The stunted revival of the tourism sector of Sikkim post lockdown and what the second wave of COVID-19 means for it.

The stunted revival of the tourism sector of Sikkim post lockdown and what the second wave of COVID-19 means for it.

Gangtok, March 23:

It is an undeniable fact that ever since the first surge of COVID-19, life as we know it has changed, while everyone tries to get used to this new form of normalcy it is obvious that it has adversely affected the global economy, with the travel and tourism sector being hit hardest worldwide. It was estimated that India suffered a revenue loss of about Rs 1.25 trillion due to the halt of the tourism sector, one of the first industries to be affected.

Bringing us to Sikkim where tourism is the backbone of the state’s economy and where thanks to its vast natural potential which thrives in the tourism sector almost generating Rs 50-100 crore a month in the peak seasons, ie. March to May and October to December. According to the latest data from the Sikkim Government, in the last decade, the tourism sector in Sikkim has seen a growth rate of 10-12 %. The Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) of the Tourism Sector in 2016-17 has been valued at Rs 1,44,735 lakhs with a total contribution of the tourism sector to GSDP being 7.68% (DESME State Income Unit). According to the Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation (STDC), Sikkim bore a loss of around Rs. 600 crores due to the pandemic lockdown.

The tourism industry in Sikkim consists of various associated sectors, like hospitality, travel agencies, tour operators, porters, and all kinds of transportation services, to name a few. The coronavirus crisis causing the subsequent lockdown from late March 2020 and the Center government putting travel restrictions in place which coincided with the peak tourist season greatly blunted the tourism sector bringing it to a crippling halt and lead to more than 1,528 travel agencies shutting shop, an approximate 18,000 taxis and luxury tourist vehicles off the road, 2,200 restaurants, hotels and homestays closing down, putting about 150,000 people (out of the 300,000 directly or indirectly involved with tourism) out of work. Added to that data from the Human Development Report states that the tourism industry has 61% of direct workers employed from outside the State (Sikkim Tourism Policy, Government of Sikkim).

The Chairman of the Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation, Lukendra Rasaily while speaking to India Today during the 2020 lockdown revealed that the state is incurring a loss of about Rs. 500 crore in the tourism industry and its various associated sectors, Whereas the President of Sikkim’s Hotels Association estimated about Rs 1,800-2,000 crore loss from the tourism sector.

With many from the general public being involved in the tourism sector and most taking loans to expand their business, thousands of taxi, hotel, restaurants, homestay owners were unable to pay back loans from banks even though the moratorium till August 31, 2020, from banks on the advice of the Center government helped many, albeit not being a permanent solution. Village tourism, homestays, cultural tourism, trekking tourism, ecotourism, wellness tourism, flori–tourism, and adventure tourism have been the sections that have had a substantial growth seen in Sikkim.

While a decade ago, homestays were an alternative source of income, but with the state government taking many initiatives to support and promote village tourism and ecotourism by introducing the Ecotourism policy in 2011 and the Sikkim Registration of Homestays Establishment Rules and construction of 736 homestays (Hospitality Division, Department of Tourism, GoS) under the rural tourism program, causing a shift in the recent years where it could be seen that for many families running Homestays had become a primary source of income and as a primary source of income, which is dependent on tourists, homestays faced dire circumstances during months of inactivity during the lockdown.

After months of inactivity, the State government had finally reopened its doors to tourists on October 10, 2020, with a 23-page-long Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). With the State government also coming up with various strategies to revive the tourism sector, a slow trickle of tourists coming into the state could be seen, with events like the Khangchendzonga Adventure Meet 2020, organized by the Pelling Tourism Development Association (PTDA) conducted during December 2020, where a five-day-long adrenaline packet event was organized to boost the adventure tourism sector.

The Chief Minister, P.S. Tamang on January 19, 2021, also made a declaration of the ‘Visit Sikkim 2022’ which is a year-long promotion and marketing for Sikkim tourism that laid focus on the state having tourists year-long rather than the peak season based tourism norm. Furthermore, the Ministry of Tourism, according to the Press Trust of India also formed a committee of stakeholders for “aggressively” promoting tourism in the northeast region of the country. The Ministry of Tourism launched various schemes like the Swadesh Darshan Scheme (Central Sector Scheme)– for the integrated development of theme-based tourist circuits in the country in 2014-15. Other schemes like Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive (PRASAD) scheme which was introduced in 2015, that focuses on identifying and developing the pilgrim sites across the country to enrich the religious tourism experience. And was launched by the Union Ministry of Tourism. Schemes such as the above provide financial assistance to northeastern states including those for the development of tourist infrastructure, promotion of fairs/ festivals, tourism-related events in the region, and publicity campaigns.

To promote tourism in the North Eastern Region, the Ministry of Tourism also formed a Committee of stakeholders active in NER with a focus on the promotion of the northeast, identifying new destinations, developing itineraries around them, identifying the places where events can be organized to create awareness, organize workshops/ seminars for the local stakeholders in terms of providing the necessary skills.

Following this, the Greenfield Airport located in Pakyong, which had stopped operations since June of 2019, due to bad weather conditions and technical problems, also resumed operations from January 23, servicing flights from Delhi and Kolkata which was an added boost to the tourism sector of Sikkim. Starting from March 1, the Rammam Checkpost located in Budang, West Sikkim was also open to foreign nationals which was a welcome sight for those in the tourism sector as this was demanded by the stakeholders of the industry for quite some time.

Although from March 2 to March 11, the State government imposed travel restrictions for all entering Sikkim from six states- Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telangana, Karnataka, and West Bengal due to an increase in the number of fresh coronavirus new COVID-19 cases from these states. It was made mandatory for any person coming to Sikkim from these states to be RT-PCR negative with the RT-PCR negative test certificate must be done within 72 hours of an individual reaching Sikkim from the restricted states which had caused some grievances from those in the tourism sector. However, from March 11, the State government announced that no further tests were required to enter Sikkim, which was greatly welcomed by the tourism stakeholders as March is often the beginning of the tourism peak season in Sikkim.

While India saw a decline in the number of COVID-19 cases since late September 2020, after the lockdown restrictions were lifted and most economic activities resumed, the period between late February and the initial week of March has seen a steep rise in COVID-19 infections in the country, deeming to what is being called the second wave of COVID-19. Sikkim did see the number of cases decreasing with the total number of cases like 5795, including 529 active cases and 5139 cures and 127 deaths as of 31 December 2020, which over time led to a lesser number of active cases. As of today, ie March 22, the total number of cases stands at 6109, which includes the 50 active cases and 5924 recoveries, and 135 deaths. With many tourists and locals nonetheless, testing positive ever since Sikkim reopened its doors for all, many fear that the anniversary month of the lockdown could indicate that the second wave of fresh COVID-19 cases is impending on the state which for obvious reasons could bring the tourism sector in Sikkim on its knees yet again.

Sikkim Chronicle spoke to some of the stakeholders of the tourism sector to learn better the woes of the industry from the grassroots level. One such individual being Pintso Gyatso, General Secretary of the Homestay Association of Sikkim (HAS) and also one of the Founders/Directors of Our Guest Diaries, an offbeat tours and travels company based out of Sikkim which aggregates unique farm-stays, homestays, resorts and retreats in Sikkim & NorthEast India,  Gyatso says that while the idea of homestays was to generate a supplementary income but the sector itself went on to be dependent on tourism, which caused the majority of the members of HAS and the other homestay owners to make it as a primary source of income.

Adding that although after October 2020 when Sikkim reopened for tourism there was a boom in the number of tourists that came in as compared to the years before, more tourists came in during the so-called ‘off-season’ of December- January than in the usual peak season. Gyatso says that the boom of tourism during December- January could be because of people getting frustrated during the lockdown and with Sikkim reporting lesser COVID-19 cases than the rest of the nation seemed like a safer and viable option for a holiday added to that is most people having the option to work from home and schools being closed.

With optimism that come March, the losses incurred during the lockdown would be settled and some profit was to be made, but with the current scenario of ever-burgeoning COVID-19 cases and with many states implementing lockdown, Gyatso says that most tourist bookings have been cancelled bringing the rural tourism sector to a blinding halt.  

“As a travel company that deals with tourism, we understand that the current scenario cannot be helped by the State government too as they are also paralysed, although certain things could be done to improve. The tourism industry, directly and indirectly, creates an employment opportunity for most, but with the emphasis that is being put on by blaming the rise of cases on tourists, we request that the blame not be put on tourists alone. If we look at the data, COVID-19 cases being brought in by tourists is almost negligible right now, the blame is also on the constant movement of our people and the labour force added to that is the negligence of not following proper mask-wearing and sanitization protocols. The focus has to be shifted from the tourists just because they are an easy target,” Gyatso says.

COVID-19 is not gonna go anywhere anytime soon is a fact that has to be accepted by all, and the State government will have to plan for a COVID scenario type tourism for the coming years, Gyatso remarks. Adding that most tourists are leaning towards rural tourism as they do not want to be in congested areas and are very keen to travel for longer durations of time, like the staycation sector of tourism introduced in Himachal Pradesh, but Sikkim cannot do that because of a lack of infrastructure and constant connectivity issues. If Sikkim, as a state and industry can plan to put better internet infrastructure there’s a market to be explored in the tourism sector of staycations, concluded Gyatso.

Ren Gyatso Lepcha, proprietor of Mayal Lyang homestays in North Sikkim says that the rural tourism sector in Sikkim is completely dead right now creating a bad situation right now. Lepcha noted that the mandatory protocol of RT-PCR tests announced in  March should have been applied ever since tourism reopened in the state, not just for tourists but for all entries into the state. He says that ever since the reopening, Mayal Lyang has just had 20-25 bookings and with most bookings supposed to take place from March has been cancelled, because of a handful of cases of tourists contracting COVID-19, a bad impression has been created leaving a sour taste in the mouths of the Sikkimese public.

Lepcha says, “With the general public saying that entry of tourists should be banned, what they don't understand is how the stakeholders of this industry will face this blow. If the RT-PCR testing for everyone entering Sikkim was made mandatory maybe the situation wouldn't be as dire.”

Sonam Norgay Lachungpa, President of the Travel Agents Association of Sikkim (TAAS) while speaking to Sikkim Chronicle stated that because most states in the country coming up with their own guidelines due to the second wave of COVID-19 most tourists were unable to travel which could be the reason for a sudden halt in Sikkim’s tourism sector. Lachungpa on a  more optimistic note states that although the Sikkim tourism industry being adversely affected, the priority of the moment is the health and safety of the Sikkimese general public and to keep the COVID-19 cases at a minimum.

With many speculations gaining momentum of a possible lockdown in the coming days, despite there not being  any confirmation from the State government for the same, those in the tourism sector are worried about this possibility, because though the cases of COVID-19 infection seem to emerge there is a significant albeit small trickle of tourists entering the state. But only time will tell if the tourism sector of Sikkim will really be able to revive or will the ever-changing protocols and the reopening of tourism be a bane or a boon.