These are uncharted times for the tourism and hotel industries and most states are struggling to devise a road map for their recovery. Himachal, however, appears to have gone into a panic and has been pressing all the wrong buttons so far, further confounding an already confusing situation.

At the beginning of the month the Chief Minister announced that the state would promote "Quarantine tourism" in a big way to leverage its pollution free environment. The near unanimous howls of protests, mainly from the citizens and hoteliers of Himachal itself, quickly put paid to that idea. Then, with Unlock I coming into effect, new rules for opening hotels were announced. They stipulated that hotels could host only business travellers, govt officials on duty and local residents; no tourists from outside.

Strangely, it did not occur to the government that with businesses closed there would be few corporate clients, that govt officials stayed in govt rest houses, and that locals were unlikely to frequent hotels because they had their own houses, thank you. There was, obviously, little point in opening hotels on these conditions.The howling resumed and the rules were again modified.

But it is a fundamental rule of administration that bad ideas come in batches, and the fresh guidelines would have done MAD magazine proud. On the 4th of June it was decreed that tourists could stay in hotels but they could not go site seeing, shopping or stroll outside; if they did either or both the hotelier and the tourist would be prosecuted. It would be the hotel's responsibility to screen them medically and disallow people with fever, cough and cold, kidney and lung conditions. All guests would be served "kadha" twice a day and the hotel's menu would be drawn up by the Health Department.

This time, tired of howling, the various hotel associations announced that they had had enough, and decided they would not open their properties till August. They stated that since the season was already over there was no point in opening up now; I suspect they were just being polite and had offered the government two more months to get rid of the cobwebs in its collective brain, probably because the said organ had not been used during the long lock down.

Tourism is vital for Himachal, providing 10% of its GDP and employment to 400000 people, and therefore merits a well thought out strategy to revive it in the midst of the pandemic, because the post pandemic period may be more than a year away and waiting till then is not an option.

But the state is not seizing the unique opportunity which the pandemic has presented it on a petri-dish.

Whenever internal tourism resumes, people would be wary of going to urban settings and congested tourist hot spots; there are not going to be any international tourists for the next two years at least . Indians too are not likely to go vacationing abroad, except perhaps for the likes of Mallya and Choksi.

Our tourism would be driven by domestic tourists and the expected decline in the number of domestic tourists ( 1600 million in 2018) would be partly offset by those who used to go abroad . The numbers will be there, and Himachal, with its cool climate, green cover and relatively uncongested landscape would be just what the tourist would be seeking after months of lockdowns, restrictions and the fear of infection.

But the government has to think sensibly, start planning for it right away and launch an aggressive publicity campaign nationally. It has till September at least to do so and should therefore avoid hasty, ill advised, knee jerk strokes of genius.

In my view, with COVID infections yet to peak and likely to continue well into the next year, the government should not open up the whole state at one go for tourism and hotels. It needs to come up with a graded plan with a time horizon of six to ten months and reintroduce tourism in a calibrated manner.

Secondly, this is a once in a life time opportunity for the state to clean up its tourism infrastructure mess, bring the thousands of unlicensed units under a regulatory regime, enhance significantly its tourism revenues and reduce the overcrowding in its clogged up towns and cities. This is what I would suggest:

[1] In Phase 1 only hotels, home stays and adventure sport units ( trekking, river rafting, para gliding, snow boarding, angling) located outside urban centers ( Municipal Corporations, Municipal Committees, Notified Area Committees) should be allowed to open. Smaller conurbations and rural areas are much safer from the Covid infection:it has been established that open areas are less likely to spread the contagion. Opening up the towns and cities where the potential for infection is higher would be inviting disaster. In 2018 Himachal received 18 million tourists; if even 25% of that come this year, it would still be a lot- 4.50 million- and cities like Shimla, Manali and Dharamsala would again be overrun with these hordes. It would not be possible to test such large numbers at the borders ( nor should this be done for then nobody will want to come) and could therefore lead to another wave of cases.

[2] Both supply side and demand side factors favour rural tourism as the initial thrust area. Potential tourists would prefer to go to areas which are open, uncluttered, with low population density and provide nature based activities. This has been the international experience also so far in countries which have begun to open up. From the supply side, smaller units with low overheads and loans would find it easier to restart operations; this is especially true of home stays and B+B units, most of which are family run and offer upto five rooms. Their reopening would revive rural livelihoods on a large scale.

[3] Only registered hotels and home stays should be allowed to take in guests. According to the Tourism Deptt figures the state has 3679 registered hotels and 2189 approved home stays; but at least a similar number in both categories are running illegally. ( My own village, Puranikoti near Mashobra, has a number of the latter!). Since all hospitality units would have to follow a strict health, hygiene and record keeping protocol now for the foreseeable future, the Deptt. can no longer afford to have units below its radar. All unregistered units should be given a one month period to register themselves. The Directorate should upload the details of all registered units on its website. Tourists should be advised, and warned, to make bookings only in units listed on the website. In fact, the Tourism Deptt. could also consider whether it should be made mandatory to have a prior booking before being allowed to enter the state. ( This last aspect would have to be weighed against the visitors' convenience).

The corollary advantage of ensuring registration for all hotels/ homestays would be an updating of the Deptt's records, flushing out of the illegal units, and a considerable increase in the govt's revenues from taxes and levies which they were hitherto not paying. It will also result in better regulation and a better experience for the tourists.

[3] The hotels and home stays in urban areas could be allowed to open up in the second phase, only when the infection rate ( both nationally and in the state) has shown a decline for at least a fortnight and the absolute numbers have also come down significantly. As with the rural hotels/ home stays, only registered units should be given the benefit of Unlock 1 or 2 and their data uploaded on the Tourism Deptt website. It is to be expected that the hotel associations would not take kindly to this, but this is a time to display resolute leadership not populism, to prioritize scientific data and sound planning over votes. There would perhaps no need to insist on prior booking now since the pandemic would already be on the decline.

[4] In the third, long term phase, the state should review its entire tourism policy to align it with the carrying capacity of various destinations, especially its main cities. The thrust should be to move away from urban tourism to rural, nature based tourism and eco tourism. Sub standard and illegal units in urban areas should be closed down, home stays which are operating in urban locations in violation of the policy should be penalised, no new hotel licenses should be issued for cities like Shimla, Manali, Kullu, Dharamshala, Palampur, Solan etc which have far exceeded their carrying capacity, new policies should be formulated for the rural destinations like the idyllic valleys of Tirthan, Parbati, Sangla and places like Chitkul, Barot, Jalori, Prashar, Triund, Holi, Narkanda, Mashobra etc. to prevent them from going the way of the other cities. Because if these places are destroyed then Himachal would have lost its crown jewels. As I said earlier this is a good time to clean up; the govt. now has the time, the authority and the justification to do so and it must not miss the bus now.

A calibrated opening up is what tourism in Himachal needs for it to be sustainable in both the short and long terms. There will be some opposition to a partial and staggered opening up, but our leaders must realise that there is a time to follow, and a time to lead. To make haste slowly.

It is relevant here to remember the parable of Noah. When the Great Flood subsided after 40 days, Noah did not rush out in glee because he still did not know whether there was any land left out there. He sent out a bird, and it was only after the third bird did not return that Noah knew it was now time to step out!

Himachal should wait for that third bird before abandoning ship.