Sikkim's plan to ban tourism till October threatens livelihood of thousands; industry demands tax breaks, remissions on loans to wade through COVID-19 pandemic
Sikkim's tourism industry, which has already been hit hard by the COVID-19-induced lockdown is likely to see massive job losses, if the govt goes ahead with its plan to shut all tourism operations for another five months
Even as COVID-19 pandemic ravages across the globe, the government of Sikkim is planning to shutdown its tourism sector till October 2020. The state’s tourism industry, which has already been hit hard by the lockdown is likely to see massive job losses, if it's forced to close shop for another five months.
Interestingly, the Himalayan state despite being a tourist hotspot has not recorded a single positive case of COVID-19 . The state government believes that it has been successful in preventing the menace so far by imposing strict restrictions on tourism. The dispensation is willing to continue with the same strategy for the next five months to ensure the safety of its citizens.
While narrating the plan to Firstpost, Jacob Khaileng, the political secretary of chief minister said, “We always knew that the only way to deal with this situation was preventing visitors from different countries entering the state. We prevented foreign tourists from visiting Sikkim long before the other states did it. We now know that the battle against the virus is likely to grow longer. To protect our citizens from this battle, we are applying the same strategy by restricting tourism-related activities to win the battle against the virus," he said.
Sikkim barred the entry of foreign tourists on 5 March and that of domestic tourists on 17 March, days ahead of a nationwide ban on foreign visitors was imposed by the Centre.
Sikkim has two entry points to the state, equipped with check points where the credentials of visitors are checked. This system, which always was in force, helped the state machinery in implementing the ban.
Though the move to restrict tourism for a span of five more months is received well by many, it also has caused worries among thousands of Sikkimese who are solely dependent on tourism for livelihood.
Krishna Bhandari, a 21-year-old cab driver in Gangtok, who is the sole bread earner in his family is quite worried about repaying the car loan he took to earn a living.
“I bought the vehicle on instalment two years back to earn a living. I used to pay the monthly instalments while meeting both ends of my family by carrying tourists from one spot to the other. If I cannot earn my livelihood for the next five months, I will not be able to pay the monthly instalments of the car loan. This may finally leave me jobless,” he said.
There are many like Bhandari who fear that an extension of ban on tourism in the state may leave them jobless.
“It is not only the Sikkimese people who are going to suffer because of these restrictions, but also the non-Sikkimese who run tourism businesses in partnership with the locals. Many hotels in Sikkim are leased out to non-Sikkimese businessman who will bear massive losses if the tourism sector remains stagnant for the next five months,” said Dipak Barman, a non-Sikkimese businessman based out of Siliguri in West Bengal.
But there are also voices who though admit that another shutdown will make things extremely difficult for the tourism industry, they favour the move to keep the citizens safe.
“I think the government does not have many choices in dealing with the ongoing crisis. Even if the government throws doors open for tourists, not many of them are going to arrive. So, it is better to address the issue of the safety of the people first,” said Norgay Lachungpa, a hotelier in Sikkim.
But he also says that the government can take steps to minimise the suffering by introducing rebates in taxes and interest on loans.
“The government could provide tax breaks, remissions on interest on loans and licence and permit fees,” he said.
However, mere rebates and remissions may not be sufficient to minimise the suffering of those employed in the tourism industry.
As per a study, the gross value addition contributed by the tourism sector to the state’s gross domestic product was 7.89% in the financial year 2013-14 and the number of persons directly employed in the industry was 43,870, which was 7.19 percent of the state’s total population. The impact of an extended lockdown would leave a deeper wound in the tourism sector.
Khaileng says that when facing a global crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, everyone has to make sacrifices, but the government is contemplating to deal with the situation in a considerate manner.
“Neither can we let anyone die of coronavirus , nor can we let anyone die out of hunger. Certainly, we are contemplating on the issue seriously, more so about how to help the people in need. The demands for tax breaks and remissions in instalment are also being discussed, though nothing is yet finalised,” added Khaileng.
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