The Revenge Tourist
The pandemic has created a new phenomenon called "revenge" tourism and I, it turns out, am one of its purveyors. Simply put, revenge tourism is the urge to travel after being cooped up in lockdown.
In the case of my state, Karnataka, the lockdown was prolonged and painful, thanks to the general incompetence of the people in the government who failed to take any initial action to contain a second wave of infections. But that is another story.
My intention to get out not so much motivated by thoughts of avenging myself on the idea of Covid-19 containment, but to get badly take a vacation after 16 months of having covered the pandemic for the paper, and having suffered infection at one point. The destination was Hampi, a Unesco world heritage site, partly forgotten by legions of people living in the southern subcontinent.
I realize upon arriving how little I know about Hampi, but the marvel of discovery is almost better than sex. I can imagine the euphoria of the Scotsman, Colonel Colin Mackenzie, who rediscovered the ruins of this fallen kingdom in 1799.
But for all the talk of “revenge tourism” the monuments wear a quasi-deserted look as tourists have largely chosen to stay away. A government official tells me the reasons: the absence of thousands of international and domestic travelers because of fears of Covid-19, and those can travel choosing“rain tourism” destinations such as waterfalls or beachfronts. “Frankly, there are not many takers for the monuments,” he says.
According to data from the Tourism Department, the monuments attracted 3.3 million visitors during the 2018-2019 fiscal year, averaging about 280,000 visitors per month (although the peak tourism season is from November to March). The onset of Covid-19 began to reduce visitation numbers.
In the 2019-20 fiscal year, 2.23 million visitors were logged, equating to an average of 186,000 visitors per month. About 50,492 visitors in total that year were international visitors, who are the largest drivers of revenue for the tourism trade. By the 2020-21 fiscal year, the number of annual visitors had declined to 1.13 million tourists, or about 94,000 visitors per month. About 18,167 were foreigners.
There were no visits in May at all as the state’s Covid-19 second wave reached its zenith and in June, only 1,531 domestic travelers were logged at the monuments and no internationals showed up.
If we are speaking frankly, I didn't mind. Tolerating crowds are not my forte. But what to make about the destitute tour guides who are losing their livelihoods?
K Basappa, the Vice President of the Hampi Tour Guides Association, says that the plight of the 150-odd registered tour guides in the area has become terrible. “All of our guides had access to steady work before the pandemic, just four or five of our people get guiding jobs now - and that too, only on weekends,” he says.
“Many of us have been forced to take up work as de-silters of river beds, weed pullers and other assorted laborings on government properties in the area. We have no option,” he added.
A boy of about nine comes up to me and asks if I want to buy sugarcane soda. I am not a fan of sugarcane juice and decline. He looks shattered. "We haven't had any sales all day," he says, looking at his father, a surly, short man who is resentful that his son, too, is unable to draw customers.
It quickly becomes clear that tourism here has been hobbled by the near-total absence of international tourists, who are charged higher rates of entry than Indians, and who are less spend-thrifts. I am badgered by tourism department staff who mistake me for an international traveler. There is a palpable sense of disappointment when I produce my local ID.
At the sprawling Vittala temple complex, now no longer hallowed ground, an irate security chases after a troop of langur monkeys. "They have become accustomed to tourists feeding them cookies and such. It's become a real pain to handle them," he says with a pained expression. There is a sort of melancholia in the air that I cannot explain. It is as if the people here cannot understand why they have been forgotten by the outside world, and why a place once teeming, ant-like with visitors is now bereft.
At restaurants and hotels set up to cater to tens of thousands, many rooms are empty, and their staff laid off. The Vice President of the Hampi Hotel Association, says that visitors have only been observed in numbers on Fridays and Saturdays, leaving the rest of the week as a washout.
“Our financial situations are uniformly bad. Of my own two-acre resort in Kamalapura, I am four months in arrears in my rent,” he says.
As dusk comes, I cannot find one of the many hill-top vistas once sees on Instagram on the web showing the stunning sight of orange sunset bathing the ruined valley. Instead, I wait by a large lake nearby. Two youths and apparently professional fishermen can be seen hard at work. I watch as they row a roundboat across the lake, laying their fishing line. I will run into them, in a serendipitous manner, 25 miles away on the next morning. "Our haul was respectable. Now, we will relax for the rest of the day until the evening comes and when the lake again beckons," they say. They sell their lake fish to the local market for a price of Rs 90 ($1.21) per kg, where it is eventually resold at Rs 200 ($2.68) per kg.
They may be poor but they appear to be happy. One of the fishermen tells me he is studying for a Bachelors in Commerce, which, in the end, may not count for much.
By when leave the place 24 hours later, I feel a pang of loss. I think that maybe I should buy land here and build a house. But then again, I wouldn't want to drown the mystery of this landscape the banality of everyday experience.