Arunachal’s tourism industry hit hard by Covid-19

Happier times: An all-women weaving group from the USA with tour operator Bengia Mrinal

[ Tongam Rina ]
ITANAGAR, Apr 24: The state’s tourism industry, one of the largest employment providers outside the government of Arunachal, has been totally wrecked after the outbreak of Covid-19.
October-April is the peak tourist season in the state, while March-May sees a heavy flow of tourists to Tawang and West Kameng districts.
The tourist season was already affected because of the CAA-NRC protests in the region last year. As it was slowly picking up after the protests simmered down, Covid-19 happened.
Even before the shutdown was implemented on 23 March, it had directly impacted the industry as most of the clients of the tour operators of Arunachal are from Europe and Japan, which have been badly hit by the pandemic.
John Panye, the president of the Arunachal Pradesh Tour Operators Association (APTOA), says that the industry has a huge chain, from hotels and transportation to operators, guides, drivers and cooks.
“Everybody is out of jobs and income source,” he says.
Panye, who is also the MD of Tribal Adventure Tours, says that the entire tourism industry has been left unemployed.
He says that the protect area permit (PAP) fees have not been refunded by the government as it has already gone to the treasury.
“Tour operators have been told that the money would be adjusted when we make the next PAP,” Panye says.
He is not sure when the next time for issuing PAPs will be.
Some 20,000 foreign tourists visit the state annually, Panye says. “Everything has been cancelled for now.”
He says that the APTOA will have to approach the government for startups as there has to be an alternative.
“There has to be some sort of waiver,” he says.
Tourism Director Abu Tayeng says that it will take at least two years for the industry to recover.
“The industry is devastated,” he says.
Tourism Minister Nakap Nalo agrees that it’s a tough period for tourism in the state. He has, however, assured that the government would help those in the tourism industry.
“A draft policy has already been prepared and it will be placed in the cabinet,” Nalo says.
Even though the state government says that it will take steps to help those who are left unemployed, right now the industry is crippled.
Oken Tayeng, a prominent tour operator of the state, says that tourism always bounces back, “but the question is when.”
Like all other tour operators, Oken’s Abor Country Travels Expedition had to cancel all the bookings for the season.
He says he is hoping that things may start to look up by December.
“Amidst the uncertainty, we are still planning and hoping,” he says, summing up the uncertain times.
Bengia Mrinal says that the industry is totally crippled and many who had taken loans from the banks are on the verge of bankruptcy. Many tour operators pay the hotels in advance.
Mrinal, who runs BAC Voyagers, says that money has not been refunded as the hotels are impacted too, since they directly depend on the flow of tourists.
“We have been told by the hotels to adjust the money when the next bookings are done, instead of seeking refund. But the bigger question is when will the next bookings happen?” he says.
“The clients won’t wait, so I had to refund them from my pocket. It is unlikely that the money will be recovered,” he says.
Mrinal’s clients are mostly from Italy, France and Germany – countries that are the hardest hit by Covid-19 in Europe.
“It will take at least two years for the tourism industry to recover,” says Mrinal.
“Everything is cancelled,” he says.
Niharika, a tour operator from Roing who caters to domestic travellers, says that the last tourist who came through A1 Travel Management, her company, was in January.
She says that her company had already suffered because of the CAA protests. All her clients for the Orange Festival cancelled because of the protests.
“They are not taking new bookings yet,” she says.
Niharika, who was planning to organize a rafting tour, says that for now it’s been kept on hold.
She had arranged training of rafting guides at the National Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports, Dirang.
CK Rai, a renowned cultural and adventure tour guide of the state, says that the last time he was engaged as a tour operator was during the Hornbill Festival in early December last year.
He is hired by tour operators who have clients from European countries. Rai says that he makes upto seven trips in one tourist season.
“The financial implication is huge,” he says, echoing many other tour guides who have been left without any source of income.
“I am a daily wager, but I don’t fit into that definition. Therefore I cannot even seek help,” says the veteran tour guide who has been in the business for more than 25 years.
Bamin Baro, of Ziro, who runs Eastern Voyagers Travel and Expedition, says that his last tour was during the Myoko festival on 20 March.
“Villages were not too keen on having tourists, so they had cut short the trip,” he says, adding that he is yet to cancel one group for November, “but it is unlikely that they will come, given the uncertainty.”
Even if the tourism industry opens up by the end of the year, it is unlikely that people will be very comfortable having visitors, he says, citing examples of issues they had to face in the state.
“Domestic tourists might come,” Baro says, but Niharika says that she is not too hopeful.
“Many clients have asked me how close Arunachal is to China, geographically. I have had to explain that the state might share border with China but it is far and there are geographical barriers,” she says.
Sange Tsering, of Holiday Scout, says that March-May is the peak season for Tawang and West Kameng districts.
He says that his company does not ordinarily refund booking charges but now he is refunding all the fees because of the pandemic.
“Everybody is suffering, so I have to refund 100 percent,” he says.
Between 2018 and 2019, some 56 groups had used the services of Holiday Scout.
Tsering says that he had to cancel 18 tour groups, including 12 from Europe and Thailand. The average stay was 20 days for each group.
During this tourist season – though it was marred by two major events, including a pandemic – more than five lakh tourists visited the state. It was the highest in the last three years, according to the tourism director.