Ranthambore Readies for Seasonal Shutdown, Hoteliers Under Stress
The national park, famous for its tiger-watching safaris, was reopened for tourists briefly.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and consequent lockdown, most industries have come to a standstill while some are expected to remain affected for the next couple of years. The tourism industry of Rajasthan is no exception. One of the most visited national parks of India, the Ranthambore National Park in Sawai Madhopur district of Rajasthan, is one example. The national park, famous for its tiger-watching safaris, has been closed since mid-March.
As Ranthambore’s seasonal shutdowns begins 30 June, hoteliers remain helpless. The consequence of this sword hanging above their heads has left the hoteliers with no other option but to forcibly fire their staff.
Thus, more than 2,000 workers have been rendered unemployed according to the estimate given by the hoteliers spoken to by this citizen journalist.
Ranthambore is the highest-earning national park in India, with an average footfall of 4.25 lakh annually, as told to me by Dharmendra Khandal of Tiger Watch. His estimates put the tiger population of the park at 70.
The national park was reopened for tourists on 1 June, but footfall remains negligible. Pressures mount on hotel owners in Ramthambore.
“I still can’t believe that the crisis has put off my ambitions in a single wave.”Surendra Singh of Bagh Dwar Camp
After running a leased property for four years, Singh ventured into his own project in November last year. Due to legal issues, he was denied a loan for his five tents and a homestay. But after managing to raise capital from friends and family, he was able to follow his dream.
Owing to the lockdown, he fired six staff workers in attempts to cut costs, but there are commercial expenses like electricity that haunt him.
He doesn’t think the October reopening would be any better.
Singh had also tried his best to hold on to his chef at half the salary until April end, but had to fire him due to uncertainty of the lockdown.
“We have to do fresh hiring, which is another headache and importantly, the expenditures on sanitizers, masks, gloves, renovation that are additional burdens.”Surendra Singh
Similar is the story of Dr Goverdhan Singh Rathore, the President of the Ranthambore Association of Hotel Owners and son of Fateh Singh Rathore – the “Tiger Man” of India – who would have been debt-free had the pandemic not hit.
The seasoned hotelier, whose Khem Vilas property was fully booked for March, had to return cancellation money to the guests. Calculating his loss of over one crore rupees, Rathore said,
“My profit of two years or more is wasted because for people like us, who are more dependent on foreigners, there’s no hope before October 2021.”
He is among the few employers who are paying their staff half their salaries.
Hotel Dev Vilas owner Balendu Singh took a loan of Rs 1.3 crore last year for maintenance and repairs of his 28-room hotel, which saw bookings till June.
“My hotel works on the credit system. Due to the pandemic, I didn’t get my dues for February and March. But when I had to pay the doubled bar license fees of Rs 6.5 lakh, up from Rs 3.5 lakh, I was hit.”
The loan has exacerbated his situation, but the fear of losing out on his trained staff has made him pay half their salaries with reassurance of compensation when the hotel reopens.
Despite numerous efforts, none of the fired hotel employees could be reached. Locals say they are now back to working in their fields of Sawai Madhopur.
Ranthambore’s hotel-owners feel government guarantee on loans isn’t enough.
“We expect the government to come forward and provide support to help maintain cash flows. This is only natural because, under normal circumstances, most of the hotels in Ranthambore support the government not only through taxes, and generating employment but also by bringing in foreign exchange.”Dr Goverdhan Singh Rathore
He added, “The government should either pay half the staff salaries or waive the one-year interest on loan, because government guarantee on loans is not enough.”
“The government has asked the tourism industry to become atmanirbhar (independent), ignoring the fact that it was always on its own. We had very little support from the government. So how do they want us to be atmanirbhar?”Balendu Singh
The state government was no better, he felt, referring to the Rajasthan government hiking the electricity tariff by 11% in February this year.
Tiger Safaris and the Seasonal Shutdown
On 18 June, the state forest department issued an order stating that those who booked their safaris online across Rajasthan’s national parks between 18 March and 30 June will be now given an option of availing them till 30 June, 2022. This way, the question of refunds might not arise.
The collections will stay with Rajasthan’s Forest Department, unlike Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra where refunds are being processed.
According to Surendra Singh, this order not only affects tourists but hoteliers as well.
“Tourists come to Ranthambore with jungle safaris as a priority. But with huge rush and only 140 gypsies allowed daily inside the park, they opt for pre-booking through us. Now with this order, Rs 3.5 lakh of my money is stuck with the government.”
Further, the Ranthambore park remains closed during the monsoon (July to September) but in the last 4-5 years, the park administration has opened Zones 6 to 10 (known as buffer zones) that are part of the adjacent Sawai Man Singh Wildlife Sanctuary.
Both Singh and Khandal were of the view that there is a window of possibility of opening the jungle and core zones with lesser rainfall.
Sanjiv Sharma, Assistant Conservator of the Forest (ACF) of Ranthambore National Park, said,
“People are spreading rumours. Zones 1 to 5 will remain closed this monsoon as always.”
Chalking Out a Plan for the Future
Given the coronavirus pandemic, the management is deliberating new ways for safety and sanitisation.
“For jungle safaris, we have reduced the seating capacity of vehicles to 50%. Only three people will now be allowed in a gypsy, and 10 out of 20 in a canter,”Sanjiv Sharma
He added, “Every vehicle will be sanitized before entering the park and it will be mandatory for every tourist to wear a mask and carry sanitizer.”
The hoteliers confirmed that they will be following the norms laid out by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. From asking for medical certificates from the new staff to sanitizing rooms daily and checking temperature, they plan to take up many such precautions.
(All ‘My Report' branded stories are submitted by citizen journalists to The Quint. Though The Quint inquires into the claims/allegations from all parties before publishing, the report and the views expressed above are the citizen journalist's own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for the same.)
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