Govt Laxity Towards Tourism SOP Hindering Revival of Industry in Assam
Time is running out! Governments of the northeastern states need to cooperate and formulate common guidelines for the revival of the travel industry.
The travel industry across India has restarted. Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are filled with posts of travel enthusiasts from picturesque locations like Himachal, Goa, Uttarakhand, etc. after being confined at home for months.
The pandemic that has posed as a major threat to the human race, has however proven to be ‘a blessing in disguise’ for nature, as due to lack of human intervention, nature has reclaimed its lost beauty and grandeur. As such places with nature’s bounty, which have been well-known tourist attractions earlier are receiving more and more travellers every day despite the pandemic. And the closure of international travel has added to their gains.
In this regard, northeast India could have retrieved the now dying travel industry had the government of the different states come together to develop tourist specific policies in these difficult times. Experts believe that a little help from the government could have done wonders for the northeastern tourism sector to recoup after a year of loss.
But let alone all the states coming together, the Assam government has also not yet issued any tourist specific SOP (standard operating procedure). This has resulted in further losses for the tour operators as people are reluctant to travel to Assam due to the strict Covid protocols.
“Tourism has gradually picked up in many states like Sikkim. It's as if the tourism industry has been given a new lease of life. But the tour operators of Assam are still inert, hoping for a better day when things will look brighter. With the COVID formalities creating hassles to the interest of the domestic tourists from mainland India, the industry remains in a lull. Local tourists will not help tour and transport operators to grow. We urgently need to discuss new strategy between northeastern state governments and tour operators to restart tourism and save jobs. Just hope that we are not heading towards the negative economic impacts of tourism. Time is running out,” said Arijit Purkayastha, Chapter Chairman of North East Association of Domestic Tour operators of India (ADTOI).
Lack of proper SOP for tourism adds to the woes of the industry
All guidelines provided in Assam are by the health department. For travel, the guidelines are issued for rail or air passengers in general. Although with time the rules issued are getting more lenient, but the absence of guidelines specifically for the visitors have hindered tourism a lot.
“Even our old customers are wary of booking tickets for Assam, as they feel that any sudden change in the guidelines will hinder their tour or lead to more expenses than planned,” said a tour operator.
Hemanta Das, General Manager of Network Travels, told G Plus, “We cannot expect inbound international travel unless these difficult times are over or a vaccine is in the market. The central government has also been promoting domestic tourism due to the current situation. And almost all states outside the northeast is availing of this benefit and have opened their gates for visitors. There is no Covid protocol in many states, no isuue of testing or quarantine. So tourists are rushing to those spots.”
“Here, the hospitality business, especially the resorts, are getting back on foot. Every weekend and on holidays the resorts and other hotels like Iora the Retreat, Borgos, Brahmaputra Resort, Nameri Kanyaka etc all have been receiving customers in large numbers. But all these are local people, they do not need tour operators to guide them or set up any itinerary. The state tourism department wants to say that the industry is doing good, but what about the tour operators,” he added, angry and hurt.
Tourism experts have pointed out that the travel habits of Indians are different from that of others. In India, families choose to travel together, which means two or three generations are travelling in a group. Such groups have members from the senior citizen category to small children below the age of 10 years. Since above 65 years and below 10 years are barred from travelling due to the pandemic, such family travel has been hindered. Stakeholders are hoping for the tourism department’s interference to facilitate the travel of both these groups as they believe in their ability to accommodate all despite the situations.
Mutual understanding of NE states a must for tourism to revive
Reportedly, all the neighbouring states have set up their own rules to earn a few bucks from the visitors and to provide for their own operators. For example, Arunachal Pradesh allows tourists only when they have booked with Arunachali agencies. People visiting through agencies of other states are not provided with an inner line permit (ILP).
Most of the other states also want visitors and drivers of vehicles to get tested at the entry points on payment of a fixed fee. This could range from Rs. 500 to Rs. 2000. Test reports issued from elsewhere is not accepted.
Tapoban Saikia of Siang Explorer added, “We want the governments of all the northeastern states and especially of Assam to reopen all tourist spots. Limited access has added to the confusion, making it difficult for us to publish itineraries and even advertise.”
“People coming from other parts of India have always considered the northeast in package tours. They don’t just come to one state but try to make the most out of their travel by visiting two to three states. ‘Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya’ - this is the most sought after package tour. But due to lack of coordination amongst the tourism departments of these states, all are equally suffering,” said Navajit Sarma, proprietor of Northeast Voyage.
“The festive season and the coming holidays are our peak timings. We not only just cater to private tours but also organize a lot of corporate tours. But in corporate tours and other company-sponsored travels our clients ask to visit the major tourist attractions of more than one state. The festive season is almost gone without even a single such deal, but we can atleast hope something for the holidays, but only with government help,” he added.
The stakeholders are demanding for a common set of rules and protocols to be followed throughout the country.
Will the announced schemes actually prove beneficial?
On 26th September last, on the occasion of Tourism Day, the Chairman of Assam Tourism Development Corporation (ATDC), Jayanta Malla Baruah, announced a few schemes for the stakeholders of the travel industry in an effort to bring respite to their crisis-battered situation. A ‘Parjyatan Sanjeevani Scheme’ was announced under which stakeholders can avail a working capital loan of Rs. 1 lakh to Rs. 20 lakh from banks at 8 to 10 percent interest rate, with a year-long moratorium period. Further, the interest accumulated during the one year moratorium period will be borne by the government of Assam. The applications of the same were to be made available from 1st November.
But tour operators and other stakeholders have informed that after the initial announcement on 26th September, they were not provided with any other information.
“We have been waiting for at least the details of the scheme so that we can plan accordingly,” said one stakeholder.
The scheme reportedly will be allocated to only those travel operators who are ‘associated’ with the tourism department. While there are more than 500 travel agencies in Guwahati alone, only 110 from across the state are registered with the department. The use of the term ‘associated’ is not clear and many believe that they do not qualify for availing the benefits although they have been doing business for many years.
“I have 28 tourist vehicles, many of these are AC buses for group tours. Every season, we update the papers before the advent of the tourist season, around October. And it takes around Rs. 1,50,000 to update the documents of just one vehicle, including taxes, insurance fee, permits, renewals, etc. We have to pay road tax to all the states that the vehicles travel to. For me, I pay for the travel permits of Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal. Imagine the total amount paid! Last year we had just paid the dues when the CAA protests happened which was followed by the pandemic. We could hardly do business for just two months. All the money has been wasted,” said Navajit Sarma, proprietor of Northeast Voyage.
Sarma continues, “Rather than giving a general scheme for all, the tourism department can take the pain of understanding the various issues of all the stakeholders and provide multiple schemes accordingly. We have also to pay our employees. I am trying to sell off a few of these vehicles, but even that is proving difficult. For me an extra loan will add to my liabilities. I would rather ask the government to extend the expiry date of my documents for a year or more.”
“The Reserve Bank of India will not issue separate rules for the tour operators from the northeast region extending our moratorium period. Since tourism has started in India, so the banks expect us to pay our dues as well. But our business is incomplete closure, unlike the rest of the states. Many of us have been getting repeated calls from the banks, as many as five times a day, these re almost like threats. But what do we do. The government must think of something,” he said.
G Plus spoke to Razvee Hussain, Secretary of Tourism to the Government of Assam. Hussain said, “ The Parjyatan Sanjeevani Scheme is being worked on. It is with the finance department and should be launched hopefully by this month itself.”
Regard the issue of tourist-specific SOP the secretary informed that no such guidelines has been thought for as of now, and visitors are to follow the same rules as provided by the health department.
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