Air Commodore (Retd) Bhabani Charan Talukdar
(The writer is involved in many projects related to aviation and tourism, for government and private organizations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The worldwide Coronavirus pandemic is a challenge we must face together... our response must be calm, consistent and collective. Tourism will once be there to help people and communities recover from this setback — Zurab Pololikashvili, UNWTO Secretary-General
While welcoming the year 2020, one would not have imagined that a catastrophe such as the CIVID-19 was waiting to overwhelm the world to this extent of severity as what is prevailing or likely to prevail. Coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 is an endemic which has affected one and all aspects of our lives without discriminating between the rich and poor, affluent and non-affluent or in case of nations whether a developed or under developed. The lethal combination of an interconnected world and a deadly virus currently without a cure is taking humanity to unchartered waters. Out of the many industries which have been affected, COVID-19 presents two industries namely travel and the tourism industries with major and evolving challenges. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has strengthened its collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the two UN agencies met in Geneva to further advance a coordinated response to COVID-19. UNWTO calls for solid international leadership and for tourism to be included as a priority in future recovery efforts. The tourism sector, like no other economic activity with social impact, is based on interaction amongst people. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) calls for shared responsibility among travellers and the tourism sector around the world to deal with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. The UNWTO has released its updated assessment of the likely impact of the COVID-19 on international tourism. Taking into account the unparalleled introduction of travel restrictions across the world, the United Nations specialized agency for tourism expects that international tourist arrivals will be down by 20% to 30% in 2020 when compared with 2019 figures. However, UNWTO stresses that these numbers are based on the latest developments as the global community faces up to an unprecedented social and economic challenge and should be interpreted with caution in view of the extreme uncertain nature of the current crisis. "The worldwide coronavirus pandemic is a challenge we must face together, our response must be calm, consistent and collective. Tourism will once be there to help people and communities recover from this setback."
The tourism sector, like no other economic activity with social impact, is based on interaction amongst people. By cooperating closely with the WHO, the lead UN agency for the management of this outbreak; by ensuring with W.H.O that health measures are implemented in ways that minimize unnecessary impact on international travel and tourism. Small and medium enterprises (which make up around 80% of the tourism sector) are anticipated to be particularly impacted. This might affect millions of livelihoods across the world, including vulnerable communities who rely on tourism as a vehicle to spur their development and economic inclusion. Due to its cross-cutting economic nature and deep social footprint, tourism is uniquely positioned to help societies and communities affected return to growth and stability. Over the years, the sector has consistently proven its resilience and its ability not only to bounce back as a sector but to lead the wider economic and social recovery. This depends on adequate political support and recognition.
THE INDIAN SCENARIO
The tourism sector contributes approximately 9.2% of the country's GDP and employs 42.7 million people. The Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO) estimates that the hotel, aviation and travel sector together may incur a loss of about Rs 85 billion due to the travel restrictions imposed. Indian tourism and hospitality industry is staring at a loss of around 38 million jobs which is around 70% of the total workforce. The overall loss revenue in the branded/organized hotel rooms which is only 5% of the total available will be to the tune of 1.3 to 1.55 billion dollars. The other 95% consists of the B&Bs, Guesthouses and unbranded/unorganized sector. Therefore, the total loss can be well imagined.
TOURISM AND THE NE REGION
The North Eastern Region of India, due to the natures gift has a tremendous potential for tourism but remains to be unexplored to its full potential. The region still remains detached due to poor communication network from the mainland India and therefore, the development is very slow. The interstate connectivity between the States like Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh is also limited which needs to be improved for the overall growth of the entire region. The slow growth of development in the region is attributed mainly to hilly terrain and lack of infrastructure. This peculiar situation demand air connectivity for which the Government of India has taken a few excellent initiatives through new Civil Aviation Policy 2016 whereby Regional Airline connectivity was to be given a boost. Though many years have elapsed, there does not seem to be any improvement in this direction due to lack of participating business airlines.
The entire region is known for its unique natural beauty. No other region in the country is blessed with natural beauty of snow-clad mountains as in the Arunachal, to blue riverine in the plains of Assam to green forest regions in almost all the states with rich flora and fauna. This region has potential for all types of tourism activities such as Eco Tourism, Adventure Tourism, Wildlife Tourism, Village Tourism, Cultural Tourism, Tee and Tea Tourism (Golf & Tea Tourism), Religious Tourism and even Medical Tourism from some of our not so developed neighbouring countries.
Travel and tourism are two industries which have to go hand in hand and depend on each other for sustenance. There are other service industries like hotel, transportation and other hospitality industries which also form part of this overall scheme of tourism. Presently, the travel industry has been very badly hit by COVID-19, and there are no words to adequately describe the devastating impact on the travel industry. Reportedly almost 18,000 passenger jets are on ground world over. Tourism in the NE is not only affected by reasons of connectivity but also by lack of adequate and decent infrastructure. Many of the tourist spots which are frequented by both domestic and foreign tourists are lacking in proper infrastructure. With the growing knowledge of proper hygiene due to COVID-19, the tourist is going to look for more hygienic and comfortable places to stay. Unfortunately, the present infrastructures fall much short of the required standards. As regards to travel, connectivity can be either by air or by road/rail. The present condition of the roads also needs much attention. Many tourists avoid travelling due to the long travel time and uncomfortable journey by roads.
THE WAY AHEAD
If one has to look positively, the COVID-19 may be described as a blessing in disguise. It provides an opportunity in crisis. The travel industry is going to bounce back soon and slowly but surely get back to normal. Therefore, we have some time to give the entire sector a relook and think of ways and means to improve so that our region becomes one of the most attractive places to visit on this earth. A world class facility in terms of connectivity and infrastructure is the only option for the future. A few suggestions are enumerated below:
(a) Though, DoNER and NEC are there yet a dedicated central organization only for tourism needs to be formed by the Government consisting of members from all the eight states. Due to the geographical location, almost all states are dependent on each other with Assam being in the hub. Representatives from both public and private organizations must form integral part of this organization. Since, Assam is the main hub centre for most tourism activities, the Assam Government must take an initiative in this aspect under the aegis of the Assam Tourism Development Corporation (ATDC), which is already a full-fledged organization. Today due to COVID many small and medium-scale businesses connected with tourism are facing acute financial hardships.
(b) The dedicated department of the departments of the individual state government have to first identify the places of tourist attraction and asses the availability of infrastructure, including roads at and to each locations. Wherever needed, required infrastructure is to be built up or improvements made post haste. To attract high-end tourists including foreign tourists, these have to be of high standard.
(c) Due to the nature of terrain in this region, air travel will always be proffered by high end tourists. To make air assets available, private operators including small time operators must be encouraged to operate here. The Govts have to hold hand with these operators to make operations viable. As provided in the Aviation Policy 2016, VGF (Viable Gap Funding) must be provided by the state Govts. at least at the initial stages. Many ALGs (Advanced Landing Grounds) have been already developed in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Many other landing grounds in the plains including existing helipads have to be developed and maintained.
(c) In the present world of digitization, a robust and viable marketing organization must be built centrally to look after all advertisements and publicity. Hard selling of our tour attractions with attractive advertisements will pay rich dividends.
(e) Small entrepreneurs engaged in production of local curios, cultural activities and running of guest houses etc are to be encouraged to help in their livelihood. Aim must be to encourage employment generation of our local population. Since, tourism industry is all also encompassing and includes other industries like hotels and transport, all these affected people also must be looked after under the present COVID-19 environment.
The devastation caused by this pandemic is enormous but surely it has to end sooner or later. The world will limp back to normalcy soon. When we get back to normalcy, we should not be caught wanting. The actions which could not be done earlier can be initiated soon and be prepared to make a niche for ourselves. With our concerted effort from both private and public organizations will surely make this region a world class tourist destination in future. Increased inflow of tourists will result in the economic growth of the region as well as ensure enhanced employment opportunities.