has been report of chaos at Parwanoo and Shoghi entry points. On an average, 2,000 vehicles are entering the state capital everyday. Long traffic jams with commuters waiting for two-three hours to enter the city have become a common sight.
Tourists are coming to the state without proper documents and valid Covid-19 test reports. They are turning up with rapid test reports, which are not acceptable as per the ICMR guidelines. Many tourists were not aware they need to get Real-Time PCR (RT-PCR) test as per ICMR guidelines. Many showed up just to see if they could evade the system and get a entry.
A health form to be filled by commuters has multiple columns, which is leading to further delay. Each form takes 10 minutes to process. This is causing a backlog of travellers on the highway.
A lot of people were neither wearing a mask nor maintaining social distancing. This has raised red flags among the locals over safety and the feasibility of allowing such a move.
What the Himachal Hoteliers are saying on the issue
The Hoteliers Association Kullu-Manali unanimously have decided to keep hotels closed till September this year. The same has been said by Kangra hoteliers. They are keen to restart businesses but not at the cost of human health and lives. Around 90 per cent hotels and home stay facilities are situated in villages. The villagers are apprehensive that the opening of hotels for tourists may lead to the spread of Covid in their vicinity. Further, the main tourist season (i.e April-June) is over and the monsoon months is a lean period.
The Kasauli Hoteliers and Residents Association has demanded relaxations in norms. Since they do a high volume business in the weekends, the 5 days mandatory hotel booking is not helping them.
They have sighted a thermal screening of visitors and a self-declaration form by them should be enough. The temperature of the guests could be monitored in a hotel as a precautionary measure. The condition of the five-day booking should be reduced to two or three nights.
They have asked for relaxation in the condition of not allowing a gathering of more than 50 persons as per the size and capacity of a hotel/Homestay/Banquet Hall.
What locals, panchayats are saying
It is interesting to see that many Panchayats of Himachal districts have opted opposing the State Government resolution. They fear it will be disastrous for the crucial Apple harvest season if there are spike in cases of Covid-19 in the state. The tribal districts of Lahaul and Spiti have continued to not allow outsiders, even a local MLA was sent back recently leading to an F.I.R lodged against the ‘Spiti Mahila Mandel’. Panchayats in Kullu and Kangra district have also opposed the resolution of the State government.
The Covid-19 spread and the Ground realities
Before we get into a debate of the feasibility of opening entry, we must understand the prevailing ground conditions of the spread of Covid-19.
The cases are expected to spike until September 2020. Going with that logic, any activity of opening a Hill State to Tourism should be deferred, subject to review in September.
In the last week itself, Himachal has seen a spike of 2% per day (or 80% per month), according to state government data.
Why opening Himachal for Tourism is a bad call
To put this in perspective, the move by State Government was done in haste without taking in the confidence of all the stakeholders. That the Government preparedness in tackling Covid-19 cases seems shaky at best with no conclusive groundwork.
- Opening the State without the mandate of Hoteliers and panchayats and autonomous bodies is a mistake. The Standard Operating Procedures have been found to be designed according to the needs of a five star hotels. It does not take into account that almost 90% plus hotels have just limited capacity rooms and facilities (less than 40 rooms).
- The Hotel staff have not been provided the training to tackle COVID-19 symptoms among their guests. Contrary to Government take, only 1 hotel of 100 were provided with the training in Shimla. The staff is not trained to handle situation of Guests showing symptoms of COVID-19. Even if the training is given now, it will take two months to get the staff properly groomed.
- The Apple Season is very important to the locals. Already facing an acute shortage of labourers, any spike of COVID-19 cases will have an adverse impact in the harvesting season which is a major livelihood of most villagers in the state.
- There is no clarity by the Government for how the hoteliers are suppose to handle COVID-19 cases. For instance a need to have a containment zone in every hotel to quarantine Guests who show symptoms. Or how to allow or deny a tourist entry based on his condition, for instance even a mild case of someone with a cough or sneeze is to be denied accommodation makes no sense. Or make availability of testing laboratory opened in all key tourist destinations.
- The system of issuing COVID-19 test reports is not full proof. There have been reports seen in the media that COVID negative certificates are being issued upon payment by some laboratories. If true, this is a matter of serious concern.
- There is no reason for the hotels to open while Corona cases are on the rise. India has over 25,000 cases each day (and rising). An ideal scenario to start the business is when the cases come down in hundreds (300 or less a day). Exposing a Hill state with limited infrastructure and poor health care services is asking for trouble.
As a informed and educated individuals we should make sense and defer any plans of travelling (not just to Himachal Pradesh) for now. The risks are far too great and common sense needs to prevail.
What do you think about this issue? Is the Government right in opening Himachal for tourists? Share your thoughts in the comment section.