Amid a lockdown, the most popular tourist destination in Maharashtra and the only pedestrian hill station in entire Asia looks like a ghost town, says Prasad Sawant, a resident of Matheran and a local Shiv Sena leader. That too in the peak holiday season. Matheran’s hill station municipal council is now surveying the town as part of the preparation to send a plea to the state government to grant them an economic relief package to help recover from the huge loss incurred due to the closure.
The Municipal council, which declared a lockdown from March 18, had written to the Collector of Raigad to allow delivery of essential commodities to Matheran through trucks. However, Matheran being an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ), no motor vehicles are allowed beyond the entry gate of the town and hence the request was turned down.
President of Matheran hill station municipal council Prerna Sawant said the town and its population is majorly dependant on the tourism industry and a closure amid the coronavirus outbreak will break their "backbone". "While everyone else followed the lockdown from March 22, we at Matheran had decided on a complete lockdown from March 18.
However, this means not getting business during the peak season from hotels, rikshaw pullers, shops, eateries, horse riders, and even the municipal council will face a huge loss. It will take us almost six months to even a year to recover from this loss," Sawant told The Free Press Journal.
Ghodawalas or horse riders, who do brisk business of ferrying tourists, especially kids, on horses during their summer vacations are sitting idle at home. Rickshaw-pullers, restaurant owners, shopkeepers and even hotel owners are a worried lot and have been endlessly discussing that this year is going to be the worst they have seen in decades.
If collections at the main gate of Matheran, where every individual has to pay an entry fee of Rs 50, are to be believed, tourism revenue in the hill station will be hit by 70 to 80 per cent by the end of this year. In better times, the hill station witnesses at least six to seven lakh domestic and foreign tourists every year -- the peak season being the summer holidays and a few days in winter. A majority of those visiting are day tourists.
"Of the 365 days, only 85 are considered as the peak season for Matheran tourism. While we couldn't fully get the profit from the 40 days of winter, the entire 45 days during summer too have been ruined for us. The municipal council earns at least Rs 4 crore each year through the collection of entry fees at the main gate of Matheran," said Prasad Sawant.
Prerna Sawant added, "We are currently meeting all the stakeholders, hoteliers, shopkeepers, horse riders etc. We will be soon sending our request to the state government seeking an economic relief package to help us recover from the loss. Even after the lockdown is over tourist will not come to Matheran until Coronavirus outbreak is gone totally. Nobody knows how much time all this will take. Families here won't survive this big a loss."
She added, "All the riders who carry commodities on mules, rickshaw pullers and carts have refused to come out and put their families at risk. Currently, we have enough supplies, however, the future looks uncertain. We are still convincing carts and rikshaw pullers to chip in and help us get the supply of essential commodities in the town."
Nidhi Choudhari, Collector of Raigad in her reply stated: "As per rule, one tractor to carry solid waste, one ambulance and one fire engine is allowed. No motor vehicle can be allowed in Matheran, which is an ESZ. However, it is instructed that horse riders and rickshaw pullers be provided valid ID cards and convinced to help the administration in carrying out these essential services."