With the latest Omicron variant of Covid-19 sending health and government authorities in the country into a tizzy, Himachal Pradesh is facing a different kind of challenge. A state that depends heavily on tourism - especially international tourists - to sustain its economy, the new travel restrictions across the world in the wake of the emergence of Omicron from South Africa last week has come as a shock to the state's tourism industry, already in duress due to consecutive Covid-19 lockdowns.
According to sources in the hospitality sector, travels groups with hotel reservations for various destinations in Himachal Pradesh such as Dharamshala, McLeodganj, Kullu-Manali, Shimla and more remote areas of Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti, have started making distress calls and some have even asked for cancellations.
"The response to the Omicron outbreak has been disappointing. With the government issuing new travel guidelines, many international tourists have had to cancel their reservations," hotelier Ashwani Bamba, who is also the President of the Dharamshala hoteliers association, tells Outlook.
Bamba says November used to be a good month for business as a lot of tourists from states like Gujarat visited Himachal Pradesh at this time. Now, the hoteliers, he feels, can only bank on tourists from the neighbouring states viz Punjab, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, UP and Rajasthan.
However, the main impact of the lockdown was seen in the drop in foreign tourists, who make up a significant part of the visitors to the hill state. The numbers of global tourists are expected to spike this year with several countries lifting travel restrictions and travellers getting vaccinated. In fact, international travellers have already started pouring into the state with many keen to visit Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur.
Dharamshala, one of the busiest tourist destinations due to its superior air connectivity as opposed to Bhuntar in Kullu, is also expected to take a hit in tourism due to Omicron.
The Indian government has already issued a detailed advisory for travellers arriving from 'at risk' nations . Thus, most of the tourists from Europe, Israel and South-East Asian countries may not risk travels fearing a new variant.
Himachal Pradesh is set to become the first state in the country to achieve 100 per cent vaccination by November 3 for both doses. The active cases in the state are also down to 975 even as total deaths in the state have already crossed the 3,800-mark.
Roshi Chauhan of Ambassador Travels, a Mumbai based international travel facilitator told Outlook over the phone that travellers from several European nations have already stopped flying to India. There are other countries also where the travellers are unlikely to take the risk of coming to India and getting quarantined, or undergoing hassles.
The only people who are expected to come now are Indians booked for returns.
Principal Secretary (Tourism ) Subashish Panda admits that with Covid-19 severely impacting the state's tourism sector, winter tourism was its biggest hope this time.
“Our data shows that post-festival, Himachal Pradesh had received a good footfall and elaborate plans were underway. Lots of people were eager to visit Himachal Pradesh in the winter. The travel restrictions on foreigners coming from the countries at the risk of Omicron is certainly a new development," he says.