Share the pain
April 1 2020. Within days of India’s first national lockdown, my WhatsApp pinged an ‘RT Action Group’ invite.
Soity Banerjee, travel journalist and long term lead at Outlook India’s Responsible Tourism Initiative, quickly brought together a pan-India group of hundred members on Whatsapp. Most were tour operators, running or selling a multi-terrain niche travel business in India, with some attention to responsible travel. A few other invitees were from sectors travel people work with such as craft, heritage, artist collectives, social media influencers, conservation specialists and rural NGOs. Many were e-meeting each other for the first time. The Whatsapp group call was to, “please share any good ideas being tested to help small travel businesses and individuals: for the protection of communities & for the future (when the travellers come back and they will!).”
After a pandemic announcement that made human touch life-threateningly infectious, this call tried to put a human touch back into this community – one that was not new to handling delays or crises with a smile. This time though, the travel vehicle had braked the hardest, with an all India STOP sign staring it in the face.
Posts across April on the group tried to reverse that car in spirit, in two ways. All useful media links that eased our uncertainty were shared immediately. I tuned in, perhaps for the first time, to the immediacy of the business side of travel – stranded visitors were trying to head home through cancelled flights, inter-state borders, airports and trains were shutting overnight, varying quarantine and international travel advisories were being meted out. Whether you were a hotel in a mountain valley or a rural retreat, expenses had been hit hard and a hibernation mode had only just begun.
The group shared information from as far as Costa Rica, on how a particular Responsible Tourism initiative put out timely FAQs, using prepaid reservations to pay staff salaries in the short term and let the travellers who had paid know about it. Without displaying any panic, posts on the group also conveyed the stark scale of human and material resource crunch in their own region, both rural and urban.
Secondly, the group displayed an ‘all hands on deck’ energy to aid the people that travellers and tourists meet, but often forget. Singers, artists, camp hands, drivers, cooks, front desk managers, tour escorts were all people currently out of work. The response of the group was specifically to laud and encourage field effort and support them in their time of financial need.
In the national capital, alongside several initiatives, the team running the popular Café Lota New Delhi ran a free community kitchen for migrants trying to leave Delhi and Gurgaon. On her Instagram, travel influencers like Lakshmi Sharath forefronted ten calls of help, every day. These initiatives were both spontaneous and coordinated, often which ordinary citizens could contribute to.
Building on the NGO Anahad Foundation’s idea to pay 300 statewide rural folk artists for daily live performances on YouTube, the Rajasthan state government started a similar scheme for artistes to upload phone performances from home and earn a one-time Rs 2500 grant.
Within days, Soity led her team in circulating an RT Covid 19 Action Plan document with immediate relief measures, travel-related initiatives and future plans, including perspectives on what post-Corona travel might look like. By now, hotel chains too had begun sharing CoVid 19 protocols and practices.
India’s Ministry of Tourism, in a reply to a Lok Sabha question, confirmed only in December 2020 that foreign tourist arrivals were down 97% from April to December 2020, compared to 2019. But within the first few days of April, the Responsible Tourism community grasped the toll this absence would take and stepped up to support the vulnerable through April itself.
Adapt and act?
Could a scramble for survival lay the ground for another model of tourism to thrive?
By May 1, posts began wondering aloud. Would a tourist now fearful of human contact choose to detour to uncongested spaces? The viral success of Facebook groups like View from my window was reflecting a worldwide human longing to turn to an uncongested view, if not towards nature itself. Webinar meetups with community members from Ladakh to Lakshadweep spoke honestly of rethinking resilience. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum Forecast was beeping, ‘it could take 10 months for the industry to recover’.
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation, primed with promoting responsible and sustainable tourism, circulated a document Supporting jobs and economies through Covid 19. A World Bank blog post pointed indirectly to the outer circle of managed nature tourism when it suggested, ‘Restoring degraded forestlands and landscapes could create many jobs over the short term while also generating net benefits worth hundreds of billions of dollars from watershed protection, better crop yields, and forest products. In Ethiopia, for instance, the Humbo Assisted Natural Regeneration Project increased local incomes and helped restore 2,700 hectares of biodiverse native forest, boosting carbon sequestration benefits. More tree cover also reduced local drought vulnerability.’
Despite no ‘industry package’ by the Central Government for the travel sector, by mid-September, this RT Action Group had completed a feedback loop and submitted a recommendation to the Ministry of Tourism on its draft National Tourism Policy 2020. By New Year 2020, there was an uptick in self-driven holiday numbers, and for the first time the all India Stop signal was perhaps now on yellow. But was there any evidence that an Indian tourist, fresh from worry and work from home, had hit pause on older ways of travel?
P.S. It will be a year soon since this WhatsApp group came to be. I now habitually check its notification pings. As a media academic, I marvel at how fake-news-free a WhatsApp group can be. When I think of this year I think of the time when nature’s breathing space for species other than humans became too visible, the ongoing loss of human life became too acute, and the claustrophobia of the home-stuck too real. In these times one is reminded not of luxury travel, but of the fact that travel itself has been an unexamined luxury. And now to travel responsibly – luxury or not?
Tisha Srivastav teaches media studies at Ashoka University.
We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).