“Seventy per cent of the market has been badly hit by the pandemic”, says Shahid Alam, sitting in his small shop. He has been in the sightseeing business since 2005, when Delhi used to be the hub of tourism and sightseeing agencies.
As the market winds down, small business owners like him had to start a side business to earn a living. Alam now has a small internet cafe which helps people to fill forms online, besides printing documents and photostats. “The whole sightseeing scene is now vanishing and no one seems interested”, he concludes.
Conducting a round trip of Delhi’s heritage sights was the main attraction offered by these agencies, along with trips to Agra, Ajmer and Jaipur from Delhi. People from different parts of the city used to ask these traditional agencies to organise package tours for them.
Hazrat Nizamuddin and Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid used to be hubs of this business. With the railway station and the Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya nearby, the business flourished on the outskirts of Nizamuddin.
However, the pandemic took a toll on these agencies, and even after the relaxation of travel guidelines, they have not recovered. “With back-to-back protests happening in Delhi and the constant changes in government rules, there is an atmosphere of fear. Due to this, tourists are reluctant to come to Delhi”, says Alam.
“Back in the day, tourists from Jammu used to come during the winter. Those tourists who mainly came to visit the Dargah also wished to do a heritage tour of Delhi. Also, Delhi-Agra one-day trips were famous in those days”, Alam recollects.
Even if tourists are still coming, they make their own plans, especially on weekends, he adds. Perhaps this is because the internet now puts out all the information a traveller might need.
Speaking about the out-of-Delhi trips, he says that before the pandemic struck, buses used to be stationed next to Nizamuddin or used to pick up tourists from there. Now, these buses are not allowed to park near Nizamuddin. Instead, the route starts from Old Delhi which somehow reduces the number of tourists.
On average, before the pandemic, Alam used to earn Rs 25,000-40,000 a month depending on the number of trips he arranged. In the current situation, his earnings are reduced to Rs 10,000 with which he has to manage the rent of the shop and his family’s expenses.
This is the condition of almost all the sightseeing agencies in Delhi. In the narrow lanes of Nizamuddin, one can see small shops with boards displaying images of heritage sights. In the inner lanes, there is a sightseeing agency, Khan Travel, which is slightly bigger than Alam’s setup.
Zaidan Khan has been in this business for around 15 years. To run the business, he too has started a common service center where Aadhar cards are made or online forms are filled. He also runs a ticket booking service. After the pandemic, his income is mostly generated from these small jobs.
Asked about the impact of online booking agencies, Khan says that the business isn’t affected by online portals. “We offer the cheapest sightseeing service at Rs 200 per person via bus, covering 5-8 sights. Tourists always want a person who knows about the timings of each place. This information is lacking on the websites”, he adds.
“If tourists take any other mode of transport, they won’t be able to cover as many places as we can”, claims Khan.
Moreover, these online portals also contract local agencies to run the whole trip because the agencies have more connectivity and know the tourist spots better than anyone. “There are times when people will get lost. In such cases, they need a point of contact who can guide them, which is only possible through us”, Khan explains.
“After Covid-19, we were in a very bad situation. Earlier, we used to handle 20 sightseeing trips within Delhi in a month and Delhi-Agra was another popular trip. People who visit the Dargah love to go on these trips”, he adds.
Khan further says that there were times when they used to have foreigners coming for sightseeing. Being the cheapest and most accessible, their agencies were famous among tourists.
The business has picked up now, but people outside of Delhi are not visiting. Those in Delhi will make weekend plans which keeps Khan’s agency busy for two days but idle during weekdays.
With the upcoming vacation season, the agency has also opened a ticket booking counter. It is mostly used by migrants travelling to their native places. According to him, there used to be 7-8 sightseeing agencies in the lane of his shop, which have now reduced to two. A lot of the shops were shut down after the pandemic. Some have started side gigs like cargo service along with online cafe facilities.
Another agent, who preferred anonymity, says that the biggest blow has been the advent of online portals. “Since the sightseeing market is dull, most of us have started tatkal ticketing business. In that too, the site only allows four tickets at a time”, he says.
No wonder, as local tourism is no longer attracting customers or generating adequate revenue, agency owners are trying to find other ways to make a living.
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