India fears Himalayan tourism could spark new Covid surge

Indian authorities fear a rush of tourists to Himalayan mountain towns risks fuelling new Covid-19 outbreaks as they warned of a potential summer resurgence of the virus.

Indians have flocked to popular mountain retreats such as Shimla, Manali and Mussoorie in recent weeks to escape the searing summer heat and make the most of a recent decline in the country’s coronavirus caseload, following a devastating second wave of the virus this year.

Much of the country, including tourism-dependent mountain states, are reopening and local authorities have encouraged domestic travel in the hope of limiting the severe economic blow of extended lockdowns.

But officials, who have warned that India could face a third wave in the coming months, said crowds of tourists could endanger that hard-won reprieve as parts of the country continued to battle high Covid positivity rates and increasing transmission.

India’s home ministry raised the alarm on Saturday about “blatant disregard of Covid-appropriate behaviour in hill stations and other tourist locations”. VK Paul, the head of India’s Covid-19 task force, said on Friday that there was “a new risk emerging” from the flurry of tourist activity.

At height of the second wave in May, India recorded more than 400,000 infections and 4,000 deaths a day — both figures believed to be vast undercounts — in a brutal surge that overwhelmed health systems.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which faced fierce criticism for complacency and for failing to avert the onslaught, has sought to assure the public that it is preparing for the potential of a resurgence in cases.

While the official daily case tally has fallen to about 40,000, parts of India are battling renewed transmission. Maharashtra, India’s richest state and home to the financial capital Mumbai, has reimposed some lockdown measures while the southern state of Kerala has registered a rising number of cases.

The home ministry said the rate of positive tests in parts of states including West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh — all of which are home to popular mountain retreats — have exceeded its threshold of 10 per cent.

Images of maskless crowds thronging scenic spots and congested mountain roads have prompted dismay. Police said they had turned back 2,000 cars en route to Mussoorie, a tourist destination in Uttarakhand, according to local newspaper the Hindustan Times.

India’s tourism industry is nearing disaster, however, with international tourists in effect barred from the country since the start of the pandemic.

The government announced several relief measures last month, including guaranteed loans to tourist guides and businesses, many of whom are facing financial ruin.

Experts said the dangers of a third wave were being exacerbated by the sluggish pace of vaccinations, with India continuing to face a shortage of jabs with which to inoculate its population.

Since hitting a single-day vaccination record of 8.6m in late June, the number of doses administered daily has fallen below 4m.

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