In early December, after a lull of nine months, tourist spots in the Nilgiris in southern India finally opened their doors to tourists. The Nilgiris literally translates to “blue hills.” This picturesque region has three main towns — Coonoor, Ooty or Ootacamund and Kotagiri.
With its quaint colonial charm, abundant flora and fauna and stunning landscapes, the Nilgiris is one of India’s most popular tourist destinations. The climate and picture-perfect surroundings made it the ideal place for the British to set up townships there in the early 19th century. Tourists today enjoy lush tea gardens, gorgeous lakes dotting the hills, stately colonial buildings and an insight into the lives of local tribes who have carefully preserved their heritage.
The wildlife ecosystem is one of the most fascinating in the world, with over 1000 species of animals, birds and insects. Endangered species like the Bengal tiger, Nilgiri Tahr and the lion-tailed macaque abound here. It isn’t unusual to come across a deer on your morning stroll, or encounter a herd of wild bison along the side of the road while on a drive!
Popular places to visit in the Nilgiris include the Botanical Garden and Rose Garden in Ooty, along with the lake and boathouse, the Pykara River, the Tribal Museum and the famed Glenmorgan tea estate.
Sim’s Park, Lamb’s Rock and Dolphin’s Nose in Coonoor are other attractions that are popular with tourists. A scenic ride on the Nilgiris Mountain Railway Line, which is a meter-gauge line that’s over 100 years old, and currently the only rack railway (with a toothed rail, which engages with a cogwheel, for very steep slopes) in India is a must-visit.
Tourism was at a standstill due to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Now that it has opened its doors to tourists once again, the government and tourism department’s focus is to ensure an enriching experience, without compromising on safety and security.
Usually, the Nilgiris receives around 4 million tourists annually, with the maximum number of footfall in April, May and June. This year, the peak season was dismal.
“We have 14 check posts leading into the district,” said J Innocent Divya, District Collector (a top government official) of the Nilgiris.
“There is an e-pass system we follow, where every person coming into the district requires e-registration. We know where they’re traveling from, how many days they’re staying and when they’re returning. That gives us a sort of heads up.”
“Random Covid-19 tests are also being done at the check post. If a person tests positive, then we know where he or she resides and all protocols will be followed to sanitize the entire place. The wearing of masks at all tourist places is strictly enforced, and those who don’t adhere are fined INR 200 (USD 2.7).”
“Even though the month of December has seen a significant increase in tourist arrival, there has been no spike in the cases, which is a positive sign that our standard operating procedures (SOPs) are in place,” said Divya. “Surprise teams inspect cottages to ensure that everything is in order. Except for the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, located on the northwestern side of the Nilgiri Hills, all the eco-development locations and tourist spots are open.”
The Nilgiris boasts heritage properties like the Savoy, set in a series of 19th century cottages with sprawling lawns, as well as the WelcomHeritage Fernhills Royal Palace, the erstwhile summer palace of the Maharaja of Mysore.
“After a lull, December was a good month, thanks to the Christmas and New Year holidays. Restaurants and hotels are following all the standard operating procedures (SOPs) of the government since we have to keep tourists safe,” said N Chandrashekar, secretary of the Nilgiris Hotels and Restaurants Association (NHRA).
“Ninety percent of the hotels and restaurants are not doing well, despite the fact that most of them have reduced their tariff. The crowd on weekdays is sparse, while weekends are busier. Weekdays have around 20 percent occupancy, while weekends rack up 70 – 80 percent. ”
“We hope that things will improve once people start getting vaccinated. The good thing is that the overall cases are coming down. We now report only around 20 or 25 a day, with not many tourists getting infected. Of course, with the recent UK strain entering the country, everyone is more careful.”
“Businesses had to pay wages and property taxes for over six months even when there was no business,” said Chandrashekar. “For those who had liabilities of loans, there were severe losses, and they will take two to three years to recover. Hopefully, the government will offer some support.”
However, Divya says that schemes that have been announced for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) are open to the tourism sector as well. The Emergency Credit Line Guarantee Scheme provides 100 percent guarantee coverage to banks and NBFIs, enabling them to provide emergency credit facilities to eligible borrowers to meet working capital requirements. Many people from the district have benefited from this.
While a lot of people are ready and raring to go, certain players from the tourism sector have decided to wait before they open up to the public. Briar Tea Bungalows that offers cottages in the heart of a tea plantation, have made the tough choice to remain shut.
“The tourism we offer is experiential, with the old-world charm of tea plantations,” said Lakshmi Bose, Director.“Guests go freely into the fields with the plantation workers, and also do tea tastings. So all of this is challenging given the pandemic. We don’t know with whom guests have interacted with before checking in, irrespective of how careful they’ve been. Nor can we contact trace each person.”
“Also, each of these cottages are spread over acres, so it’s not very practical to ensure sanitizing. From a health perspective, it could be a hazard for guests as well as for employees of the plantation. So in the best interests of both, we’ve decided to not start operations till things go back to normal.”
For those who have opened their businesses, life hasn’t been a cakewalk. Souvenir retail has also taken a beating, according to Noel T Francis, who runs Vans Premium Mart, a one-stop-shop on the MTP Ooty Road for honey, tea and other local offerings.
“There were plenty of challenges due to the travel restrictions during the lockdown earlier in the year. Procuring stock from the source — like tea from tea factories in the Nilgiris — became costlier, and delivering on time to customers was also challenging.”
“However, there has been some demand for certain items like pure honey, organic Nilgiri oil and green tea.”
(Edited by Anindita Ghosh and Uttaran Dasgupta)