Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is unlikely to boost the morale of tour operators and hoteliers here as their prime season business has been badly hit by the December 26 tsunami with no signs of fresh tourist arrivals in sight.
In this devastated island, those in the hospitality business say most of the hotels in the region are lying almost vacant and a few even have zero occupancy.
On an average, over 100,000 tourists, including 5000-6500 foreign tourists, visit the Andaman and Nicobar islands. The tour operators say that the number had been growing steadily since the last two years, but thanks to the tsunami and the subsequent aftershocks, there is hardly any tourist in the area now.
"The tsunami could not kill us but we have landed in a more difficult situation as we earn money only during the three months of winter. Our families depend on these earnings for survival. Following the disaster on December 26, tourists had fled this place, including foreigners, and for the past one week, we are receiving telephone calls from the tourists, cancelling their bookings," says Shibu George, who runs Hotel Palm Groove, close to the Veer Sabharkar Airport.
His 'eco-friendly' hotel has always been an attraction for tourists from different parts of the world. But, since the past six days, its occupancy level is zero.
"Even some of the employees, mostly from West Bengal and southern states like Chennai and Andhra Pradesh have left fearing further tsunamis," he says.
Same is the situation with big hotels. A starred hotel in the heart of the city now has only four of its 42 rooms occupied. This hotel has always been over-booked during December-February since its inception six years ago.
"Those four rooms are booked by journalists and with the Prime Minister coming here on Wednesday, we have got bookings for five more rooms for his security officials but that, too, for one day. This doesn't make great business for us. There is also an acute problem of water supply and we are dependent on the tankers made available by the local administration," he says.
According to hoteliers here, the disaster struck the Andamans at a time when the number of both Indian and foreign tourists was growing in leaps and bounds.
Other major hotels like Andaman Residency, Gem Continental and Aparoopa are housing journalists from across the world, unusual customers for hoteliers and "not good payers", as one hotel staff puts it.
Not just hotels, flights to the Andamans are also facing low occupancy. An official of Jet Airways says: "Our flights connecting Chennai with Port Blair has been running with much low occupancy and we are not expecting great business during this year's tourist season."
On Tuesday, the Jet Airways' flight from Chennai, had over 50 percent seats vacant in the economy class, and similar is the case with Indian Airlines.
"If you want a ticket back to Chennai or Kolkata, it would be difficult but for reaching Port Blair from any of these two cities, tickets are available even half-an-hour before the departure of flights," says an Indian Airlines official.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would be making a one-day trip to Port Blair and Car Nicobar. During the visit, he would hold high-level meetings with the representatives of the newly-set up Integrated Relief Command and the local administration at Port Blair in the morning.
"Singh would also be visiting Car Nicobar, one of the worst-affected areas, and is expected to announce some special relief measures, further to his earlier announcements," says an official of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands administration.
A day before Singh's visit, aftershocks once again rocked Greater Andamans. Till Tuesday, 14,888 people have been shifted to 27 relief camps, a majority of which has been set up at Port Blair.According to Deputy Commissioner Gyanesh Bharti, the toll stands at 832 while the number of those missing is 5801.