How Mussoorie, a town dependent on tourism but now wary of it, is finding the middle ground

The hill town, one of the country’s oldest tourist destinations, wasn’t the only one watching either: so were Covid experts at the Centre, ringing alarm bells.

MUSSOORIE has spent the past fortnight perched on the horns of a dilemma, watching first with delight tourists arriving after nearly a year and then, as numbers rose, with growing horror. The hill town, one of the country’s oldest tourist destinations, wasn’t the only one watching either: so were Covid experts at the Centre, ringing alarm bells.

Restrictions have been imposed since, especially for weekends when the rush is the maximum, and strict rules are now in place to regulate the flow of arrivals at tourist spots such as Mall Road, Library Chowk and Company Garden. However, the trade-off is high for the town dependent on tourism.

As per one estimate, Covid has caused losses up to Rs 1,600 crore in the tourism sector for the state. Government data shows that between 2006-07 and 2016-17, tourism accounted for over 50% of the state’s GSDP. Mussoorie alone saw footfall dip to nearly one-fourth between 2019 and 2020 (from 19.62 lakh to 5.49 lakh). This year, till July, 4.65 lakh had visited the town, with the lockdown not as strict as in 2020.

Sandeep Sahni, president of the Uttarakhand Hotels Association, says in the previous fiscal, hotels and guest-houses suffered up to 70 per cent loss in revenues.

At Kuthal Gate on Mussoorie Road, police barricades manned by at least 12 personnel (two sub-inspectors and 10 constables) now let through only tourists who have all the three documents: a negative Covid report, a confirmed hotel booking in Mussoorie and registration on the website of Dehradun Smart City Limited. As of now, the restrictions are applicable till July 25 night.

The vehicles getting the all-clear are allotted stickers with destinations clearly marked — Mussoorie, Dhanaulti, Kempty Fall etc. The Dhanaulti and Kempty Fall vehicles, for example, can’t enter Mussoorie.

One of those turned away is Manoj Kumar of Faridabad, who doesn’t have a hotel booking. S-I N S Rathod tells him to get a booking online and try again. “But there is a network issue in this area, I’m not able to make online payment. I had come to Dehradun for admission of my son in a college and thought would visit Mussoorie over the weekend,” says a dejected Kumar.

Yogesh Pratap and his five friends who have come from Haryana after a seven-hour drive are turned back for the same reason. Yogesh says they had no idea about these rules. “When we entered Uttarakhand, the officials did a rapid antigen test and cleared us as we were all negative,” Yogesh says.

A policeman advises them to either do the booking and return or try their luck on Monday, when the curbs are relaxed.

Raghuvir Chahar has come better prepared. He and his family are here on a three-day trip, from Ganganagar in Rajasthan. “I am a frequent traveller to hill stations but my family has not been able to move out since last year due to lockdowns. To get relief from the 47 degree Celsius heat of Ganganagar, we have come here.”

Outpost in-charge Rakesh Shah says they don’t let through even two-wheelers of local tourists on weekends. Last weekend, 305 four-wheelers and 405 two-wheelers were returned from Kuthal Gate outpost.

Besides regulation of entry, there is also a crackdown against those found violating Covid norms in the city — more than 220 have been booked for this in the past week.

Company Garden management committee member Bagh Singh Rawat says officials randomly inspect the park to ensure no more than half is full, and that masks are on.

Vijay Negi, a government teacher, admits the huge crowd of tourists at Mall Road on July 3 and 4 — images of which made national headlines — left him nervous. Despite taking two shots of Covid vaccine, the 58-year-old decided to not venture out on weekends. “There was an over 4-km queue of vehicles on the road approaching Mussoorie from Dehradun. Here on Mall Road, there were only tourists and vehicles,” he says, adding that many visitors didn’t have masks on.

He adds that locals are in no position to object. “Tourism is important for the economy. The administration became strict only after a video of Kempty Fall become viral.”

From the first wave till July 22 this year, Mussoorie recorded 2,521 Covid cases, with 2,493 having recovered, and seven deaths. Only six cases were active as of June 22, with as many as 25,000 of the town’s eligible 30,000 population having received at least one or both doses of Covid vaccine. SDM Manish Kumar says there has been no surge since the tourist arrivals. But that has only boosted fears about what will happen if outsiders stream in from Covid-hit areas.

At Kempty Fall in Tehri Garhwal district, S-I Harkesh Singh monitors crowds from atop a watchtower, along with two-three constables. At 10.55 am, he signals to his subordinate Ravi Chauhan, who walks to the shop from where some visitors rent out clothes before entering the waterfall, and sounds a siren. The moment he does that, over half-a-dozen constables blow whistles to indicate to those inside the water that their allotted 20 minutes are over and they should come out so that the next set can go in.

As they enter, Harkesh keeps a count. The moment the number hits 50, he signals constables to stop the others. “The water body is spread over 4,000 sq ft and can accommodate many more. But to ensure social distancing, the administration has allowed only 50. The official limit for time inside the waterfall is 30 minutes but we stick to 20 minutes so that more people can enjoy,” Harkesh says.

SDM, Dhanaulti, Ravindra Juvantha says since 50 was the highest number of persons allowed at any public gathering during the Covid curfew, they decided to set the limit at 50 persons.

Deployed at the entry of Kempty Fall, S-I Puran Singh Kathait says, “We don’t ask people to go back once they have reached here from places such as Delhi, Punjab, Chandigarh and UP. Why disappoint them?” So he keeps an eye on those inside while reassuring the others that their turn will come.

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