Shimla: Himachal’s tourism industry which is the biggest revenue earner and job creator in the hill state has been hit by a double whammy.
The scare caused by relentless rains, massive landslides and fresh weather forecasts of more heavy to very heavy rainfall in eight out of 12 districts has reduced tourist arrivals to a record low in July 2023, after a peak period in June.
The hotel occupancy, as per information shared by the hoteliers with the state’s tourism department, is not more than 5 to 6 percent.
The fear of getting stranded or unsure about their safety from the landslides and floods has kept tourists away from the hills. Most of the holiday makers are flying to Kashmir. Lack of air connectivity is the biggest draw-back which Himachal Pradesh suffers except in case of Kangra.
The tourism industry in Himachal Pradesh, a state gifted with natural beauty, meadows and cool valleys, accounts for 7% of the state’s GDP while it contributes around 14.42% of direct and indirect employment.
The HPTDC –a government entity having nearly 60 hotels, has offered 50% discounts till September 15 so as to recover the losses. This was perhaps the first time as usually June-July were the best periods of business.
A total of 28.03 lakh tourists visited Himachal in June 2023 as compared to 20.62 lakh in 2022.
Director (Tourism ) Amit Kashyap said,“ Tourism had started quite well in May this year. The tourist footfall before the floods was approximately 1.6 crore, significantly more than what we were getting before Covid-19 period. Now, the occupancy is below 8 to 10% .”
During the time, when natural calamity devastated Kullu-Manali and two key National Highways— Kiratpur-Manali and Chandigarh-Shimla, the tourists passed through horrifying moments.
The state government evacuated 70,000 tourists, of which 80-85 percent were in Kullu-Manali, apart from 290 others stranded at snow-hit Chandratal in Lahaul-Spiti at a height of 14,100 feet.
There were 497 tourists from almost 21 countries who were staying in Parvati valley, Kasol, Kulga, Khirganga and Manali when floods and rains wreaked havoc in the state.
“Everyone was rescued and evacuated safely. They were also provided food, medicines and water by the police, home guards and NDRF personnel” says Additional DGP (CID) Satwant Atwal, who supervised the operation.
Though the Chief Minister Sukhwinder Sukhu has earned appreciation for safe evacuation of the stranded tourists, several stray instances about fleecing of tourists by some unscrupulous hoteliers and home-stay owners have brought a bad name to the state.
The district administration had taken action against some of these culprits.
However, there were many good Samaritans as well.
“I know many hoteliers who accommodated stranded tourists, fed them and also did not charge them. They also helped the police and NDRF in rescue operations. The tourists have written back and contacted on phone to appreciate the gesture of the hoteliers and home-stay owners in Manali, Manikaran and Kasol” says Anil Kant, a hotelier.
The state government and police department had been issuing travel advisories warning the travellers in the state to plan their journeys only when weather conditions are favourable.
The swollen Beas river and other subsidiary rivers in Kullu has badly affected the mobility, damaged highways, flooded towns and washed away bridges and roads. The tourists will not think of planning holidays before the withdrawal of the monsoon, admits Prince Kukreja, a hotelier in Shimla.
He recalls that the tourism industry had taken a heavy toll during the Covid-19. The hotel industry is again back to square one, Kukreja says, fearing that broken roads and breached highways will not be restored back so early as the government is already facing a debt burden of Rs 75,000 crore.
There are also reports about the tourists having cancelled advance bookings after the worst ever monsoon hit the hill destinations. Some hoteliers and restaurants located close to the river banks have also got washed away by in the flood fury.
Sandeep Sood, earning his livelihood from a taxi business says his three vehicles remained stranded at Manali for three days. One vehicle was also damaged. Since then, he has no new booking.
Himachal Tourism Stakeholders Association president Mohinder Seth informs that the hoteliers are facing a new crisis once again to pay EMIs to the banks. It is high time when the government should be doing some handholdings for the industry and provide a special package.
“We urge the government to also defer the payments of water, electricity and other taxes for three months. Similarly, the loan instalments of the hotels need to be deferred,” he added.