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‘A very tough time’: Tour guides, travel agents in India suffer from country’s tensions with Canada

Yajur Chauhan glanced around the historic 16th-century Mughal monument, Humayun’s Tomb, in east Delhi one weekday morning and couldn’t help but sigh in despair.

Normally he would be explaining the significance of the landmark to a group of Canadian tourists, but he was alone, just as India’s peak tourist season began.

“All my tours are being cancelled. No one is coming because of visa issues,” said the tour manager who has been in the business for more than 25 years. “I am helpless.

“I’m really shocked, I don’t know what to do,” he added, stating that his savings had already been depleted due to the two years lost after the COVID-19 pandemic hit India and the rest of the world, forcing to closures and decimating the tourism industry.

Chauhan, 52, is not the only tour guide experiencing a dramatic loss of income after diplomatic tensions between Canada and India escalated into a full-blown conflict, and one of the retaliatory measures included India stopping visa processing for Canadian citizens.

A woman walks towards the tomb of Mughal Emperor Humayun, one of the main tourist attractions in New Delhi, India.
Mughal Emperor Humayun’s tomb, a major tourist attraction in New Delhi, is receiving fewer Canadian tourists after India suspended visa services for Canadian citizens. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

The move followed a public statement by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that he had credible allegations linking Indian agents to the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Khalistani Sikh activist and Canadian citizen who was shot dead outside a gurdwara. in Surrey, British Columbia, in June.

A sense of “unease” about what new measures could be taken if tensions worsen, as Chauhan described to CBC News, has spread across India’s tourism industry, particularly as this pause hits the start of the peak season. India’s tourist season, which runs from October to March, when the weather is cooler throughout the country.

“We are going through a very difficult time,” said Chandar Bhan, 38. This professional driver primarily serves tourists from Canada and, during an average peak season, drives up to 15 tours filled with Canadians.

“Normally I would have made four or five trips by now, but it’s October and I haven’t even made a trip so far,” he said.

Chandar Bhan, 38, is a professional driver in Delhi, India.
Chandar Bhan, 38, a Delhi-based driver who transports mainly Canadian tourists, said he has lost his main source of income just as the peak tourism season begins. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“There is no other job.”

Canada is among the top five countries sending tourists to India, with more than 277,000 Canadians visiting the country in 2022, an increase from the pandemic-influenced figure of 80,000 in 2021, according to the Indian Ministry of Tourism. India.

“It was devastating”

For those who specialize in travel from Canadian cities to India’s tourist hotspots, the days following the Indian visa announcement were particularly stressful.

“It was devastating. Our phone started ringing and people were scared,” said Nazir Karnai, president of Explore India Journeys, a Vancouver-based travel agency.

A woman visits the tomb grounds of 16th century Mughal Emperor Humayun in New Delhi on October 9, 2023.
Many who work in India’s tourism industry are worried that their income will further dry up if the diplomatic row between Canada and India worsens. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“It was really difficult to explain what the next steps would be because we had no idea how to respond,” Karnai said during an interview in New Delhi, where he had traveled to help with the travel of Canadians who had visas issued before the pause in processing took place. effect.

According to Karnai, his company had more than 500 people booked to travel to India between October and March, but only 10 percent of them had a visa in hand.

Most of the travel agency’s Canadian clients are retired and looking to cross a travel destination off their bucket list.

“They have saved every penny their entire lives to fulfill their dream of seeing the Taj Mahal, and now their dreams have been shattered because they cannot get a visa,” Karnai said, adding that some “have paid tens of thousands of dollars.” . Non refundable.”

A couple takes a selfie in front of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India.
A couple takes a selfie in front of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. The temple and the Taj Mahal are among the historic sites that many Canadian tourists book to visit, according to travel agents. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

The financial hit has also been devastating for Karnai, who said his company has lost between $4 million and $5 million on plans that have been canceled since the visa announcement.

“It’s been really difficult for us,” he said, both financially and mentally, as he has also been working to allay his Canadian clients’ fears that there is any danger in traveling to India right now, with political animosity between the two countries so big. high.

“That is not the situation on the ground,” Karnai said.

Possible commercial impact

The diplomatic row and uncertainty over how long tensions will last are also causing some concern about a possible impact on trade, with Canada consistently being India’s largest supplier of red lentils, which are a staple in Indian households.

Two Canadian lentil exporters told Reuters there is anxiety about whether Indian importers are hesitant to complete future pulse sales.

Price tags are seen inside sample bowls of lentils for sale at a wholesale market in Old Delhi on October 9, 2023.
Lentils, seen here for sale at a wholesale market in Old Delhi, are an important commodity in India, and Canada is the main exporter meeting that demand. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

Data from India’s Ministry of Commerce shows that last year’s imports to India from Canada were worth $370 million, accounting for more than half of the South Asian country’s total lentil imports. Indian imports of Canadian lentils from April to July this year increased by 420 percent, compared to 2022.

That jump came as erratic weather patterns and a lack of rain, including the driest August in more than a century, hit India’s agricultural output, mainly affecting pulses, whose prices have risen 20 percent this year. .

India grows its own lentils, but demand far exceeds production. Dal, which is the Indian word for lentils or any broken legume, is a staple in Indian kitchens, and most meals are considered incomplete without lentils.

A person pours lentils into a pot on a stove.
Bharti Jadhav, a cook for several families in Mumbai, says lentils are a staple food in India that are included in every meal. (CBC)

In Bharti Jadhav’s house and in the kitchens of the five families she cooks for, it is a constant.

“Every household consumes at least 250 grams of dal,” he said. “And not just one type of dal, but all types.”

Jadhav, 30, added that even if prices rise due to uncertainty over imports, Indians will pay extra rupees rather than eliminate red lentils from their diets.

But the specter of a slowdown in lentil imports or possible retaliatory tariffs is not a serious concern for some industry experts.

A man delivers grains and pulses to a wholesale seller at a market in Old Delhi on October 9, 2023.
Pulses and cereals are delivered to a wholesale market in Old Delhi. Diplomatic tensions between Canada and India have raised concerns that they could affect the trade relationship. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

Bimal Kothari, president of the Indian Pulses and Grains Association, believes the commercial lentil market is too important and as a price-driven industry it could not become collateral damage of the deepening diplomatic tension. between the two countries.

Rising food prices are also a sensitive issue for the Indian government, particularly with a general election looming and an already painful rise in prices this year for staples such as lentils, onions and tomatoes.

Kothari told CBC News that he “understands the fears that Canadian (lentil) exporters have in their minds.”

“But I don’t think this political situation… will have much impact on the (lentil) trade unless it gets worse and worse,” he said.

“So we don’t know what can happen.”

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