When I was a young boy, summer came with the happy prospect of a vacation to my hometown, but also with warnings of fevers and poxes. Villages in Tamil Nadu, then and even today, are dotted with shrines to goddesses of pestilence, who are garlanded with neem leaves and offered oblations of turmeric paste wash, believed to have antiseptic properties to ward off diseases. It was not unknown for local elders and community heads to shut down their borders when a rash of pox afflicted their villages. Visitors who brought a “fever” and spread it to the population from their travels outside were punished; and containment helped to arrest the spread of pestilences to other villages.
Similarly, medical historians find strong co-relations between travel and spread of pandemics since they were recorded across centuries. The increased mobility of populations across the world also makes the spread of diseases and epidemics quicker. In 14th century Venice, ships that docked at the port during the eruption of Black Death had to do quarantine time of 40 days fearing that travellers would add to the numbers of those diseased and were also suspected to have bought the plague with them. The cholera and influenza pandemics of the 18th and 19th centuries and the rash of typhus and plague from New York in 1892 in 1907 and elsewhere in the world have taught us quarantine and containment were some of the most efficacious methods.
Nothing much has changed about pandemics except the staggering global scale that Covid-19 has shown us today.
Even while medical studies show that travel is a significant factor in the spread of epidemics, travelling is a human habit that will never stop. In fact, we have seen travel, especially air travel, increase over the last few decades exponentially. Travelling for leisure has picked up speed and volume in both developed and developing nations. Epidemics and pandemics do not respect international borders.
Time and again, we have seen that economic impact on travel due to infectious diseases has been quite devastating. The climb back has been arduous especially for many industries and the toll on travel has been heavy. According to World Travel & Tourism Council, the travel and tourism sector accounts for 10.4% of the global GDP offering 319 million jobs worldwide. Global industry experts predict that it will be a good 18 months before air travel picks up; small trips and travelling local will gain followers; travellers might choose staycations as a safer option; large hotels and resorts might offer packages and promises of sanitised premises to entice travellers.
In April 2020, air travel in the US had dropped by 95%; half the planes across the world are today grounded and airlines across the globe are losing over 1.6 billion US dollars a day. In India, according to analytics company Crisil, the aviation industry will face a revenue loss of Rs 24,000–25,000 crore. It is estimated that the Indian tourism industry’s losses in 2020, due to the impact of COVID-19 on travel, hotel and hospitality sector and allied tourism sectors, will be Rs 1.25 trillion with job losses of nearly five crore people, according to the CII (Confederation of Indian Industry). Both inbound and outbound tourism sectors, travel categories like adventure, heritage, pilgrimage, leisure, cruises and MICE (meetings, Incentives, Conferences & Exhibitions) have all ground to a halt.
With the globe shrinking and information routes and knowledge becoming accessible to all, thanks to technology, it helps to listen to the World Health Organization (WHO) when it says “it remains the traveller’s responsibility to seek information, to understand the risks involved and to take the necessary precautions to protect their health while travelling.”
Even as the current battle to fight Covid-19 and bring succour to the affected is of paramount importance, we need to simultaneously work and focus on remedies and mitigation plans and come up with concrete suggestions.
Since the focus will be on inbound travels, government and private sectors must come together to identify safe zones and offer guidelines and manuals for places of interest and accommodations like hotels, resorts and home-stays. This will help to gain the traveller’s trust. Identification of safe spots must also begin early on so that places can open up after determining their public health safety. State governments and their tourism departments must help to assure and guarantee the safety of travellers by showcasing the initiatives that are in place.
Again, public and private players in the sector must zealously help in communication. The government and private parties must also work on relaying reliable information. Standards and parameters for authentic information is the key in this world of unverified news.
Go Local & Rural
The other campaign we can and should do is to employ those who fled the cities for the villages. I’d rather not use the term ‘migrant’ to identify the economically weaker sections. We are all migrants including the Prime Minister, living and working in cities and towns away from our birth places. Many resorts and hotels in the interiors engage the local community as employees. They must be assured of jobs. We must push for travel to take to the rural segment in India and sustainable development for those engaged in tourism here. Developing good local food, craft and cultural experiences will give opportunity to strengthen their economy as well. Off-the-beaten path destinations and experiences will need to be developed.
Travellers know where they want to travel to or precisely when. We now need to focus on offering price driven, budget focussed travel ideas. For example, the new normal would be to offer a family of four, ten different destination and vacation choices for the same budget to choose from.
Covid-19 is a collective lesson in healthy and hygienic behaviour when we step out. Touristy areas can be crowded, and travellers must learn to mend their behaviour towards nature, monuments and fellow travellers. Follow hygiene and humane habits at all times, especially during your travel.
Lastly, we cannot go into hiding for long; the time has come to show and savour the hidden treasures of India for the traveller.
(The author is director and general manager of Lonely Planet, India)