March 24, 2020 / 11:48 AM / 4 days ago

Food stalls to souvenir shops: India's coronavirus travel ban bites

NEW DELHI, March 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Anita Devi waited listlessly for her first customer of the day as the sun set on a normally bustling tourist shopping area in New Delhi, where a ban on foreign visitors has hit livelihoods.

As the country grinds to a halt to combat the coronavirus outbreak, vendors and owners of small businesses from food stalls and souvenir shops to beach shacks in Goa face the threat of an indefinite dry spell.

A wave of travel restrictions has been imposed worldwide to contain the spread of the deadly virus, which has infected hundreds of thousands of people globally.

India has suspended most visas into the country until mid-April and has banned passengers from Europe, Turkey and the United Kingdom - including its own citizens.

It has also shut down the Taj Mahal, along with dozens of other monuments, museums and religious sites..

“It’s been two weeks and I barely make 50 rupees a day. My children and I go to bed hungry on most nights,” said Devi, 48, who made about 500 rupees ($7) a day before the curbs, selling embroidered cushion covers on a pavement at a market.

“The coronavirus is going to kill me - directly or indirectly,” the mother-of-two said about the virus that has infected nearly 500 people and claimed nine lives in the country of 1.3 billion.

‘HEARTBREAK’

India gets about 10 million foreign tourists a year, who generated $28.5 billion in 2018 - 5% up on 2017, according to government data.

The industry supports more than 40 million jobs - or about 8% of India’s total workforce, according to India Brand Equity Foundation, a government body.

India is not alone in the crisis. Up to 1 million jobs are being lost every day in the tourism sector as more and more countries lock down, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

“It is heartbreaking that the livelihoods of millions of people ... are being decimated; from waiters to taxi drivers, guides to chefs and caterers, pilots to cleaners,” Gloria Guevara, WTTC President and CEO, said in a statement.

“(It) is plunging millions of families into terrible hardship and debt, fearful of how to buy food and pay their bills.”

The WTTC estimates about 30 million of the 50 million jobs that could be lost would be in Asia.

RELIEF MEASURES?

The hardship may not ease anytime soon as India announced late Sunday lockdowns in large parts of the country, including New Delhi.

In coastal states such as Kerala - a tourism hub dubbed “God’s own country” - whole communities like fishermen depend heavily on tourism, said Anish Kumar P.K., a state tourism adviser and CEO of The Travel Planners, a travel agency.

“The multiplier effect (in India) is very high compared to other Asian destinations,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, urging the government to take quick action to help the industry’s poor workers.

The federal government has not yet put in place any relief measures for such people. On Tuesday it said it will soon announce a fiscal package to help the economy face the impact of the coronavirus.

Uttar Pradesh state - the most populous and one of India’s poorest - became the first last week to pledge online payments for casual workers who lost their incomes to the coronavirus.

In the Indian capital, home to more than 20 million, the chief minister said he was doubling pensions and providing 7.2 million people with essential commodities including food.

For people like Rajesh Herawat, who sells the popular Indian street snack gol gappa at the India Gate war memorial in New Delhi and has a family of four to feed, a daily allowance would make all the difference.

“I’m uneducated. I have no means to work from home. I don’t have any savings or alternative plans,” said Herawat, 33, waving away flies as he waited for customers.

“The coronavirus has ruined my life.”

$1 = 75.1480 Indian rupees Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org

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