Covid-19 pushes tourism in Delhi to the limit
Satyam Bhatnagar has a handicraft shop in the main bazaar of Paharganj, a backpacker’s paradise that has hundreds of tourist establishments such as exchange houses, hotels, rooftop restaurants, tour operators, and handicraft shops selling a variety of sculptures from stone and wood, puppets and magnets. with monuments of Delhi. His store, Bhatnagar says, always saw a steady stream of foreign tourists before the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March. “But in the last seven months, I have not seen a single foreigner in the market that was once full of tourists from all over the world at any time of day. Our sales are close to zero, ”he says.
The pandemic has almost wiped out tourism in Delhi. Once a bustling and prosperous market whose entire economy depends on foreign tourists, Paharganj is a microcosm of the devastation caused by the current coronavirus crisis in the capital’s tourism sector. The otherwise popular city tours conducted by Delhi Tourism, a Delhi government company that facilitates tourism in the city, have no buyers. The city’s tour and travel operators are complaining about the loss of billions of jobs and see no hope that they will return in the near future.
This is a rather sad turn for the tourism industry in Delhi, a city that last year was ranked 11th in the list of the ‘100 best urban destinations’ in the world by Euromonitor International, a global market research agency. Furthermore, it was among the top four destinations in the country with around 29 lakh of foreign tourists arriving in the city in 2019, according to India tourism statistics.
This is the peak travel season and yet Paharganj sports a deserted appearance. It’s no wonder, then, that on a bright, warm November afternoon, Subhash Vij’s mood is dark as he sits inside his craft store filled with incense sticks, pipes, designer cotton bags, and a lots of brass and wood memorabilia. “Eighty percent of our clients were foreign tourists, the majority from countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Russia, Korea and Japan. Unlike other markets, which have prospered since the closure was lifted, merchants here have no business, as 80 percent of the business in the market depends on foreign tourists. With the restrictions on tourist visas continuing, our market is the biggest victim of the pandemic, ”says Vij, who is also president of the Paharganj Markets Association.
Over the years, as the market became a backpacker favorite, dozens of restaurants appeared on the market, many of them run by expats and mostly geared towards foreign tourists. Most, including popular ones like Brown Bread Bakery, an Italian restaurant run by Italian and German expats, have remained closed. “Unlike restaurants in other parts of the city, I can’t afford to open mine until foreign tourists come back because almost all of my customers were tourists,” says Surinder Sharma, owner of the Diamond restaurant in the market.
With more than 800 hotels, Paharganj is also the largest hotel hub in Delhi, and half of them are closed. “A large number of guests at these hotels were foreign tourists, and up to 100 hotels were completely dependent on them,” says Ajay Kumar Agarwal, president of the Paharganj Hotel Mahasangh. “A lot of tourists who visited Delhi lived in cheap hotels in Paharganj.”
The first hotels here emerged in 1972 to serve visitors to the Asia 72 Trade Fair, held at the recently opened Pragati Maidan to celebrate 25 years of India’s independence. In the 70s, Paharganj also became a regular part of the hippie trail. In the 1990s, it attracted a large share of Russian and Japanese low-budget tourists. The 1982 Asian Games triggered a hotel boom here. At that time they had reached 70-80 hotels, and many locals converted their houses into hotels.
Rajan Sehgal, a member of the management committee of the Association of Travel Agents of India (TAAI), says that the city has about 10,000 tour operators large and small, and about 3.5 lakh out of the 5 lakh people employed in the tourist sector of the city have lost their jobs. “These jobs are not going to return anytime soon because not just inbound tourism, but domestic tourism is unlikely to pick up in the near future,” he says.
“We have lost 90 percent of our business. We had eight employees, now we only have two. It’s becoming impossible to stay in business now, ”says Anil Chetwani, managing director of CEE BEE CEE Travels and Tours.
It is not just private tour and tour companies, even Delhi Tourism, which has hardly any interest in its many full and half day city tours famous as Delhi Darshan which it has been doing for the past 40 years. Tours include visits to places such as Lakshmi Narayan Temple, Gandhi Smriti, Qutab Minar, Bahai House of Worship (Lotus Temple), Red Fort, Rajghat, and Humayun’s Tomb. “Most of our local and remote guided tours have been suspended as there are hardly any reservations for them. Plus, there are only 25 percent footfalls at our various properties, like Dilli Haat, citywide. We don’t see the situation changing in the next few months, ”says Sanjay Goel, MD, Delhi Tourism.
With no tourists coming to town, among the worst hits are the tour guides. The city has about 1,200 tourist guides approved by the Union Ministry of Tourism; and another 5,000 irregular. Most tour guides relied on independent allowances from tour and tour operators, earning on average around Rs 35,000 per month in peak season. They have not had a job in the last eight months.
“Eighty percent of the people in the group trips I took were foreign tourists. I have no assignment since February. This is a peak tourist season, which lasts from October to March, and I don’t have a job. I have never faced such a daunting situation in the last 23 years to work as a tour guide. I don’t know how I would survive, ”says Anand Kumar Pandey, a government-approved tour guide in Delhi.
Sehgal believes that the government should promote golf tourism in Delhi and NCR which, with its many world-class golf courses, can become a trendy golf tourist destination. “There is going to be a great demand for golf tourism in the post-Covid world. After all, it’s a perfect sport for social distancing, ”he says.