Omicron fears and Centre's alerts on following Covid-19 protocols have failed to keep tourists away from the hill destinations in Himachal Pradesh as the state gears for the festive season. With the Indian Meteorological (MeT) Department predicting snowfall over Christmas this year, tourists have been pouring into the state's popular destinations despite a biting cold wave that has gripped north India. The arrival of tourists picked up since last weekend at Shimla, Manali and Dharamshala beside other tourist places in Himachal Pradesh that are closer to Punjab and Haryana.
Though Himachal Pradesh so far has not reported any case of Omicron and number of active cases remains at an all time low of 450, the alert sounded by the union health ministry asking the state to restrict and enforce regulations on gatherings is certainly a new worry, admits a young Deputy Commissioner. Nearly 25,000 tourist vehicles are entering the state every day as per official data.
Apart from Shimla, the state’s capital which attracts 15,000 to 20,000 tourists almost every day , Manali is also a hotspot for those craving snowfall. The town also has the attraction of the newly built Rohtang Tunnel has also become a big draw for tourists visiting the town before driving on to Solang Nullah and then to Lahaul-Spiti.
Restrictions have, nevertheless, been put in place. The travel advisory of the Lahaul-Spiti police on Wednesday permitted the movement of all the tourists vehicles to Lahaul valley upto Sissu till 3 pm .
“All tourists are required to return back to Manali via the north portal by 4 pm," says Manav Verma, SP Lahaul Spiti.
In Shimla, the local Christian community is already preparing for Christmas and Churches including the prominent 164-year-old Christ Church, has been spruced up for the prayers.
"Mid-night service may not take place this year in view of Covid-19 but the Church will remain open for the prayers to visitors and local community," a functionary of the Christ Church tells Outlook.
Meanwhile, the upcoming visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Himachal Pradesh where he is slated to address a massive rally of the BJP has raised concerns over the breaching of new guidelines. The party has proposed to mobilize a lakh workers and make the rally a rare occasion to mark completion of Jai Ram Thakur’s four year in four.
The guidelines issued by union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan specifically advise the state government and UTs for strategic interventions on large gatherings, which also include marriages and funerals.
Himachal Pradesh health secretary Amitabh Awasthi confirms that the guidelines of the centre have been received.
“We have written to all DCs and Chief Medical officers (CMOs) in the district, apart from heads of other health institutions, asking them to take all necessary steps enlisted in the union home secretary’s letter," Awasthi tells Outlook.
Awasthi adds that the state is also keeping a close watch on the foreign returnees and other travellers for cases of Omicron. With 100 per cent of vaccinations (both doses) complete in Himachal Pradesh, the hill state finds itself at an advantage in the face of a fresh Covid- 19 outbreak. "The emerging situation, however, may require further strategic interventions,," Awasthi concedes.