Reviving Sikkim's tourism a batch of tourists at a time

Reviving Sikkim's tourism a batch of tourists at a time
Picture Courtesy: namsateindiatrip.com

Sikkim opened its doors for domestic tourists on October 10, after the state allowed for tourism services and activities to resume amid several Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and guidelines from the Government of Sikkim and its Health Department, after almost a 6-month-long interval owing to the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier, Sikkim had banned the entry of foreign tourists on March 5, whereas the entry of domestic tourists was also banned on March 17, almost a week before the nationwide lockdown imposed by the Government of India. and just days before the lockdown, tourists who were situated in Sikkim were made to return.imposed by the Centre Government, the state government made all tourists situated in Sikkim to return from the state.

The first to arrive after almost a 6-month-long interval was five tourists, who upon their arrival on October 11, were greeted with khadas by the Tourism Department. The first tourists of the state since tourism activities were allowed to resume rode the Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation (STDC) helicopter from Bagdogra Airport to Burtuk Helipad after STDC resumed its helicopter services from the two points mentioned above, stakeholders of the tourism selector breathed a sigh of much-awaited relief.

Just on October 11, forty-one tourists had applied for a permit to visit Sikkim’s popular tourist destination- Tsomgo Lake and Baba Mandir. Till date, more than 680 permits have been issued to Tsomgo Lake and Baba Mandir since the reopening which is a very good singh=n for the tourism industry. 

Several stakeholders of the tourism sector from homestays, guesthouses, and hotels suffered numerous losses due to the nationwide lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic and for a state like Sikkim, where many from the general public rely on tourism activities as a primary source of income, the effect of the lockdown was severe. While concessions in loan repayment were provided by the Centre Government as well as financial aid being provided for many by the State Government, the returning of tourists to the state is a welcome sight for stakeholders. According to a calculation by the STDC, Sikkim incurred a loss of almost Rs. 500 crores due to the lockdown and the coronavirus leading to a halt in tourism activities.

The State Government is taking full precautions so much so that the entire GMC area was put on lockdown from September 21-27 to ensure safety and lesser COVID-19 cases once the tourism industry resumed its activities. The primary focus is on effectively managing the tourism industry and securing strict implementation of the SOPs to guarantee that health and safety are not compromised. The reopening of the tourism sector in Sikkim will occur in various phases, and although it hasn’t been made compulsory tourists are encouraged to carry a COVID-19 negative report issued within 72 hours before they enter into Sikkim.

Other safety precautions are to let only domestic tourists and foreigners residing in India to enter the state for tourism purposes. Tourists have to compulsorily register on the Sikkim Tourism web portal and carry a copy of the "travel card", issued based on tourist registration, at all times, and according to the new SOPs, tourists have to pre-book their accommodation. Also following the Centre Government’s guidelines on travel restrictions, persons above the age of 65-years-old, those with comorbidities, pregnant women and children below the age of 10 have also been to either avoid travel or narrow it. 

Even with various precautions and safety measure undertaken by the State Government to ensure the safety of both the Sikkimese people and those visiting, various tourism hotspots and tourist destinations like Lachung, Yuksam, Assam Lingzey, Ribdi-Bhareng GPU under Daramdin constituency, West Sikkim and other places have decided to remain closed for the first phase of Tourism Unlock 1.0 in Sikkim till the end of November for all domestic and foreign tourists, after consultation with the local authorities and communities looking at the spread of the coronavirus in Sikkim. 

However, other states in India like  Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh have been open for tourism ever since the Unlock 2.0 from July 1.Whereas other states like Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha and Ladakh are accepting tourists from October during Unlock 4.0. Neighbouring hill stations Darjeeling and Kalimpong have also been opened for tourism since September last month. Sikkim and its general public since entering into the phase of community transmission with an average of almost 40 cases had been wary of opening doors for tourism, however with the tourism industry and its stakeholders in the state after having suffered much loss, had to open its door, since living with coronavirus is now the new normal and cannot afford to continue being closed for tourists.
 
Efforts have been carried by various Tourist associations, taxi drivers associations and homestay associations among various others, who are the main stakeholders of the tourism sector in a bid to practise safety have organized multiple workshops and training programs and to bring more tourists into the state. Sikkim Hotel and Restaurant Association organized a three-day training programme on the SOPs issued by the State Government to provide good and safe service to tourists before the reopening of the state borders.  

Sikkim United Tourism Organization (SUTO) formed a monitoring team to ensure the proper implementation of the SOPs issued by the State Government for the reopening of borders for tourists. Ganesh Siwakoti, President of SUTO expressed his gratitude towards the State Government for the various financial relief measures for stakeholders in the tourism sector like him, and for resuming tourism activities and understanding the losses and situation of the stakeholders.

The Travel Agents Association of Sikkim (TAAS), also invited all its members to participate in a training programme on the SOPs and COVID-19 protocols of the State Government for the reopening of the state borders. The Pelling Tourism Development Associations of Pellin, West Sikkim conducted various awareness programmes and activities to bring more tourists into the area. The All Sikkim Travel and Homestays Association (ASTHA) also conducted a guidelines training programme on the procedures of the State Government. 

Sikkim Chronicle spoke to a few such stakeholders in the tourism industry, among them is Amrit Sharma, who is the owner of Chalamthang Homestay located in Chalamthang, South Sikkim. Sharma expressed his gratitude to the State Government for reopening Sikkim for domestic tourists thanks to which many owners of such establishments can make a living after such a long hiatus. He has also assured that the SOPs issued by the Government are being followed stringently and thanks to the Travel Card that has been made mandatory for tourists, it has become easier for owners to guarantee and monitor the movements of the guests staying at the establishment so that they know they aren’t moving around anywhere else except for where they’ve applied for.  Thanks to such records that are maintained by both the owner of such establishments and the Tourism Department which makes tracing much easier than as compared for the general public where such records are not maintained.

As for the economic effect the lockdown, Sharma says that the effect of COVID-19 can be seen as far as January, even during the onset of it in India, the number of tourists to visit Chalamthang had already dwindled and since 7-8 families already depend on tourism in Chalamthang from vegetable sellers, guides, cultural programme artists, heritage homes since the village tourism oftentimes operates on cluster tourism for the past 4-5 years.

Another stakeholder is an owner of a homestay located in Okhrey, West Sikkim who says that since the pandemic is worldwide many suffered immense losses but since the tourism only depends on the traffic of the tourists, their loss was almost at a 100%. Since Okhrey is also one of the tourism destinations who have decided to ban the entry of tourists till November 20, he says that while the decision was taken keeping in mind the welfare of the community, they are at the moment having second thoughts since the State Government has issued various SOPs and guidelines which makes it seem very safe for both the community and the tourists. 

Sangay Sherpa, owner of a homestay in Okhrey, West Sikkim says that due to the pandemic Sikkim’ss backbone which is tourism was severely hampered, but since Okhrey has decided to not reopen till November- December, due to the apprehension of the villagers as well as keeping the safety of the village and the tourist in mind, Sherpa says he is eager to reopen for guests again and when they do so, the guidelines and SOPs will be followed diligently, he assures.

Sikkim Chronicle also spoke to tourists who have entered the state since October 11, three tourists hailing from Patna, Bihar say their first choice for a vacation was Sikkim due to its cleanliness and fresh environment. On following the SOPs the guest has assured that strict checking was done by the border patrol as well and sanitization and sterilization of the vehicle they travelled in were ensured by them. Another family of three on vacation from Howrah, Kolkata says that Sikkm’s weather and the peace of the mountains beckoned to them after such a long lockdown. 

With the slow but steady stream of tourists slowly returning to the state, there is a slight revival in the tourism industry of Sikkim and for its stakeholders which is bringing undeniable relief to those involved in the tourism activities of Sikkim.

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