Think of Wayand and beautiful images of varying shades of green come rushing to my mind. A century-old temple perched on a hillock, vast vistas of evergreen forests, dales, rushing rivulets, and sprightly waterfalls like Soochipara and Meenmutti. Then there are the lush hillsides swathed in tea, coffee, cardamom and pepper plantations, and the call of the wild at Tholpetty National Park.
The verdant scenery, delightful flora and fauna, swaying palms and areca groves make Wayanad a location directorâs dream come true. For the adventurous there are hills to trek, for the religious there are sacred shrines, those who have a flair for history can explore the prehistoric Edakkal Caves, formed out of the strange position of three massive boulders on the crest of Ambukuthi Mala, a hill near Sultan Battery.
For the laidback, thereâs the option of taking a boat ride in the freshwater Pookote Lake laden with lotus blooms near Lakkidi or in the picturesque Banasura Lake. For a taste of raw adventure, dabble in bamboo rafting, climb up Chembra Peak, the tallest summit in this region, camp in a tent or go island hopping to Kuruva Dweep, a 950-acre maze of islets.
This landlocked district was a preferred destination of techies and tourists from Bengaluru due to its proximity to the Garden City. Currently due to COVID-19 and the resultant lockdown, it is out of bounds for tourists. Tourism plays a significant role in Wayanadâs economy.
Vancheeswaran, President of the Wayanad Tourism Organisation (WTO), and his ilk are a dejected lot as the hospitality sector does not find a mention in the Rs 20,000 lakh crore government package, even when nationally tourism is a major employer providing jobs to 4 crore workers and contributing over 9% of Indiaâs GDP.
Coronavirus has hit the tourism and hospitality industry the hardest of all. The hospitality industry felt the impact first and will take the longest to recover â suffering a U-shaped recovery curve that may stretch well into 2021. With no financial stimulus to boost the tourism industry â neither in the Centreâs Rs 20,000 lakh crore economy package nor from the state, the hospitality sector is in the doldrums.
âWayanad was hit hard by the Nipah virus, subsequently by the floods in 2018 and 2019. The COVID-19 virus has come as the last straw that broke the camelâs back. We are the second largest employer in the district with over 30,000 direct and indirect workers, and tourism makes up 25% of the districtâs GDP. We generated over Rs 1,500 crore in GST and Income Tax over the past 3 years, not to mention significantly more as indirect taxes,â Vancheeswaran said. Even the launch of some resorts has been put on hold due to the lockdown.
With declining reserves, all tourism businesses are running out of working capital. The industryâs focus will initially will be on survival and then on revival. Hence, WTO has submitted a request to the state government for an assistance package for survival during the lockdown and also requested urgent assistance in primary areas. This includes setting up of a fund for 12 months to support basic salaries with direct transfer to affected tourism employees. Another suggestion is to waive PF and ESI contributions for employer and employee for 12 months.
WTO has also proposed soft loans, i.e., collateral-free, interest-free loans up to 20% of the companyâs turnover, with minimal documentation and quick disbursal timelines. The loans may be guaranteed by SIDBI or similar agencies. They have also requested interest-free EMI moratorium on existing term loans for a period of one year and reduced interest rates for subsequent 12 months, and also interest-free and collateral-free or reduced interest for working capital/overdrafts up to 50 lakhs (or % of turnover).
Other demands include tax holiday for all tourism related businesses (hotels, accommodations, tour operators, etc.) for a period of 12 months and suspension of all audits, old tax cases, and service tax/GST not to be re-opened until April 1, 2021 to enable focus on business. They have also asked for unconditional renewal of all existing operational licenses for one year with waiver or deferment of dues.
WTO has sought a special survival marketing package of Rs 20 crore to keep destination marketing efforts at a minimal level. They have also requested sanction of Rs 25 crore for a special innovative tourism package to kickstart their revival.
âThe package would focus on the development of a âRamayana Trailâ based on historical accounts of Lord Ramaâs journeys in this region. There are 30 landmarks in the district that owe their origins to the epic. Wayanad is firmly associated with the Ramayana â a result of the tribal populationâs affinity for the ancient epic,â said Raveendran, owner of Pranavam, a leading homestay in Wayanad.
Other demands include an allotment of a small fund of Rs 10 crore to help WTO retrain workers who may have to seek alternate employment in the aftermath of COVID-19. If timely assistance is not provided at this critical juncture, it can render lakhs of people jobless. The collapse of the industry here will also cause a significant loss to the state and central exchequer, not to mention the disappointment of having been let down at a time of need.
All pictures by Susheela Nair
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bangalore. She has contributed content, articles and images on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum, including guide books, brochures and coffee table books.