Hotels, ashrams, guest houses and dharmashalas in the temple towns of Haridwar and Rishikesh used to be bursting at the seams at this time of the year because of kanwariyas (Shiva devotees) and the heavy influx of pilgrims on the way to the famous Himalayan temples
The cancellation of the annual kanwar fair and the chardham yatra confined only to pilgrims from the state have badly hit livelihoods related to religious tourism and the hospitality sector in Uttarakhand. The chardham yatra last season generated over Rs 1,100 crore with a record 36 lakh devotees visiting Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri but it has drawn almost a blank this year, according to Haridwar Vyapar Mandal’s district president Suresh Gulati.
Hotels, ashrams, guest houses and dharmashalas in the temple towns of Haridwar and Rishikesh used to be bursting at the seams at this time of the year because of kanwariyas (Shiva devotees) and the heavy influx of pilgrims on the way to the famous Himalayan temples.
The mandatory adherence to COVID-19 protocol like social distancing, wearing of masks and the ban on touching the idols, entering the sanctum sanctorum of the temples, distribution of prasad and striking the bells have also dampened the enthusiasm of pilgrims.
“All businesses which depended on the arrival of tourists and devotees have been severely hit by the total ban on kanwar yatra and a low-scale chardham yatra which is open only for pilgrims from the state,” Gulati said. He said the lockdown “wasted” the first two months of the yatra considered its peak with no devotees allowed to visit the temples during the period.
“A limited and conditional opening of the temples for only residents from within the state on July 1 with a number of restrictions in view of Covid has evoked a lukewarm response from people. The cancellation of kanwar yatra has come as the last nail in the coffin for traders in Haridwar as hotels, ashrams, guest houses and dharmashalasare all empty,” Gulati said.
Mahashivratri and Somvati Amavasya fell on July 19 and July 20 respectively but the district administration put a ban on ritual bath at Har ki Pairi in Haridwar on the occasion when lakhs of people converge on the ghat for a holy dip in the Ganga.
All this has dealt a fatal blow to religious tourism, the mainstay of the state’s economy, Gulati said. Despair grips hotel and restaurant owners besides traders who sell Gangajal (Ganga water) and rudraksha to devotees, he said.
Two weeks of kanwar yatra used to generate revenue worth Rs 150 crore in Haridwar but unfortunately it has come to nil.
If one adds Rishikesh, Gaumukh and Gangotri to the list, the business would touch Rs 500 crore per annum. All that has plummeted to zero this year with the prolonged lockdown and the cancellation of the kanwar yatra, Gulati said.
“Many small traders like Kanwar artisans as well as other street vendors depend heavily on this yatra for their earnings. They make enough money during the period to sustain themselves through the year. Kanwar yatra cancellation has hit them really hard. Our appeal to the government is to extend financial assistance to them so that they could survive,” he said.
The cancellation of kanwar yatra has also hit the traders of Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Haryana who used to take stalls on lease at the kanwar fair. “Tourism, especially religious tourism, is the backbone of Uttarakhand’s economy which has been battered hard by the ban on kanwar yatra and the limited scale chardham yatra. Haridwar alone has incurred a loss worth Rs 1.5 billion due to the ban,” Bharatiya Udyog Vyapar Mandal’s national secretary Kailash Keshwani said.
“It is a big challenge for us to meet our establishment costs and bear the burden of taxes amid the financial setback caused by a limited chardham yatra and a ban on kanwar yatra. We look to the government with great hope to bail us out of this crisis,” Haridwar Hotel Association president Ashutosh Sharma said.
The COVID-induced lockdown has already caused bus operators on the chardham yatra route around 22 crore during the peak yatra months of May and June, according to former president and director of the Chardham Yatra Joint Rotation Travel Arrangement Committee Sudhir Rai.
Similarly, taxi, max and tempo operators have suffered a loss of around Rs 30 crore during the period. “If things go on like this transport business will suffer losses worth Rs 115 crore by November this year,” he said. Hotel Association of Rishikesh president Madan Nagpal said normally business done in the peak yatra months of May-June were enough to take care of their annnual expenses but the losses suffered during these months this year have “broken the back of hoteliers”.
Hotels have now been opened conditionally but the restrictions imposed in view of the COVID-19 pandemic are so severe that tourists would rather prefer not to come even if allowed, Nagpal said.
“In a bleak business scenario like this when hoteliers have to pay their staff without any income, the government should exempt hotels from paying the fixed charges on consumption of electricity, give them waiver from payment of municipal corporation taxes and liberalise the restrictions for tourists in a bid to put tourism back on track,” he said.