Pandemic Scars Tourism-Related Businesses in Himalayan Villages

The growing numbers of paragliding enthusiasts that dotted the skies above Bir and Billing in North India prompted Karan Vir to lease a 12-room property to open a hotel four years ago.He was among local entrepreneurs racing to set up charming cafes and small hotels to accommodate the rush of foreign and domestic visitors in these remote Himalayan hamlets that emerged on the tourist map after being counted among the world’s top paragliding destinations.The adventure sport was not the only attraction — many people also came to trek, cycle and visit nearby Buddhist monasteries nestled along lush mountain slopes. The visitors stayed at Bir, 14 kilometers away from the paragliding site at Billing.Business at Vir’s hotel, Bir Resorts, boomed. “Lot of pilots from throughout the world used to come over here, for one month, two months. We earn a lot from them and from national tourists also,” he recalled.But after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered everything in late March when India imposed a stringent lockdown, he decided to close down the hotel and returned the property he leased six months ago.He is not the only one abandoning the fledgling hospitality business that had plugged these once-obscure villages into the modern world and opened up jobs and opportunities for mountain communities that depended mainly on farming.India hit hard by virusEven though Bir has been spared the ravages of COVID-19, hoteliers fear that visitors will not return any time soon as India becomes one of the worst-hit nations in the world.Another hotel owner, Chander Mohan Singh, who opened his 12-room property two years back, despairs of how he will recover the $13,000 he paid to renew his annual lease in February – half of that was taken as loans. “Business will not go the way it went earlier for at least two years,” he said. “People’s mindsets have undergone a change. Families will not come back.”While the coronavirus pandemic has dealt a huge blow to tourism-dependent businesses everywhere, the setback is even more crushing for smaller enterprises — unlike big hotels, they do not have the resources to either survive a long shutdown or prepare for a post-COVID world with measures like contactless check-ins.“For that I have to make more investment on gadgets so I can make sure the guest who is entering my property is not infected,” said Vir.  “I have to deal face to face with my guest, I cannot go behind a wall and have a word with my guest.”That is also the challenge faced by hotelier Naresh Thakur, whose 19-room Surya Classic hotel used to be fully booked in peak seasons. He said small hotels will find it tough to meet new norms that the government is already mandating for commercial establishments to limit the spread of coronavirus.“I don’t understand, they talk of social distancing, but how can we do it? Authorities say run your restaurant, do takeaway business, but where are the customers?” he asked, pointing to the empty streets and shuttered shops outside. He is despondent about the future of the industry in Bir and Billing. “Hotels cannot survive. Maybe I will turn my restaurant into a grocery store.”Pandemic’s scars hard to escapeThe coronavirus pandemic is raging largely in urban India, with cities like Mumbai and Delhi accounting for most of the country’s rapidly spiking numbers while the countryside remains mostly unaffected so far.However, as the locked-up cafes and hotels in Bir demonstrate, the pandemic’s scars are hard to escape anywhere in the country.The hospitality, travel and tourism sector has not received any direct financial assistance from the federal government in its $265 billion stimulus package, although it is one of the worst affected. Industry groups have estimated that direct and indirect job losses in the sector could be over $20 million.Some of those are in Bir — as several hotels shut down, much of the staff they employed returned to their villages.Thakur, who had 10 employees, is supporting most of them for the time being but does not know how long he can retain them. His initial hopes that work might resume by autumn, which is the main paragliding season, are unlikely to come to pass.“The staff stay on the premises and cook basic food like lentils and rice to fill their stomachs. I have been telling them to find some other work, but there is no other work,” he said ruefully.Along these mountain slopes, hopes that had soared after paragliding brought these villages into limelight have had a hard landing.   

June 18th, 2020 by
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