Envisaging SOPs and establishing well-laid-out mechanisms to ensure a seamless experience, safety and well-being of pilgrims arriving at the Holy Shrine were the central themes of the recently conducted webinar titled ‘Way forward for tourism & Shri Vaishno Devi Yatra- Post COVID-19.’

Industry experts and government functionaries discussed a slew of measures that are likely to instil much-needed confidence among devotees hoping to undertake the coveted trip to the Temple. Here are some excerpts from the insightful session:

The Shrine Board was already formulating SOPs for the resumption of the yatra once the lockdown was lifted, Ramesh Kumar (IAS), CEO, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, informed. He said regulating the movement, once public transport systems were operationalised, was a challenging proposition. The Board was, therefore, considering to undertake online registration of devotees, he said, adding that GPS-enabled systems were being actively under consideration to track pilgrims in real-time to ensure they adhered to social distancing measures while trekking to the Temple from Katra.

Among the suggestions received included Door-mounted thermal scanning installed at multiple places, including Tarakote, Bal Ganga and Ardhkuwari, among others, the CEO enumerated. The bed capacity at free dormitories was being reduced temporarily to implement social distancing measures, Ramesh Kumar said. He added that only family members, and not unrelated people, were going to be permitted to use the paid lodging to reduce the chances of the spread of the infection.

The seating capacities at bhojanalaya (food court) and langars were being reduced, and devotees were going to be given coupons with specific timeslots to manage the crowds better, were other suggestions being considered, he said. 

Outlining his most significant challenges, Ramesh Kumar said even resuming the yatra at the local level could attract a wide cross section of pilgrims with varying exposure to hygiene and cleanliness, who may be provide greater risk to the infection. The lack of clarity on whether animals could spread the disease was yet another challenge before pressing in the ponies for ferrying pilgrims, he added.

Parvez Dewan, Former Secretary (Tourism), Government of India, seconded the suggestion of a staggered and phase-wise commencement of the yatra. He recommended a shorter duration pass (Yatra Parchi), preferably for 30 minutes, at least, for the initial months to ensure efficient crowd management. He suggested maintaining a distance of three steps (stairs) between two pilgrims and enforcing the rule with no exception, even barring the pilgrim if the set guideline was flouted. He suggested resuming the yatra by limiting the influx of tourists from the neighbouring states of Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, drawing parallels with Italy’s and Spain’s modus operandi on resuming tourism-related activities.

The top three source states for Mata Vaishno Devi Temple, namely Gujarat, Maharashtra and Delhi, were the most affected by the Corona crisis, he said, pointing the irony. He also advised the members of the Shrine Board to take legal recourse, if needed, to underline the necessity of such a discriminatory measure, citing the European practice.

He recommended using different routes for incoming and outgoing pilgrims to ensure there was no possibility of the spread of the infection. Much akin to airlines placing plexiglass between seats, the insides of the holy cave also needed to be covered with plexiglass from three sides, he said, adding that this innovation was necessary for all major religious centres across the country. “The Shrine board should consider installing door-framed thermal temperature monitors to safeguard staff,” he added.

Mata Vaishno Devi Temple had the most significant “pull factor” for tourists in the region, especially in these times, believed KB Kachru, Member, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board and Chairman Emeritus and Principal Advisor – South Asia, Radisson Hotel Group. A vast number of Indian outbound travellers, numbering well over 26 million, were a potential source market, and needed to be tapped into, he believed. The industry needed to first survive the precarious situation, before making elaborate plans, and undertake the most easily achievable action plan first, he insisted. He quoted Jack Ma, the co-founder and former executive chairman of Alibaba Group, to say that “it would be a profitable year if you survived 2020.”

He stressed on maintaining a “basis commitment to hygiene and safety protocols,” suggesting the involvement of external parties for audits and taking firm decisions. He argued that innovation was going to be an essential element in planning for the future and shared how the industry could link their systems to the Aarogya Setu app or use health conditioners over air conditioners, among others. He also advised expanding the destination base, popularising hitherto undiscovered destinations. Underlining his “firm commitment to the state of Jammu and Kashmir,” he detailed that the Radisson Group had signed seven hotels, and already had four operational hotels in the state.

Navin Berry, Chief Editor, Destination India magazine, and founder of SATTE, emphasised that SOPs were to bring clarity on the pecking or preference order in which the devotees were to be allowed at the Temple. That these measures instilled a sense of confidence among pilgrims, SOPs needed to be granular and designed meticulously, he suggested. He believed that SOPs were not just to ensure the safety of tourists at the site, but to ensure that the entire ecosystem, which with a pilgrim was to interact was safe and trustworthy. “Aarogya Setu needs to be put onto every Pitthu,” he said, adding that it was a tremendous opportunity to digitise the entire yatra, making it contact-free and imbibing the parchi into a smartcard.  He said there was adequate resource and technical know-how within the Indian tourism industry ecosystem to enable such a transition with ease. 

Taking a more longer-term view of tourism at Mata Vaishno Devi Temple, he underlined the importance of creating a seamless tourism experience. He suggested utilising this crisis to create the desired infrastructure and systems to provide a world-class experience for visitors. He advised undertaking external audits at brief intervals to appraise the Shrine Board of shortcomings in augmenting the overall quality of the tourism product. “The process of rejuvenating the tourism product and enhancing the experience of the yatra will have to be an ongoing process,” he asserted. Increasing length of stay into the future was worth consideration at this juncture. He suggested a mega theme park around Katra, creating nature walks, and even tented accommodation as soft adventure around the complex. Creating infrastructure across price points, and inviting more branded accommodation could be worth pursuing at Katra, and also the yatra.

That tourism was the mainstay of the local economy was stating the obvious. However, Rakesh Wazir, President, Hotel and Restaurant Association of Katra, shared as much as 5,00,000 locals in and around Katra, were employed in the sector. The lockdown and consequent closure of businesses and footfalls had already resulted in a daily loss of INR 10-12 crores, which amounted to INR 700 crores in the past two months. The losses were not only limited to the local region but had also impacted businesses at several destinations in proximity, which were usually part of the tourist itinerary.

He emphasised the magnitude of footfalls at the Holy Shrine, sharing that 10 million pilgrims visited it annually, which, he said, far exceeded the total population of several countries.

He was the soul of the webinar, as it was around him that most of the discussions took place. It was his knowledge of the tourism and hospitality industry, as well his direct connect with every speaker, that brought greater insights into the subject under discussion.  

Pradeep Multani, Vice President, PHDCCI, expressed concern about the evolving situation and suggested living in a new ‘normal,’ “dominated by social distancing, safety and hygiene issues.” That the wealthiest temple in the world – Shri Tirupati Balaji – had to retrench employees, indicated the gravity of the problem facing the industry and allied stakeholders, he said.

Stakeholders needed to moot SOPs urgently, factoring in the COVID-19 related guidelines, to steadily begin the yatra. He advocated for advanced procurement of safety equipment, besides issuing of passes, to “effectively regulate” the footfalls at the Holy Shrine. Foreseeing challenges and devising effective strategies were critical to ensuring the continuity of tourism at Mata Vaishno Devi and elsewhere, he believed.

Much like AIDS and Cancer, the battle with Corona was going to be an ongoing affair and, therefore, restarting economic activities without compromising on safety was non-negotiable, noted Anil Khaitan, Former President, PHDCCI. He warned that any further delay in kickstarting businesses was going to have devasting consequences for the country.

He batted for instilling confidence among people about their safety and well-being to give impetus to travel to Vaishno Devi and asked the law enforcement and Shrine staff to lead the way in creating a favourable impression. He commended Katra’s cumulative infrastructure in world-class railway station and super-speciality hospital and suggested converting some of the hotels into quarantine centres, on a chargeable basis, to bring in some liquidity to tide over the crisis. He wondered whether the resumption could be initiated in a phase-wise manner, commencing with 25 per cent of the total capacity, and increasing the footfall gradually. He also noted that SOPs were not going to be limited to the Shrine, but hotels and their kitchens also needed to incorporate them to ensure visitors were looked after well.

Faith did not believe in reason, and, therefore, a judicious infusion of practical measures was essential to guarantee the safety of pilgrims, said Ajay K. Bakaya, Managing Director, Sarovar Hotels and Resorts. The entire spectrum of services involved in the yatra needed to communicate the requisite measures, whether hotels, trains, shops, or others, he explained.

He referred to the suggestion made by other panellists around capping the visitor count, arguing that the intricacies of the decision on whom to permit and whom not to, and the decision-making process, needed to be conveyed to the populace. He noted that the Shrine Board could divert some resources to create an app with real-time information on all such details to keep people well-informed on the developments. Educating the people was equally critical as capping the numbers, he argued.

Bakaya also suggested maintaining a balance between saving lives and livelihoods, with the former taking precedence, at least, for the next six months. “If we can follow this, we have a good chance of surviving this disruption,” he said. He further noted that a foot-operated hand-sanitising machine was a cheaper, safer and practical equipment, and could be installed on the premises.

Online registration of pilgrims, only from the green zones of the country, through the Mata Vaishno Devi website, could be a viable solution for the near-term, Sujit Kumar, IPS, I/C DIG, Udhampur Reasi Range, Jammu and Kashmir, said. He recommended obtaining complete address details and travel history of pilgrims to enable the law enforcement to trace suspect cases efficiently. He said that a more effective mechanism to create a database of all those employed with hotels was necessary to monitor any untoward health-related development. He also suggested conducting a drill before the actual commencement of the yatra, to better prepare the administration and others involved in the process to manage crowds safely. Sujit Kumar assured the industry of his unequivocal support in any initiative.

The Board was considering installing a bio-tunnel, at the commencement of the yatra, for sanitising and was consulting diverse stakeholders to ascertain its utility. A face cover, in the form of a mask, gamcha, or handkerchief, was also being made mandatory for devotees, besides having the Aarogya Setu app.

It was a pro-active discussion that made important suggestions on reviving the local economy, built over decades around the power and pull of the ‘yatra.’ The CEO assured the participants that these considerations would be actively debated upon, among the Shrine Board senior management, and a comprehensive package built around a workable and efficient SOP would be soon shared in the public domain.

Participants at the webinar included, Ramesh Kumar, CEO, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board; Parvez Dewan, Former Secretary (Tourism), Government of India; KB Kachru, Member, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board and Chairman Emeritus and Principal Advisor – South Asia, Radisson Hotel Group; Navin Berry, Chief Editor, Destination India magazine, and founder of SATTE; Rakesh Wazir, President, Hotel and Restaurant Association of Katra; Pradeep Multani, Vice President, PHDCCI; Anil Multani, Vice President, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board; Sujit Kumar, IPS, I/C DIG Udhampur Reasi Range, Jammu and Kashmir; Ajay K. Bakaya, Managing Director, Sarovar Hotels and Resorts; Girish Oberoi, Former President, Hotel and Restaurant Association of Katra; Shyam Lal Kesar, Chairman, Hotel and Restaurant Association of Katra; Mushtaq Chaya, Mentor, PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Kashmir Chapter; Vikrant Kuthiala, Former Chairman, PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Jammu Region); Rahul Sahai, Co-Chairman, PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Jammu Region); Baldev Rana, PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kashmir); Kushal Magotra, Hotel and Restaurant Association, Patnitop; Rakesh Sharma, President, Press Club of Katra; and Vikram Gupta, Managing Partner, Skyline Hotels, among others.