Crowded tourist spots in India trigger concerns of Covid-19 superspreader events

Domestic tourists wandering around the ridge area of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh state, India, on July 6, 2021. PHOTO: AFP
Tourists at the McLeod Ganj hill station in Dharamshala in India's Himachal Pradesh state, on July 1, 2021. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
Tourists at Bhagsunag waterfall at Bhagsu village, in Dharamshala in India's Himachal Pradesh state, on July 1, 2021. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

NEW DELHI - It's being called revenge tourism, as many Indians hit the road with a vengeance after a devastating second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Amit Gupta, 47, a jeweller, drove from the national capital to Shimla and Kasauli in the Himalayan foothills in Himachal Pradesh state for his first holiday in over a year and a half.

Shimla, once the summer capital of British India, about 350km from here, is a popular destination for domestic tourists seeking to escape the heat of the summer months.

"We just have been enjoying ourselves in the rooms and in the beauty outside. It is a break after a long time. You are out of the negativity that is going around, where everyone is talking about Covid-19 and how things have changed," Mr Gupta, who was there with his family and friends, said on the phone.

But then hundreds of other Indians from the nearby states of Punjab, Delhi and Haryana had the same idea.

"I'm taking precautions and staying away from the large crowds," Mr Gupta said. He and his wife are fully vaccinated and their two children have taken their first shot.

In a challenge for India's effort to prevent or blunt the impact of another wave, pandemic-weary crowds in northern India have gotten into their cars or on their motorbikes and gone off to popular hill towns such as Shimla, Mussoorie, Dharamshala and Nainital, alarming the authorities and health experts.

While the cooler climate and mountain scenery have always attracted large crowds, many tourists, as evident from pictures and videos on social media, are not wearing masks and not practising social distancing, in a country where only around 5 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated.

On the drive up to Mussoorie, in the state of Uttarakhand, cars seem to be in a race to reach the cooler climate.

Mask wearing is rare as people stop to take pictures and breathe in the cool air in verdant surroundings.

Some passengers stick their heads out of sunroofs on the drive up.

All this has led state authorities to tighten the movement of tourists and warn people against violating norms.

At Mousourie's Kempty Falls, the authorities are allowing only 50 tourists at a time for 30 minutes, after the federal health ministry at a press briefing showed photographs from the popular spot as a case of what not to do.

For locals, the crowds are both alarming and welcome.

"We have to move forward. As governments in Singapore and the UK have said, we have to learn to live with this pandemic," said Mr Sandeep Sahni, Mussoorie-based president of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Uttarakhand.

"It is up to the people who visit to maintain decorum and for law enforcement agencies to ensure it is done. Shutting down or closing down is not a solution. You have to keep the wheels of the economy going. And in a state like Uttarakhand, tourism keeps the wheel going," he said.

Shimla is a popular destination for domestic tourists seeking to escape the heat of the summer months. PHOTO: AFP

India's tourism sector is among those hit the hardest by the pandemic. Many hoteliers, restaurateurs and others associated with the tourism trade have been facing a financial crisis after a first and a second wave of the pandemic disrupted tourist activity.

With international tourism shut down, the dependence is now on domestic tourism, which according to a State Bank of India report, declined from 6.9 per cent of the country's gross domestic product in 2019 to 4.7 per cent in 2020.

Tourism generated US$194 billion (S$263 billion) and supported nearly 40 million jobs in India in 2019, according to The World Travel and Tourism Council.

In an effort to soften the blow on the tourist industry, the government last month announced relief measures, including personal loans amounting to 100,000 rupees (S$1,820) for tourist guides, apart from the offer of free visas for 500,000 foreigners when international travel resumes.

But health experts have warned that unregulated tourist activity could create the circumstances for superspreader events.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week warned Indians against flouting Covid norms in the Himalayan tourist spots, while a top official warned of "a new risk emerging" from tourist activities.

"It is true that tourism and business have been greatly affected due to the coronavirus. But today, I will say very emphatically that it is not okay to have huge crowds in hill stations, markets, without wearing masks," said Mr Modi.

The crowds are just one challenge for the populous country in balancing economic activities like tourism and preventing another outbreak of the pandemic.

Like some states, Goa, a leading beach destination, which faced a severe oxygen shortage during the second wave of the pandemic, is not taking any chances even though its economy is linked to tourist activity.

"We can think of opening tourism only after completing 100 per cent of the first dose (of a Covid-19 vaccine). We will think about it after July 30," Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant told the Indian media.

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