The 90 day-short summer peak season of Manali attracts an annual influx of tourists that often overflows 27 times the hill station’s infrastructure. However, the precarious summer of 2020 passes in this Himalayan haven in a ghastly silence. The streets of Manali’s Mall are quieter than its quietest off-season months, forming an unimaginable sight for all those who associate gloom and solitude with its dreary winter. What makes the sunny months of April, May and June even gloomier is that the clenches of COVID-19 aren’t likely to loosen up on the world anytime soon.
Regardless of their optimism or pessimism, hoteliers amidst this pandemic reach a point of existential surrender sooner or later when they internally (or externally) exclaim: it is what it is! For there is only so much news and speculation that one can digest before feeling a little mind-numbed. Being an independent hotelier based out of Manali, I hesitantly try to believe the older veterans of the trade when they say, “it cannot get worse than this”, because as per credible reports, it is about to get much worse before getting any better. Despite knowing this only too well, I find the extended lockdown dissolving the initial anxieties that it caused to surge within me.
For the twin sakes of my prudence and sanity, I have begun to periodically assess the buffer amounts that I had stacked up for a rainy day. Without a single doubt, these are the rainy days that we all had saved up for. But how many infected months will this finite sum outdo? The professed relief measures being announced by the state towards subsidised electricity consumption and employee provident funds offer us momentary respite. But there are more pressing expenses that the erstwhile peak seasons took care of. For hotels ranging across all sizes, there are fleets of staff-persons to be taken care of, and their livelihoods sustained.
I, for one stand amongst the more fortunate hoteliers, who have a tinier strength to uphold through the COVID-19 jolt. The industry’s larger moguls brace tightly, many of whom have had to disperse a sizeable chunk of their workforce due to un-affordability. This, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg that we are jointly (and inadvertently) sailing over.
Regardless of our walks of life, the refusal of the COVID-19 curve to flatten anytime soon causes dread amongst each of us. Even a layperson can ascertain that a dwindling economy remains miles away from affording to revive any purchases beyond our bare-necessities, let alone the consumption of leisure segment of travel.
The hospitality and civil aviation industries have been reported as the hardest hit amongst all employment sectors worldwide. However, unlike air travel, the hospitality industry isn’t as likely to regain its impetus. Hopeful analysts point towards the preferential benefit of road trips over air travel when it comes to the conveyance of leisure tourists. But only time will provide a definitive answer to whether the locked down citizen would be willing enough to risk an outstation trip to refresh their senses. What if this contradicted their very reason for remaining locked for all these months?
Ironically, the already frail medical infrastructure of Himachal Pradesh negates a tourism influx in the near future. Ours isn’t the only state administration in a Catch-22 between its economic reparation and medical safety. However, it survives on a narrower window of profitability than its neighbours, and doesn’t have healthcare biceps to flex. The extent to which our future parameters will offer a relaxation of borders and trade in the Himalayas, time alone will tell. And even though I cannot make time pass any faster than it does, I occupy myself nowadays strategising how I can best ensure the safety and well-being of my future visitors.
It would be myopic of me to brace for the storm and not for its passage. Hence, alongside an uphill race against mounting expenditures, I am brainstorming for the brighter days, if and when they arrive. I am making do with the existing features of my boutique property in upper Manali to facilitate the safest and COVID-19-proof stay that I can afford for my future guests. The absence of constricted spaces and cross-ventilated air conditioning hint at some prospective social distancing assets. Moreover, it is easy to envision a minimal dining distance of two metres atop the lush gardens amidst our apple orchards. An entirely in-house team of staff residents and a relatively low footfall aid the precautionary measures that I am willing to take. In all, the thorough sanitation of a 23 room-small, owner-run boutique resort proves to be far more promising than that of a chock-a-blocked giant with clustered suites.
That said, even the most fool-proof re-opening plan does not come without the risk of deserted preparations. What if the COVID-19 monster continue to lurke under our ultra luxurious duveted beds? -
First published in The Daily Guardian
Apart from being the Editor-in-Chief of Rajputana Collective, Urvashi Singh is the owner of Urvashi’s Retreat, one of Manali’s leading boutique resorts.