Running a homestay shop nestled in the evergreen jungle of Chikkamagaluru in Karnataka has proven to be a busy job over the past three months for Ravishankar BM, a planter turned family owner. welcome in the hamlet of Shiravase. The scenic property, bounded by meandering streams, has been packed with travelers from across the country since January. It is unlikely to be free before the end of the monsoon.

The blissful sight of travelers lining up for lesser-known destinations is not a phenomenon confined to the hill town of Chikkamagaluru but extends across India – from the clean beaches of Kerala to the snow-capped mountains of Jammu and -Kashmir and the thick, unexplored forests of the northeast.

“Restricted to home and work for two years due to the pandemic, people are desperate for long trips and relaxation. Giving wings to their wanderlust, many are heading to secluded destinations or beaches,” noted K Syama Raju, chairman of the South India Hotels and Restaurant Association.

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The domestic travel industry is recovering rapidly, partially offsetting the losses suffered due to the pandemic. Of all the sectors battered by Covid-19, tourism has probably been the worst. According to the World Tourism Organization, a United Nations agency that promotes tourism, Southeast Asia has been hardest hit. India has lost over 60% of foreign arrivals, affecting the livelihoods of thousands of families.

Although the sector gained some momentum after the second wave, it was short-lived due to the resurgence of Covid-19 infections with the arrival of Omicron. The beleaguered sector finally got a much-needed boost a few months ago as the government eased travel restrictions following a waning outbreak.

Between November and March, the Kashmir Valley received over 6.27 lakh tourists. The famous Tulip Garden received an attendance of 3.5 lakh visitors in just 20 days in March and April this year, compared to 2.26 lakh visitors last year. A record number of 102 flights were operated from Srinagar airport carrying over 16,000 passengers.

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“Kashmir was packed this winter and it’s the same in the spring too. Apart from the popular ski resort of Gulmarg, other places such as Pahalgam and Sonmarg were buzzing with tourists. Homestays, guesthouses and boathouses at the famous Dal Lake were also fully booked, which is unprecedented,” said Ahsan-ul-Haq, deputy director of tourism in Jammu and Kashmir.

While outbound travel and international arrivals have yet to reach pre-pandemic levels, domestic travel has been strong, with tourist spots receiving unprecedented footfall. According to a report by the National Council for Applied Economic Research, domestic tourism is a key revenue driver for the sector, even though a trip within the country costs only a fraction of an international trip.

G Jagadeesh, Managing Director of Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation, said all packages and facilities in Karnataka recorded up to 85% occupancy.

“While we have suffered losses of around Rs 20 crore, there is an opportunity to increase revenue to the tune of Rs 100 crore. We have even reduced package prices, reopening some popular trips. The Pilgrimage Circuit Tirupati-focused was a highly sought-after package, followed by the Dakshina Kannada package,” he said.

In the North East, tour operators are rejoicing in the return of travelers as the sector was hit even before the Covid pandemic due to unrest over a contentious citizenship law. “Assam and Meghalaya are driving the boom in the northeast with temples. While Kaziranga in Assam, Shillong and Cherrapunji in Meghalaya draw crowds, worshipers also descend on the famous temple of Kamakhya,” said Aparup Deka, a Guwahati-based tour operator.

At a recent government meeting, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said, “The rush to Kamakhya and Kaziranga is more than it was before the pandemic. Sometimes we (the government) struggled to find a place around Kaziranga to hold meetings. The park, known for its one-horned rhinos, saw attendance of over 2.20 lakh visitors in 2021-22, which is the highest in the past decade.

Speaking about the difficulties the sector has faced, Syama Raju said, “With Covid-19, we have managed to reach the lifeboat, but solid ground remains far away. In South India alone, the sector had to cut around 60% of jobs in addition to keeping supplier payments pending.

“Fortunately, in Karnataka, the government offered us 50% discount on property taxes and waiver of minimum application fee for the duration of three months. Today we are able to witness nearly 80% occupancy largely thanks to the crowd of young and active professionals. It was the outbound segment of travelers who had now converted to domestic circuits.

The growth in domestic tourism is coming from homestays and resorts and not from conventional hotels. “Travelers prefer homestays and resorts with large open spaces and private, home-like accommodations. Hotels in localities and urban towns have yet to get reservations,” he said.

N Chandrasekar, Secretary of the Nilgiris Hoteliers Association in Udhagamandalam, popularly known as Ooty, observed: “If there are no new Covid variants, the hills will regain their lost luster this summer. Whatever jobs have been cut during the pandemic have been recreated following the sudden rush.

Appetite for “marine cations” is also increasing in Goa, Karnataka and Kerala. R Venkatesh Kumar, director of Karnataka Tourism, observed that Karnataka’s beaches were buzzing with tourists. Krishna Teja Mylavarapu, director of Kerala Tourism, also recognized a similar trend along the Kerala coast. “All destinations have been pre-booked through July 2022,” he said.

Fundraising trip

What, however, could emerge as a new threat is rising inflation affecting small and medium players. “Hotels are offering a 10-15% discount and adding multiple attractions to the packages. The same cannot be sustained throughout the summer given the rising cost of commodities and fuel,” Syama Raju said.

With an impressive influx of domestic travellers, the sector is turning to foreign arrivals with Kerala and Goa in the lead. “We have already received a flood of requests and bookings from the international circuit. People usually start arriving from August to September in Kerala,” noted Krishna Teja.

Rajeev Kale, a senior executive at Visa-Thomas Cook (India) Ltd, said: “Short-haul destinations are currently attracting maximum interest with Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, and island destinations like the Maldives and Mauritius are experiencing an increase in demand. Queries for destinations across Western Europe have tripled over the past year. The Middle East also accounted for a 40-50% growth in demand compared to last year. Major sporting events such as the FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the T-20 World Cup in Australia later this year have also drawn the company’s interest.

Suffocated by losses for two years in a row, the sector is starting over, rebuilding and reinventing what has been lost. The sector is also keeping an eye out for gray areas that could pose a major challenge in the coming days.

“We need broad support from the state government and academia. While it is the duty of governments to attract tourists, academia must help by producing a skilled and quality workforce. Hotel schools must be created in each district. It is perhaps the only industry that employs people without a degree. Yet they require a certain amount of skills for which training programs are needed,” Syama Raju said.

(With contributions from Zulfikar Majid, Sumir Karmakar, ETB Sivapriyan, Mohammed Safi Shamsi and Arjun Raghunath)

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