In the spiritual city of Benares, famous for its long stretch of ghats and temples in every nook and cranny of many mohalla, tourism plays an important role. It is undoubtedly the basis of the livelihoods of many communities across the city.
Many ancillary businesses around the city such as hotels and restaurants depend on the flow of Indian and foreign tourists. This had seen a complete decline when the first lockdown in 2020 was imposed with the advent of COVID-19. For two years, the recovery in the city of many businesses and occupations has been slow.
One such occupation is tour guides, who accompany and help tourists around the city’s most famous attractions. This line of work does not appear to have recovered much from the repercussions of subsequent closures, even after two years. One of the main reasons for the dismal recovery is the restrictions on international movements in the country, and therefore in the city. There are about 500 state-licensed tourist guides in Varanasi.
Arun Mishra, tour guide at ghatssays: “When the first confinement was imposed, we thought we would resume our activities in a few months. We were hopeful. It’s been two years now and we are frustrated because the number of foreigners visiting the city is always less.
Mishra further observes that the tourism sector is one of the most vulnerable sectors in any city.
“I worked as a tour guide for the past 10 years. But income is very uncertain, so I also worked as an LIC agent,” Mishra said. Thus, after the confinement, the income from tourism became absolutely zero.
Mishra has earned a meager salary from her other job and is currently awaiting stability. “I am now 45 years old and I am at a crossroads. Should I change jobs? It is difficult to do so. All my other colleagues who are in the same sector of activity face the same dilemma because we have to manage our families.” Michra said.
Aman Pratap, a Delhi-based guide who regularly takes tour groups to Benares, says the situation has been dire for many guides since the pandemic began.
“A lot of people, my friends, who work as guides are in debt. They had to pay off loans, but now, over the past two years, many have been on the verge of bankruptcy,” Pratap said, adding, “Not many have other sources of income, and banks have sent out debt clearance notices.It’s terrifying and a difficult time for them these days.
The downturn in the tourism sector has prompted all other tour guides to start looking for jobs. It was a “do or die” situation, as one tour guide put it. Many have chosen to start teaching languages in certain institutions because they are proficient in a few foreign languages such as French, Spanish, Thai, etc. Others have started tutoring at home amid the dire COVID-19 lockdowns.
Some took cameras to click pictures of local tourists after the second wave in ghats. The challenge for them is that in the world of smartphones, a photographer may not be in many tourists’ plans.
Anil Singh, another tourist guide, says that the main months for tourism in Benares are from October to March.
“So it’s always been true that you can’t completely depend on tourism for a stable income,” Singh said. He questions the Indian government’s policies on restoring the tourism sector. He laments, “Even though we are so rich and diverse on many fronts, be it culture, suitable climate in many places and also have ecotourism as an industry, we still don’t have reaped the benefits of such a gifted country. Few countries have such diversity and favorable conditions.”
On the infrastructural front, Singh questions government initiatives and says they are lacking.
“Many tourist sites and general public places in cities, such as in our city of Benares as well, lack adequate sanitary facilities and toilets. Local government should also pay attention to these aspects of a city to help visitors and tourists, but I don’t see much improvement in those aspects, and I think they’re not serious about this industry,” Singh said.
The second wave of COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the country. Mismanagement by central and state governments was in the spotlight around the world. Singh believes this has contributed to tarnishing India’s image as a safe destination for tourists.
“India’s image as a safe place is important for tourism to thrive. But as we have not reached normality and fear of COVID and deaths are still a factor, recovery has been delayed. I think it will take at least until 2024 or 2025 until we have a full recovery,” Singh said.
Meghnad Sinha, another Benares-based tour guide, laments that it’s not just the pandemic that has created the worst phase for tour guides.
“Yes, the pandemic is responsible for our fate, but it’s not just that. Let’s take the example of the Buddhist circuit in India, in which I have worked for many years; there are so many Buddhist sites in the UP and Bihar, Sarnath being one in Benares. Bodh Gaya is the birthplace of Buddhism itself. But there is generally a downward movement of Buddhist tourists to India. Why is that?” Singh said.
He said the promotion of these unique sites is lacking and the government has not been able to harness the Buddhist culture. According to reports, India is receiving only 0.05% of the total population of Buddhists in the world as tourists. Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated an international airport in Kushinagar, another major Buddhist site in UP. Whether this can have a tangible effect on Buddhist tourism remains to be seen.
“If the government can attract Buddhist tourists, it will be better for us and generate more jobs for tour guides,” Sinha said.
Newcomers to the profession have been waiting to start their careers since the pandemic took hold. Many of those who opt for tourism-related courses and learn foreign languages by spending a lot of time and money in good colleges, no longer know how to start working.
Singh says he could dissuade them from joining this profession.
“It’s very confusing for people like us who have worked for years. The new aspirants might as well give up on the idea and look for something else. Or they can wait a few years for a full-fledged recovery and tourism normality. international in the city,” Singh said.
The editors are independent journalists.