Satyam Bhatnagar runs a handicrafts shop in Paharganj’s main bazar, a backpackers’ paradise that boasts of hundreds of touristy establishments such as money changers, hotels, rooftop restaurants, tour operators, and handicrafts shops selling a range of stone and wood sculptures, puppets and magnets featuring Delhi monuments. His shop, Bhatnagar says, always saw a steady stream of foreign tourists before the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March. “But in the past seven months, I have not seen a single foreigner in the market which once teemed with tourists from all over the world at any hour of the day. Our sales are almost down to zero,” he says.
The pandemic has almost wiped out tourism in Delhi. Paharganj, once a bustling, thriving market whose entire economy depends on foreign tourists, is a microcosm of the devastation caused by the ongoing coronavirus crisis in the capital’s tourism sector. The otherwise popular city tours conducted by Delhi Tourism —a Delhi government undertaking that facilitates tourism in the city — have no takers. Travel and tour operators in the city complain of the loss of lakhs of jobs and see no hope of their return in the near future.
This is quite a sad turn for the tourism industry in Delhi, a city which last year was ranked 11th in the list of ‘Top 100 city destinations’ in the world by Euromonitor International, a global market research agency. Besides, it was among the country’s top four destinations with about 29 lakh foreign tourists arriving in the city in 2019, according to India Tourism statistics.
This is peak travel season, and yet Paharganj wears a deserted look. No wonder then, on a bright, balmy November afternoon, Subhash Vij’s mood is dark as he sits inside his handicrafts shop filled with incense sticks, smoking pipes, designer cotton bags, and a host of brass and wood souvenirs. “Eighty per cent of our customers were foreign tourists, most of them from countries such as the US, the UK, Israel, Russia, Korea and Japan. Unlike other markets, which are thriving ever since the lockdown was lifted, shop keepers here have no business at all, as 80 per cent of the business in the market depended on foreign tourists. With restrictions on tourist visas continuing, our market is the biggest victim of the pandemic,” says Vij, who is also president of the Paharganj Market Association.
Over the years as the market became a favourite with backpackers, dozens of eateries—many of them run by expats and mostly catering to foreign tourists— came up in the market. Most, including popular ones such as Brown Bread Bakery, an Italian restaurant run by Italian and German expats, have remained shut. “Unlike restaurants in other parts of the city I cannot afford to open mine till foreign tourists are back because almost all my customers were tourists, ” says Surinder Sharma, who owns Diamond Restaurant in the market.
With over 800 hotels, Paharganj is also Delhi’s biggest hotel hub—and half of them are shut. “A large number of guests of these hotels were foreign tourists, with as many 100 hotels completely dependent on them, ” says Ajay Kumar Agarwal, president Paharganj Hotel Mahasangh. “Quite a significant number of tourists who visited Delhi lived in Paharganj’s budget hotels.”
The first hotels here came up in 1972 to cater to the visitors to the Asia 72 Trade Show, held at the newly opened Pragati Maidan to celebrate 25 years of India’s Independence. In the 70s, Paharganj also became a regular part of the hippie trail. In the 1990s, it attracted a large chunk of Russian and Japanese budget tourists. The Asian Games, 1982, triggered a hotel boom here. As many as 70 -80 hotels had come up here then, with many locals turning their houses into hotels.
Rajan Sehgal, member, managing committee, Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI), says the city has roughly about 10,000 small and big tour operators, and about 3.5 lakh of the 5 lakh people employed in the city’s tourism sector have lost their jobs. “These jobs are not going to return any time soon because not just inbound tourism , but domestic tourism is unlikely to pick up in the near future,” he says.
“We have lost 90 per cent of our business. We had eight employees, now we have only two. It is becoming impossible to sustain the business now,” says Anil Chetwani, managing director, CEE BEE CEE Travels and Tours.
It is not just private travel and tour companies, even Delhi Tourism, too hardly have any takers for its many full and half-day guided city tours famous as Delhi Darshan , which it has been conducting for the past 40 years. The tours include visits to places such as Lakshmi Narayan Temple, Gandhi Smriti, Qutab Minar, Bahai’s House of Worship (Lotus Temple), Red Fort, Rajghat and Humayun’s Tomb. “ Most of our local and outstation guided tours have remained suspended as there are hardly any bookings for them. Besides, there is only 25 per cent footfall in our various properties such as Dilli Haat across the city. We do not see the situation changing in the next few months,” says Sanjay Goel, MD, Delhi Tourism.
With no tourists coming to the city, among the worst hits are tour guides. The city has about 1,200 tourists guides approved by Union ministry of tourism; and another 5,000 irregulars. Most tour guides depended on freelance assignments from tour and travel operators, and on an average made about Rs 35,000 a month in the peak season. They have had no work in the past eight months.
“Eighty per cent of the people in the group tours I conducted were foreigner tourists. I have not got any assignment since February. This is a peak tourist season, which lasts from October to March, and I have no work. I have never faced such a grim situation in the past 23 years that I have worked as a tour guide. I do not know how l would survive,” says Anand Kumar Pandey, a government-approved tour guide in Delhi.
Sehgal believes that the government should promote golf tourism in Delhi and NCR which, with its many world-class golf courses can become a hot golf tourism destination. “There is a going to be a great demand for golf tourism in the post-Covid world. After all, it is a perfect sport for social distancing, ” he says.
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