Keshav Tiwari owned a small hotel in Bhimtala in Chamoli. Every year, for the past 20 years, he had been adding one room after another to create a 20-room establishment catering to pilgrims visiting Hemkund Saheb Gurudwara in the upper Garhwal hills of Uttarakhand. When calamity struck last month, two decades of Tiwari’s hard labour was swept away in a flashflood, leaving him with nothing except a Rs 19-lakh bank loan to repay.
The rains and cloudbursts of June 16 caused unimaginable damage to the northern hill-state. People died in thousands, entire villages were swept away and even the shrines could not escape devastation. The calamity also crushed the backbone of the state’s economy — tourism — leaving thousands of locals like Tiwari, who are dependent on this industry for their bread and butter, wringing their hands in despair.
And yet, until three weeks ago it was all picture-perfect.
Uttarakhand was among the top 10 domestic tourist destinations. At No. 7 it was already drawing 15 million tourists a year and the state tourism master plan had projected 47 million domestic tourists in 2013. According to industry estimates, the Hemkund Saheb Gurudwara and the Char Dhams drew some 15 million tourists after the shrines were thrown open for pilgrims in May this year.
The locals lent life as well as variety to the tourism industry that serviced the lower and middle class budget tourists, most of whom were pilgrims.
They ran the dhabhas or roadside eateries, hotels, pony services, taxis and some of them even worked as priests at local temples en route to the Char Dham yatra.
“Nearly 4 million people are directly or indirectly associated with tourism,” says former tourism minister Lt Gen (retd) TPS Rawat.
Business was brisk and the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PHDCCI) anticipated a Rs 23,312 crore tourism revenue in the current season.
And then the skies split open.
After the disaster, people like Tiwari find themselves without their primary source of livelihood, be it a hotel or a shop or a vehicle or two to ferry tourists.
Take the case of Yashpal Singh, who had taken a bank loan to set up a bird-watching camp — Mandakini Magpie, en route to Kedarnath. He used to earn Rs 3,500 per day during the summer months. Today, his camp is somewhere under the Mandakini river.
A few kilometres from the Badrinath shrine lies Mana, the last village on the India-China border. Here locals take in tourists for homestays. “We have lost R3 crore business this season,” says Pitambar Molpa.
Even hotels in areas relatively untouched by the disaster — such as Nainital, Mussoorie, Rishikesh, Lansdowne and Haridwar — are receiving cancellation orders. KC Trikha, a hotelier in Haridwar, has lost advance bookings worth R3 lakh made by pilgrims from Gujarat.
The PHDCCI has pegged the loss at an estimated R12,000 crore.
Chief minister Vijay Bahuguna admitted to HT that it would take time to regain the confidence of tourists.
Meanwhile, the Uttarakhand tourism department is in a state of panic. It has dropped plans to participate in tourism marts in Kolkata and Bangalore later this month. “We are conducting one-on-one meetings with hotel associations. A campaign to convince tourists that places like Corbett, Nainital, Mussoorie and Haridwar are very safe is to begin soon,” tourism secretary Umakant Panwar told HT.
“We are requesting the state government to intervene and promote Uttarakhand in a big way. On our own, we can’t cope with the situation,” says Ajay Puri, president of the Uttarkashi Hotel Association.