In late February last year Nitin Singh, a tourist guide at the famous Taj Mahal in Agra was on top of the world.
He had been entrusted with the prestigious task of showing US President Donald Trump the Mughal monument to love during his tour of India as part of the ‘Namaste Trump’ event organised by the Modi government.
He is today out of work, like countless other tourist guides in this city with the Trump visit just a memory from the distant past.
“A month after Trump’s visit, the government of India imposed a total lockdown and ever since there has been no business. Foreign tourists are the main source of income and employment in this sector as most domestic travellers do not like to take guides. Tourist guides have been out of work since March 2020. In my 20 years of service in the tourism sector, I have never seen such a crisis,” Nitin told Covid Response Watch.
“I had to break my fixed deposits, and indulge in savings to pay EMIs, school fee and other house-hold bills. The money I had been saving for my children’s higher education had to be spent on daily needs,” said Singh. “Even after the lifting of the lockdown in June, I have hardly gotten one or two assignments.”
He added that while he was still able to manage, local hawkers, salesmen, artisans, photographers and other people who earn their livelihood because of the tourism sector have been worst hit.
According to the Approved Tourist Guide Association, there are around 400 regional level guides in Agra and around 1000 tourist guides under the UP Tourism in the City of Love. The number of total tourist guides in the whole state is around 3000, including both regional level guides and those registered with UP Tourism. A majority of them live in Agra and Varanasi, with a few in Mathura and Lucknow.
Globally, Covid-19 spelled peril for all employment sectors, but the worst affected was tourism. Despite being one of the largest sectors in the world, contributing to around 10% of the global GDP, as per the IMF 2020 report, tourism was badly hit, and is still struggling to get back on its feet.
As per the FICCI report, the World Travel and Tourism Council calculated that tourism generated ₹16.91 lakh crore (US$247 billion) or 9.2 per cent of India’s GDP in 2018 and supported 42.673 million jobs, 8.1 per cent of its total employment. But the pandemic lead to huge losses to the tourism sector. Even international guides who take foreign delegates and ambassadors for tours have been out of work for more than a year.
In Uttar Pradesh, most noted for the Taj Mahal in Agra- one of the seven wonders of the world, tourist guides and agents are facing hardships as international tourism has not yet begun.
To support the tourism sector, the centre has announced a financial support to more than 11,000 registered Tourist Guides / Travel and Tourism Stakeholders, offering a loan of up to 10 lakh for Travel and Tourism Stakeholders (TTS) recognized by the Ministry of Tourism while tourist guides can avail loan upto Rs 1 lakh each.
However the guides in the field say that while one can get the loan, they have no means of livelihood to pay the EMIs.
“What will I do with a loan when I have no income to pay the EMI? Is this all that the government is going to do?” asked Manoj Baghel, who has been in this sector for the past 15 years.
“So many people have lost their jobs, restaurants have shut down, the local vendors have incurred huge losses and many tourist guides have started searching for jobs elsewhere. I can’t understand how the government could leave us alone like this. This is a sector that employs more than 4 crore people but we feel overlooked,” he added.
Sandeep a tourist guide based in Agra started suffering from anxiety during the pandemic as he had no more assignments in tourism as everything came to a screeching halt after the lockdown in March 2020. Seeing no way out, he decided to start teaching yoga to earn some money to get by.
“I was a yoga practictioner and had many done a number of yoga courses form ICYHC Kaivalyadhama Yoga Center, Mumbai, and Rishikesh and learnt Buddhist Meditation in Dharmasala. So I thought of teaching yoga to my family and friends, to just start doing something to make money. As depression and anxiety were paramount, people needed more such positive practices. Gradually the word of mouth spread, establishing my yoga classes,” he said.
Sandeep now wishes to continue with his yoga practice as it is has more certainty than the tourism sector. “It depends upon the situation. If things start looking up, I may go back to tourism, else not” he said.
Samarth Sharma, another tourist guide in Uttar Pradesh has switched to working for a private company, giving up his passion for tourism.
“I see no way out of this and the best I can do is to switch profession while I still have time,” he said.
Tourist guides demand the government to provide them with unemployment benefits like that in France. France had announced an 18 billion Euro plan for the tourism sector last year that included reimbursing companies for 70% of the gross wages of workers they put on furlough and tax exemptions.
“The government should provide financial support and unemployment benefits to the thousands of tourist guides and agents who have not earned a penny since March last year. If not then they should restart international tourism so that there is some cash-flow in the sector and we can earn our living,” added Baghel.
Nitin said, “Sri Lanka reopened tourism this January to revive the sector. India can do the same with appropriate Covid-19 protocols, especially for the fully vaccinated people. Tourists who are partially vaccinated can carry their RT-PCR report and get tested again in Delhi or Mumbai. They can also impose a few days’ quarantine for tourists to be on the safer side.”
Naveen Upadhaya, a tourist guide hailing from Jhansi has been in the sector for the last 10 years. He said, “As the number of cases are going down and vaccination is increasing, it will benefit the sector if the government starts foreign tourism. Foreign tourism not only benefits the guides, but also local artisans, artists, hawkers, photographers, hotel and other related sectors. It brings in international currency, which is good for the overall economy.”
The government of India has started a new campaign called ‘Dekho Apna Desh’ to create awareness about and promote lesser known tourist destinations to help the tourism sector recover.
Arvind Singh, Secretary, Tourism, Government of India, addressed the crisis that the tourism sector is facing during the 2nd Travel, Tourism & Hospitality e-Conclave: Resilience & The Road to Recovery’, organized by FICCI, held on August 5, 2021.
Addressing the concerns of the employees and stake-holders of the tourism sector, he said that the government is working on a plan for the same.
“We are in the process of finalising a media plan for overseas markets, and as and when it opens, we will release our media campaigns. We are also working with Indian missions abroad in promoting inbound tourism. The ministry is planning to appoint market representatives in certain markets,” Singh had said.
“Though domestic tourism is picking up, it is not the same as international tourism. We hope the government will start foreign tourism soon, following all COVID-19 precautions,” added Upadhaya on a hopeful note.
Shuchita Jha is a Bhopal-based freelance journalist