Homes in Shillong. Some urban professionals who moved here during the first wave of Covid have stayed put. Still more are expected to move to the hills as and when they can. (Representational image)
These days, Shillong offers a stark contrast to the highways running through it. A few lone trucks race past on wide roads of the highways in the dead of day and night alike. Inside Shillong, though, rows of bright streetlights, local chatter, and Christmas-y pine trees might give you the impression that India's improved its death rates and high level of infection during the second wave of Covid, even as most major commercial cities still continue to reel under the deadly effects of the pandemic.
In fields, away from the tourist hubs, schoolchildren play mask-free in the open air, and women go about their day-to-day work as though the world is still where it was two years ago. Northeastern states such as Nagaland, for instance, have seen just a fraction of a percentage of cases compared to cities like Mumbai and Delhi in terms of their total death rates, and lockdowns in these states entail only partial restrictions in the day and complete curfews in the evening from 6 pm onwards.
In market centres, one can see tourists, locals, travellers, and vehicles throng, even as Meghalaya has barred further entry and announced a lockdown in East Khasi Hills till May 17.
The "tourists" here have been in Shillong for months - some going on a year since they moved here during the first wave of Covid and the beginning of work-from-home.
More still are looking to make a home in the hills, as work-from-anywhere policies get extended and the pandemic stretches on.
“In Mumbai, we were always deprived of the mountains,” says Ankit Shinde, a 35-year-old banker. “My family and I are looking out for a four BHK flat where we can get away for at least a month - somewhere in north India,” he says.
Both Shinde and his wife are banking professionals working out of home in Mumbai. Their family of eight includes their parents on both sides as well as a five-year-old child.
Shinde says that despite the fear of not finding medical help in remote places, his family would like to move once the situation is a little better and they can get out.
“All we need is fast Wi Fi and good food,” says Shinde. “We had done a similar trip with a huge group of friends a few weeks ago around Lonavala, but that was a shorter trip. We are now looking for something long-term from where we can work in peace.”
Shinde and his wife are not alone. Travel agencies and airline companies have been seeing a surprising surge in bookings to islands and resorts tucked away in far corners of the country.
“Since May 2020, there has been an increase of 60–70% in travel to long stays and extended 'workations' offering a secluded and scenic experience,” says South Delhi-based travel agent Riaz Munshi, owner and managing director of N Chirag, which has tie-ups with resorts in Rajasthan and Uttarakhand.
Hyderabad-based lawyer Digvijay Jain and his wife Ashruta are among the set of urban professionals taking advantage of work-from-anywhere policies, to move out of the city to reduce stress and gather new experiences.
“We returned from over two weeks of working from the mountains in Kashmir during January and February earlier this year,” Jain says. He adds that the couple spent their time there doing morning yoga, working, and making new friends as temperatures remained below -10 degrees Celsius in Gulmarg.
Jain says most people they met in Gulmarg were techies from Bengaluru. “In the evenings, there would be bonfires and parties and camping. There was bonding and we had some great times together there,” says Jain, whose wife works as a medical expert for a tech company in Hyderabad. Jain adds that they paid less than ₹1,000 per night as tariff in Gulmarg, to "work from the mountains rather than be confined to one’s four walls”.
Daily tariffs of ₹1,000–2,000 - depending on the location, and with services such as meals and unlimited Wi Fi - offer stiff competition to Mumbai and Delhi in terms of the rentals and living costs.
Akhil Pant, who runs a homestay called Hill Dew in Uttarkashi, says he slashed his rates by 50% in the last few months to offer all three meals and a stay for ₹1,000 a day, to attract more long-term stayers.
“With the pandemic and these long-term stays, Indians are now transforming into travellers from mere tourists,” says Komal Seth, founder and director of Linkin Reps Pvt. Ltd., a Delhi-based B2B travel company that has tie-ups with airlines and hotels. “This has meant that people are finally valuing the idea of travel experiences,” she says.
Many traditional vacationing spots and tourist areas in the hills are turning more residential. The Chug family from South Delhi, for instance, escaped to their family vacation home in Ramgarh near Nainital last year, when the first lockdown was announced, and they haven't returned to the Capital since.
“We have a small community of our old friends who’ve now all... joined us here,” says Avni Chug, whose daughter, son, and husband are now working out of the family home in Ramgarh. “I tell people this is my first home now and Delhi my second,” she says.
Tanvi Chug, Avni's daughter, says: “There’s a new restaurant that even came up over the last few months next to us.” She adds: “I am asthmatic. I find that I have to take my puff a lot less here than I do in Delhi, and I feel a lot healthier.”
“When we moved here last year during the first lockdown, we were totally isolated for the first three months," say Atul Chug, Avni's husband. "People started coming in only after the first four months, when things opened up a little bit. That’s when we built a community here of like-minded, culturally inclined people who are now like family to us,” he says.
A new home
Some hilly locales like Ramgarh are offering a community experiences to urban professionals who needed an emotional release in these charged times. Some have even found the time away has helped to reduce the stress of living in metropolitan cities.
Yet as more people turn towards residential and community life in these hilly areas, civic bodies have to work doubly hard. Laxmi Karhadkar, Panchgani Hill Station Municipal Council’s president, says: “Because we are a small and close-knit community, we constantly have temperature checks as well as monitor the cleanliness to keep the Covid cases down in the entire area.”
“Some of the hottest destinations we saw movement towards, between August last year to February this year, included scenic spots like Udaipur, Cochin, Guwahati, Goa, Maldives, as well as Srinagar, and we achieved almost pre-Covid level business during that time,” says Payal Mehta, regional head of sales for North India at Vistara Airlines. “It was however only after February that we faced a terrible slack, once Mumbai started announcing its Covid numbers.”
“A lot of people still want to travel,” Mehta says. “The only roadblock is the requirement of the mandatory RT-PCR negative test result with a validity of 72 hours at every airport ...the traveller has to be quarantined until the test results are out."Given these challenges, some people who moved to the hills over the last few months have decided to stay put. Himanshu Purohit, a guest house and restaurant owner in Panchgani, says things are bad, businesswise. He even had to close one of his restaurants. Yet, he chose to stay back rather than return to Pune, given the cleaner environment and lower incidence of Covid.