To revamp the pandemic-hit tourism sector, the Kerala government has implemented the bio-bubble model at all venues likely to be visited by tourists. The initiative is aimed at ensuring the safety of holidaymakers reaching the State. The project kick-started on August 9 as the State opened up for the next tourist season.
Let's discuss more about the bio-bubble system with Dr V Venu, IAS, who is the additional chief secretary of Kerala Tourism. He is majorly known for his contributions to Kerala Tourism especially during and after the dreadful floods a few years ago. His initiatives like 'Responsible Tourism' and 'Rebuild Kerala' have been immensely popular.
Q: Is this system similar to the bio-bubble model implemented in the last IPL and during Indian Cricket Team's tour to Australia?
A: They are very similar but not identical. They completely isolate people from any external interaction. We have taken the idea and name from this approach but we don't have the liberty or infrastructure to completely isolate people. What is envisaged in our approach is the reassurance that travellers are safe here despite the spread of infection in the State as a whole which is similar to what is done by for the cricket teams.
Q: How did the stakeholders react to this idea and what is the current status of the system?
A: In order to implement it we have to go beyond the stage of planning because the stakeholders have to be aligned. They need to have the infrastructure in place and be vaccinated. Unless we have these, the bubble won't work. For the last many days, we have been talking about the bubble and implemented it too. It means that we expect everyone related to the tourism industry to be vaccinated, at least with one dose — from the cab drivers who pick up the tourists to every service provider at the destinations come in close contact with them. It is important that all of them are vaccinated. The prerequisite for ensuring vaccination is the investment of stakeholders in it.
Q: Can our tourism sector afford to establish this system now, given the pandemic has affected us gravely?
A: I don't think we are gravely affected by the pandemic. There is a large number of positive cases now but that doesn't mean Kerala, as a whole, got a great problem. In every communication we do, we should spread the fact that Kerala has got the best testing methodology in the country which includes targeted testing. That is the reason behind the large numbers. But this doesn't indicate that Kerala is in a bad situation. It only shows we are smart in picking up people who are positive and making sure that they don't infect others. Kerala government is on the right track in tackling the pandemic. The issue here is to make sure everyone in the tourism industry is vaccinated and we have succeeded to a great extent in that too. Several associations related to the industry are conducting vaccination camps.
Q: What are the major challenges faced while implementing the bio-bubble system?
A: The system by no means is perfect. It is a way to reopen our tourism industry which was hit badly by lockdowns. Firstly, we need to have at least a preliminary system which ensures that the properties remain open even while there are restrictions elsewhere. Secondly, we need to have a system that gives an assurance to travellers to have a holiday with restrictions. They can't travel out of the property particularly in areas where there is a high prevalence rate. In those respects, we are offering a restrictive practice. On the other hand, we are opening up tourism and the more visitors coming in, the more confident they feel. We have learned to live with the pandemic and restrictions. To that extent, this will be a successful approach.
Q: With the concept of bio-bubble comes the concept of bio-bubble fatigue. What are the steps taken to prevent its breach?
A: The responsibility primarily lies on the service-providers because this can't be policed or imposed. We can only provide an enabling environment. We need to remember that the properties were not allowed to take in guests until a few weeks ago. Even while permissions were granted, there were severe travel restrictions. But travel is allowed if the required booking details are provided. We are trying to help them in all such ways. Thus, the service-providers have to ensure that the guests do not breach the procedures. The transporters should ensure that the guests do not come into contact with outsiders. All of us share the responsibility to adopt Covid-appropriate behaviour.
Q: Onam season got over and it saw a festive rush in all major tourist destinations. Were bio-bubbles effective?
A: Most of our tourist centres opened up during Onam season and according to media reports, all of them saw a rush of tourists. I can't say that I am comfortable with that crowding. But the bubble is a different project. We can't see these two together because the opening up of tourist centres was something that the local shops and establishments wanted. We can see it as the fulfillment of economy's requirement. The bubble is another approach which is to convince people outside the state that we are opening up and it is safe to travel. More bookings happen during the festive season. It is important to make sure that we do good business during this period and catch up for what we lost.
Q: Will bio-bubbles continue and will tourists be invited even if more restrictions or even a lockdown is introduced in the coming days?
A: I can't predict a lockdown. All of us including the stakeholders will abide by the conditions laid down by the government at any point. Having said that, once the economy is opened up in a careful manner, there is no reason to go back on it. There is no panic on the streets. Our hospitals are comfortable with adequate number of ICU beds, ventilators and all other parameters. All these present a healthy picture for us. Even though there are a large number of positive cases, we do not have a major crisis. So I don't think we will go for further restrictions.
Q: With the COVID-19 cases surging in Kerala and health experts warning about a third wave in the entire country, do you think the bio-bubble will be able to hold its ground?
A: Subject to all restrictions the government makes, we hope to continue opening up and effectively implementing the system.