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Employees Suffer as Pandemic Bruises Tourism Sector in Kolkata

Employees Suffer as Pandemic Bruises Tourism Sector in Kolkata

India’s $265-Billion Economic Relief Measure Has Nothing for This Sector

This is unprecedented. In his 23 years of working as a regional tour guide, Partha Pratim Majumdar has never seen such a morose sight in Kolkata. The usual footfall of tourists is missing from the state of West Bengal. In fact, this is his first season without any tourists which has made life deeply distressing for him.

A resident of the district of Hooghly, Majumdar is a certified guide from India Tourism, the government agency which trains and provides tour guide licenses. But he hasn’t had any work in nearly four months.

“This is the only thing I do for a living,” he said on the phone. “If tourists come, tour organisers assign guides, and we get paid accordingly. Financially, this has been a huge setback for me. I have a family to take care of.”

International and domestic travel restrictions that have been in place since March 22 due to the COVID-19 outbreak have virtually shut down the travel and tourism industry. This has pushed millions of livelihoods into the dark.

Furthermore, Majumdar is yet to be paid for some of his earlier assignments by tour companies that are now nearly bankrupt due to the pandemic. “The crisis began at the end of February, and business has been hit badly since,” he said.

Even before the travel ban came into effect, the fear of coronavirus had started to affect the tourism industry. According to the Tourism Department of India, foreign tourist arrivals (FTA) had been decreased by 67 percent annually in the January-March quarter. At 40 percent, it is much worse for domestic tourism.

“The tourism industry is extremely sensitive. We are the first one to get hit and the last one to recover,” Majumdar said.

The city’s colonial legacy and Sundarbans, a UNESCO world heritage site, make Kolkata quite popular among those who like cultural and nature tourism. Religious sites like Kalighat Temple, Mother Teresa’s House, Belur Math and Dakshineshwar Temple draw thousands of devotees too. Cruise trips from Kolkata to Sundarbans and Chandanagar, a former French colony, are also quite popular.

Last year Kolkata recorded a 13.2 percent surge in foreign tourist arrivals between April and December. It is the highest among all metros in India. In terms of registered foreign tourists, too, the state moved up to the sixth place, giving the industry in Bengal the much-needed push. Add the revenue from domestic tourism and that’s 12 percent of the state’s GDP.

But the lockdown has crushed all possibilities of further growth.

The Dakshineshwar temple, which saw an average of 50,000 visitors daily, had to be shut down and that affected hundreds of local businesses. The usual crowd and clamour that marked the alleys leading to the temple vanished almost overnight. The Skywalk towards the temple, inaugurated in November 2018, houses more than 100 stalls that had to be vacated due to the lockdown. A similar scenario pervades Kolkata’s other tourist spots, too.

The lockdown, which was the Indian government’s response to contain the highly infectious virus by administering “social distancing,” has led to rising unemployment figures. But the COVID infection curve in the country is far from flattened. The travel and tourism industry that created employment for 42 million people, almost 8.1 percent of India’s total employment, had to resort to layoffs, pay cuts and even bankruptcy.

The lack of social security schemes for those employed in this sector has made them more vulnerable during the crisis. Majumdar is disappointed that India Tourism made no effort to reach out to people like him who have been around for decades. “We don’t enjoy any benefit of provident funds or gratuity. India Tourism should have at least tried to find out about our problems. We have been a part of the industry for so many years,” he said.

Although there is no official data, those associated with the industry estimate that around 500,000 people are employed by this sector in Kolkata alone in various capacities.

Bilolaksha Das, who runs a travel agency in Kolkata’s Gariahat area for 27 years, said, “I had to let go of employees since booking has totally stopped and I am operating with very little resources.”

Many agencies are laying off employees due to a lack of cash inflow. Apart from tour agents and guides, the industry is also made of drivers, courier staff, insurance agents, local vendors and assistants. “They are very much part of the industry and are at tremendous risk now,” Das lamented.

Das managed to retain some of his employees as he still runs a food delivery service on the side. 

Many daily wagers come to Kolkata from districts across the West Bengal state. The lockdown has blocked their chance at earning a living.

“I managed to scrape through with the 15,000 rupees I saved,” said Bishwanath Halder has been a driver in one of the tour agencies in Kolkata since 2011. An agitated Halder, who has since returned to his village in the Murshidabad district, added, “The owner still owes me about 5,000 rupees. But he does not answer the phone when I call.” 

Halder’s employer asked him to leave Kolkata in early April after all bookings were cancelled. The agency lost hundreds of thousands of rupees repaying the clients. But with no available public transport, getting back home during the pandemic was not an easy task. He had to pay about 1,000 rupees to book multiple cars and buses to reach his village.

The vulnerability of workers like Halder in the informal sector came to the fore when it played out on a larger scale later on. Reports of migrant workers across several states losing their jobs started to surface. They were forced to walk for days, sometimes with their families, to reach home. And not everyone made it back.

The financial condition of tour operators is also worse. Shouvik Bandyopadhyay has worked with international tour agencies and is now a faculty member in the Tourism and Travel Management Department at R.K.M. Vidyamandira College. “Small and the medium-sized companies are the worst affected in terms of revenue. They are struggling to pay salaries because their working capital is exhausted. Many of them are now trying to move into other sectors,” he said.

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Das’s travel agency is an example of that. His agency almost spent 3 million rupees in advance-booking on hotels, flights and other services. But now, airline companies have deferred payments indefinitely. “There have been cases in the Supreme Court regarding the airline industry. I have not received any payment from them but I still have to pay my clients back,” he said.

The government has asked airline companies to pay the customers in cash, but there is no such relief for travel agents. They are offered “credit shells” in the form of virtual cash for further booking according to Das. But virtual cash cannot be transferred to a bank account.

Das is disappointed that the state and central governments did not have any significant relief packages for the hospitality sector. “This industry takes care of so many people. We hoped there would be interventions from them,” he said.

The Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism and Hospitality (FAITH) expressed their disappointment with the $265-billion economic relief measure announced by the country’s finance ministry as it had nothing for the travel and tourism industry. The Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC), a premier business body in Eastern India issued a statement with a host of demands. The statement is to serve as a reminder for the government that this sector accounted for 9.2 percent of India’s GDP and created 26.7 million jobs in 2018.

Tathagata Neogi feels the same disappointment. He is the co-founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta, an experimental tour agency, with a policy proposal regarding West Bengal Tourism that he feels would benefit his fraternity. He said he was let down by the silence of government tourism bodies. “We will submit this proposal to West Bengal Tourism when it is ready. But we don’t really expect anyone to take a look at it. This is just our way of doing our bit for the fraternity. The proposal outlines ways in which local tourism can be promoted and infrastructure can be created to support that,” he said.

The agency dropped its walking tour in March after the lockdown came into effect. However, it decided not to fire anyone and has been able to pay its team members. But the members have not taken salaries for the last three months. “I know this is a small amount of money. But we are doing whatever little we can to make sure we tide through this crisis together as a team,” Neogi said. As of now, they have decided to focus on local tours in small groups.

With international travel restrictions in place, all hopes are on the domestic travel and tourism industry to revive the sector. Majumdar is hopeful that things will start to pick up by early 2021. But even if they do, it will be of little help to Majumdar because his business still largely relies on international tourism.

“For local tourism to flourish, you need public transport which is closed right now. Even if people travel, I don’t think they will hire a tour guide,” he predicted. 

Bandyopadhyay said, “International travel will be difficult for the next six months to one year. In the present situation, I don’t think too many people will travel for pleasure or leisure.” His plan is to work on local travel-tourism as that might just be mutually beneficial for the consumers and his peers in the industry.

“Everything needs to be worked out with financial constraints, health and safety precautions in mind. In the post-coronavirus world, tourism will be a whole new industry. Hopefully, human beings’ inherent wanderlust will come to our rescue. hopefully, the tide will turn and people will be back out,” he said.

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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