COVID-19 and India:
When Coronavirus reached India in spring, many of us assumed things would be normal in a few months. In reality, things shifted slowly and steadily in favour of the virus since the last 4 months. From a few daily cases in mid March, now at ~ 30000/day and nearly reaching a total of million cases by mid July. Indeed it is a very positive sign that our recovery rate has improved steadily for some time now. At the same time total active cases present at a time are also increasing.
It is certainly not favourable for travelling to the Himalayas at present or in the next couple of months for sure. Everyone is desperately hoping that life will be “normal” soon! Also there is a livelihood need for unlocking the tourism sector as a whole. However, as of now, things are far from normal.
Tourism as of now in Himalayan states
Here are the current updates as of mid-July from the respective state authorities.
Sikkim: Order issued in April that state will remain closed for the tourists till October.
Darjeeling: Closed until July or any further notice.
Uttarakhand: Tourism reopened with major restrictions and mandatory conditions like a mandatory COVID-19 negative test result and booking of a hotel for 7 days and so on. Only local state residents may visit Chardham in a limited capacity.
Himachal Pradesh: Similar like Uttarakhand. However as per the demand of the local people the hotel association of Kullu, Manali and Shimla decided to remain closed till September.
Kashmir: From 14th July Kashmir will allow tourists in a phased manner. On arrival a tourist has to go compulsory RT-PCR test. Till the test result shows a negative result for Covid-19, a tourist will remain in the hotel where the booking has been made and shall not be allowed to move out.
From the above facts we can safely assume that travelling will be uncertain and difficult till September. Now lets see how tourism may start slowly from October onward.
Our perception of risk and ability to exist with Coronavirus:
A vaccine may not come until 2021. Also there is no definitive medication or a cure at present. Experts are modelling to find the peak of the curve. Some predict mid of August, and some not until September.
Considering our demographics and population density, the virus is still somewhat contained in India. Rural India is not infected, or to a very little. There is a chance that we can flatten the curve by end of monsoon, assuming virus doesn’t spread in the new areas. But virus is not going to go away soon!
It is a fact that Himalayan populace is not affected by Coronavirus yet. Be it Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh or Leh Ladakh, there is no local transmission. It is a must to remain so, and we need to do whatever it takes from our side. We all know how poor the health care facilities are especially in these remote mountainous areas. Additionally locals are apprehensive of tourists due to the fear of the virus at present. Rightly the authorities are cautious to reopen tourism again very soon.
It will greatly depend on our perceived risks and individual assessments while going back to Himalayas again. Certainly there will be fear in us but we can mitigate the risks to a great deal, if we follow certain rules and protocols.
How we can make a trek safe during COVID?
Camping and hiking is probably the safest of travelling at present. Ample chance of social distancing and limited contacts are key to this cause. No wonder that worldwide, people are evermore keen on this type of holidays.
However, only mentioning its safe doesn’t help much. Everyone is talking about “New Normals”. We think safety is not a priority anymore but prerequisite at this time. Following are some measures which are very important while trekking will reopen in Himalayas. Also note that nothing is full and final yet, and we will continuously monitor the situations and revise the protocols if needed.
1. Group size and composition: We wish to start with small closely knit trekking groups up to 5/6 persons. Maybe family members or friends who are well aware about their health conditions before travelling. This will make yourself as well as local trekking staff more confident while on the trail.
Heterogeneous larger groups as in Fixed Departures may not work good in this condition. Probably group departures won’t start until winters in our opinion.
2. Flexibility to travel and customisation: We understand that people will be tentative to travel in coming days due to uncertainties or any last moment showstopper. Hence we will need more flexibility in terms of travel dates from planning to actual travel. Anything rigid during plan will not help. We will closely work with our local staff and you that you get very latest information and then finally commit to travel.
Every group composition is different and we will focus group to group for specific needs. This can be starting from customising your group to adding additional safety as you ask for during your tour.
3. Medical certificate: Every trekker must obtain a certificate from the doctor that they are not having any symptoms of COVID. One has to get such a certificate shortly before they travel, within 72 hours of travel. Carrying a COVID negative certificate will be very useful which authorities may enforce for the time being.
4. Travel and COVID insured tours: Our treks are already travel insured since 2017. We are talking with insurance providers to integrate a COVID medical insurance on top of it. This will be both for trekkers and our staff.
5. Travelling to trek base and return to home: Perhaps one has the least control on this matter. However airport and railways authorities have put Standard Operating Procedures to make travel safe. Do follow the rules which are in place. After all, no travel is completely risk free.
We will arrange car pick to trek base and drop for a maximum of 6 people in one vehicle.We will send known drivers without any COVID symptom and he will measure your body temperature before the journey.
6. Hygiene measures: We will strictly follow usual hygiene measures including usage of hand sanitisers. We will ensure that you get a sleeping bag or utensils which you will only use throughout.
7. Possible distancing during the trek: Very limited number of trekkers will automatically reduce the risk to a considerable extent. One top of that we will provide personal tent for all individual trekkers.
This is what we can think at present. As mentioned earlier, we will reevaluate these protocols time to time and modify as the situation arises. Same time we are highly interested to know your opinion and love to incorporate anything which can make your travel safer. Please feel free to comment and discuss.
Stay safe and healthy,