More than two lakh visitors converged on Amritsar on December 31, 2019, New Year’s eve. Most of them were devotees who wanted to pay obeisance at the Golden Temple the following morning. For the rest, the tourist circuit included Wagah border, Durgiana Mandir, Jallianwala Bagh, and sampling the culinary bonanza. The itinerary was simple: overnight stay at one of the several low-budget hotels, bed-and-breakfast inns, guest houses and homestays in the walled city, followed by a visit to local attractions. Then 2020 happened.
The hotel and hospitality industry has experienced perhaps its worst year in decades. The Holy City is an international tourist destination, but the lockdown and the pandemic-induced economic repercussions have been severe. While most of the losses can be blamed on the ban on international travel, the domestic tourist inflow, too, has been far from encouraging. Very few devotees opt to stay; they offer prayers and leave the same day. Covid-19 dealt a crippling blow, made worse by the suspended train services because of the farmers’ agitation.
“Almost 80 per cent of the hotels and homestays in the walled city area have shut down. Earlier, tourists from Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir would stay for an average of two to three days. Tourists from West Bengal and Gujarat, too, visited the city during this time of the year. Since the pandemic, however, domestic tourists only come to pay obeisance at the Golden Temple, and do not stay. With most of the tourist attractions like Jallianwala Bagh, Partition Museum and Wagah border closed, the situation is not good for us,” says Satnam Singh Kanda, chairman of the Hotel Association Walled City.
Kanda, who runs four hotels around the Golden Temple, says he has suspended operations in all four. “The cost of running the hotel, even a low-budget one, has been bleeding our reserves. Finding labour, too, has been a problem since most left during the lockdown. The government has not provided any relief in taxes, electricity bills and interest on loans,” he adds.
Tourist attractions like Heritage Street, Partition Museum, Sadda Pind, War Memorial, Ram Tirath Complex and Fort Gobindgarh recently opened their doors to a scanty tourist inflow. The Wagah Border and Jallianwala Bagh are yet to open.
Surinder Singh, chief of the Federation of Hotels and Guest Houses Association, shares that since the lockdown ended, the hotels have gained 20 per cent occupancy but the farmers’ agitation has resulted in a further drop of 12 per cent.
Whatever percentage of tourists visits the city has been choosing homestays owing to health safety concerns. “Homestays are hanging by as a safe option as these only cater to a small group of people, with limited staff, mostly family members running the establishments,” says Manek Singh, who runs a homestay in Ranjit Avenue. He has been getting an average of two to three bookings a month post the lockdown. Will 2021 be any different? Unlikely, for now.