COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of our lives and disrupted the world we live in. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic since its outbreak in November 2019 has led to multiple challenges for both economies and health systems across the world. The disease outbreak continued globally for several months, claiming the lives of millions of people while simultaneously triggering a decline across the global economy.
The Tourism Industry in India at a Glance:
India is one of the favoured tourist destinations for domestic and international tourists due to its cultural heritage, picturesque natural landscapes, historical monuments, and hospitality. Its tourism industry generates employment opportunities for millions of its citizens. Tourism is estimated to directly contribute 2.7 per cent to GDP and 6.7 per cent to the employment of the country in 2019-20. Including indirect employment in these estimates, the corresponding shares would be 5.2 per cent and 15.3 per cent, respectively.
The tourism industry has been one of the most adversely affected industries and has faced losses amounting to more than Rs. 5 lakh crores. Complete and partial lockdowns, travel restrictions and a general fear of COVID-19 have made travellers averse to travelling since 2020. The pandemic and consequential lockdown announced by the Central and State Governments hit the tourism sector the most among various sectors and economic activities that faced massive employment and income losses.
However, the pandemic has jeopardised the growth prospects of the sector and caused a significant economic slump, which the sector would take some time to recover.
The Tourism Industry in Maharashtra:
Maharashtra ranks second highest in terms of foreign tourist arrivals and fifth in terms of domestic tourist arrivals. Maharashtra has a robust tourism industry, with the State Government’s Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) has played a prominent role in developing the state’s tourism industry. MTDC has resorts and hotels at prominent tourist destinations which provide these services at economical rates making them affordable for everyone.
The state has the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA), India’s second-largest airport. The state has excellent rail and road connectivity to all parts of India, providing seamless connectivity to all parts of India and the world. Maharashtra has some of India’s most iconic tourist destinations, such as the Ajanta and Ellora caves in Aurangabad, Mahabaleshwar hill station and the Tadoba National Park. The state also has some iconic places of worship: the Shirdi Sai Baba Temple in Shirdi, the Mahalakshmi Temple in Kolhapur and the Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai.
The COVID-19 pandemic has grounded this robust industry through the discontinuation of flights during the lockdown, the closing down of tourist sites and places of worship caused losses to many citizens dependant on these tourists for a livelihood. Moreover, popular tourist sites were left without visitors, thus causing immeasurable losses, especially to the informal/unorganised sector that depends on the arrival of tourists.
The Role of the State Government to Revive the Tourism Sector in Maharashtra:
As discussed above, the pandemic’s impact has been felt severely, and its effects to date are visible. The state government’s tourism ministry has acknowledged this and has tried to adapt and strengthen this sector. The Tourism Ministry has focused on a new outlook to develop this sector in this pandemic battered era which is, the development of existing and new infrastructure in an environmentally-sustainable manner.
The ministry has developed a new agritourism policy as agritourism has tremendous potential for increasing farm incomes and stimulating the development of a dynamic, diversified rural economy. In many developed countries, agritourism has become an integral part of tourism. It is being pursued as a value addition to farming and an allied business that enables farmers and rural communities to harness the optimal benefits of the multifunctional nature of agriculture and natural resources in rural areas.
Quoting the Tourism Minister, Mr Aaditya Thackeray, on the implementation of the agritourism policy, he stated, “This policy will be an enabler for those looking to travel, enjoy the rustic outdoors, spend time on farms, and indulge in eco-friendly tourism, local organic flavours, and seasonal fruit picking,” The policy gives individual farmers, agriculture co-operative societies, to set up these agritourism centres for a minimal sum of money.
To further boost the tourism industry, the state has launched several initiatives such as developing a resort in collaboration with the Taj group in Sindhudurg, the development of wellness tourism across 30 MTDC resorts in Maharashtra, development of an international cruise terminal in Mumbai. In addition, the state has also launched various training programmes for its youth. For example, a program in Panvel provided 31 unemployed tribal youth members training to become tour guides in the Karnala Bird Sanctuary.
The Maharashtra Government has also signed 25 Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) worth Rs 15,620 crores at the Dubai Expo 2020 which cover various areas. Milind Borikar, Director, Directorate of Tourism, Maharashtra, has stated that “The government of Maharashtra wants to develop different tourism circuits like the fort circuit, a Buddhism circuit, the Bhakti circuit as Maharashtra has popular spiritual destinations like Shirdi’s Sai Baba temple, Siddhivinayak temple and Pandarpur”.
The state has further aimed to introduce electric vehicles for its public transport in all its major cities and tourist sites, such as introducing electric tourist Hop on-Hop off (Ho-Ho) buses in Mumbai. The Maharashtra government has further approved the ‘caravan tourism’ policy, which aims to provide a different experience to travel enthusiasts and promote tourism in the state’s remote areas to create job opportunities.
With the weakening of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the robust vaccination drive across the state, the tourism industry has again seen an uptick in bookings and a revival in the footfall of tourists across the state. As a result, MTDC resorts have seen an occupancy rate of 90-95%, and popular tourist destinations such as Lonavala and Mahabaleshwar have recovered to 50-70% of their pre-COVID business.
Suggestions for Further Improvement:
Under the leadership of Mr Aaditya Thackrey, the Tourism Ministry has taken various positive initiatives, taking the tourism industry in the correct direction. The pandemic has made us rethink our current policies and aim for a sustainable future in every sector, including the tourism sector. A robust and strict COVID vaccination policy has ensured the revival of this sector and has seen the reopening of many resorts and popular tourist destinations.
The state has already made plans to develop new sustainable initiatives to boost tourism in the state. However, the state also needs to consider the informal/unorganised sector. This sector forms a vital part of the industry, and all policies and initiatives must benefit these individuals directly, thus fuelling growth in this sector. Initiatives can be taken such as;
Although the tourism sector has revived, the threat of a third pandemic wave looms. The Omicron variant has caused unrest and increased the threat of another wave across the state. This has also caused panic among travellers and lately, some travellers have cancelled their bookings. The Tourism Ministry must take advice from the Department of Health for the implementation of COVID related safety protocols and ensure the safety of all tourists and individuals who are part of this industry.
Quoting Dipak Diva, Co-Chairman FICCI Travel, Tourism and Hospitality, “The most important thing is to find new products, experiences and ideas. People won’t travel just to go into a monument. People will travel to live life and gain experience. Luxury is about finding the right experience now, and luxury experience can also be at zero cost.”
Maharashtra has done this with its agritourism and caravan tourism initiatives, it now needs to focus on developing a sustainable and safe tourism development model which would appeal to tourists and most importantly protect the economic interests of those formally and informally involved in this sector thus ensuring sustainable growth and development.
Vistasp Irani is a Research Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. All views in this piece are personal.