SHASWATA KUNDU CHAUDHURI, Kolkata: A few days before Bengal had any records of positive cases of coronavirus, Jimmi Rahaman from Kolkata visited Shantiniketan but found the streets empty and all tourist spots closed. As he couldn’t do any sightseeing, he was forced to return. In Kolkata, he was putting up at a cosy Airbnb pad.
The coronavirus pandemic that has affected over three lakh across the world has turned into a nightmare for India as well. With 415 infected cases and eight deaths, the government is going all out to contain the spread of the virus. Flights are suspended, trains and buses stopped, restaurants closed and 80 Indian cities under lockdown.
The government has also cancelled all foreign tourist visas as well as issued directives to domestic tour operators not to conduct tours either inside the country or outside. The global tourism sector has been severely hit by coronavirus outbreak. According to a report in Business Today, per global aviation consultancy CAPA, private domestic carriers are expected to post consolidated losses of up to Rs 4,500 crore in just one quarter.
The tour operators in Kolkata are staring at huge losses. With the suspension of international flights, domestic flights and the Indian government and several countries banning tourists from foreign shores, there is no guarantee when the situation will normalise. Some of the operators and agents are now looking at shutting down businesses.
“The tour season goes on till March before summer sets in. A lot of our scheduled tours from now till April are being cancelled. If this goes on, we will lose a lot of business,” said a Kolkata-based tour operator.
Another operator lamented missing out on the final lap of the tourist season. He said, “The season was ending anyway and we were seeing a dwindling number of tourists. But with the coronavirus scare, our business has come to a standstill. And if this goes on, we will have to shut shop soon.”
As for foreign nationals already inside the country, it is a huge impediment as they cannot travel around. A London-based tourist, Joanna Wozniek, did not have to go through screening processes as he came to India in mid-February but witnessed a lot of panic. When asked about the situation back home, he said, “A friend sent images from a supermarket. All shelves are empty. People are stockpiling. It apparently seems like a science fiction situation in London. There’s panic whenever someone’s coughing and nobody is shaking hands.”
Meanwhile, Anil Punjabi, chairman of Travel Agents Federation (east) and managing director AR-ES Travels had witnessed the mad rush a day before the Indian government had banned the international flights for one week.
“People from France, Spain and Brazil were waiting for 6-7 hours at my office and were ready to pay any price to get back home. They knew things are in bad shape there but then, given the lockdown all across the world, they just wanted to go home. All have pressed the panic button hard,” said Anil Punjabi, chairman of Travel Agents Federation (east).
Punjabi admitted that the demonitisation of 2016 had hit the tourism sector badly, but coronavirus has crippled it forever. He also said that the tourism authorities have already written to the Centre and state government seeking help. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of airlines shut down. The aviation sector has seen huge losses. We would be needing the government support to rescue us from this situation,” he said. Those who have booked with him for May holidays, he is not encouraging them to cancel the bookings. Though there is an atmosphere of uncertainty in the air due to the coronavirus outbreak, but Punjabi said, “I told my clients to wait and watch the situation. Though I don’t expect a huge turnaround of events, but we can only hope for the best.”
Chandramoulik Thakur of Miles Tourism had tours planned in May to Bandipur national park and Jim Corbett national park. Though his tourists are panicked and calls Thakur every alternate day to update on the travel itinerary, he has asked them to stay calm. “Almost 80 cities have been under lockdown. The travel and tourism sector has collapsed. This is worse than the shock of demonitisation. We haven’t cancelled on our May plans yet, but let’s see how things shape up. As of now, we all need to stay indoors and be safe,” he said.