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

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

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

He would normally be explaining the landmark’s significance to a group of Canadian sightseers but he was alone, just as India’s tourist high season got underway. 

“All of my tours are now getting cancelled. Nobody is coming because of the visa issues,” said the tour manager who’s been in the business for more than 25 years. “I’m helpless.

“I’m really in shock, I don’t know what to do,” he added, saying that his savings were already depleted because of the two years lost after the COVID-19 pandemic hit India and the rest of the world, forcing lockdowns and decimating the tourism industry. 

Chauhan, 52, isn’t the only tour guide to experience a dramatic loss of income after diplomatic tensions between Canada and India escalated into a full-blown conflict, with one of the retaliatory measures including India halting visa processing for Canadian citizens. 

The tomb of Mughal Emperor Humayun, a main tourist attraction in New Delhi, is welcoming fewer Canadian tourists after India suspended visa services for citizens of Canada. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

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

A sense of “trepidation” over what further measures could come if the tensions worsen, as Chauhan described it to CBC News, has rippled through the tourism industry in India, particularly as this lull is hitting the start of India’s tourist high season, which stretches from October to March, when the weather is cooler across the country. 

“We’re going through a very tough time,” said Chandar Bhan, 38. The professional driver caters mainly to tourists from Canada, and during an average high season he chauffeurs up to 15 tours full of Canadians.

“I usually would have finished four or five trips by now, but it is October and I haven’t even made one trip so far,” he said. 

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

“There is no other work.” 

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

‘It was devastating’

For those who specialize in tours from Canadian cities to India’s tourism hot spots, the days following India’s visa announcement were particularly stressful. 

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

A woman visits the grounds of the 16th century Mughal Emperor Humayun's tomb in New Delhi on October 9, 2023.
Many working in India’s tourism industry are worried about their incomes drying up even further if the diplomatic spat 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 answer,” Karnai said during an interview in New Delhi, where he had travelled to help with trips for Canadians who had visas issued before the pause in processing took effect.

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

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

“They have saved every single penny all their life to fulfil their dream to see 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. Nonrefundable.”

A couple snaps 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 save up 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 from plans that have been cancelled since the visa announcement.

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

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

Possible trade impact

The diplomatic dispute and the uncertainty over how long tensions will last are also causing some concern over a possible impact on trade, with Canada consistently India’s biggest supplier of red lentils, which are critical in Indian homes. 

Two Canadian lentil exporters told Reuters that there is anxiety over whether Indian importers are hesistant to complete future sales of pulses. 

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

Data from India’s Trade Ministry shows that last year’s imports to India from Canada were worth $370 million US, making up more than half of the South Asian country’s total lentil imports. Indian imports of Canadian lentils from April to July of this year jumped 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 yield, mainly affecting pulses, which have seen a 20 per cent price hike this year. 

India does grow its own lentils, but demand far outstrips production. Dal, which is the Indian word for lentils or any split legumes, is a staple in Indian kitchens, with most meals 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 such a staple in India that they are included in every meal. (CBC)

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

“At least 250 grams of dal are used in every household,” she said. “And not just one kind of dal, all kinds.” 

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

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

A man delivers grains and pulses to a wholesale vendor at a market in Old Delhi on Oct 9, 2023.
Pulses and grains are delivered to a wholesale market in Old Delhi. The diplomatic tensions between Canada and India have raised concerns that they could spill into the trade relationship. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

Bimal Kothari, chairman of the India Pulses and Grains Association, believes the lentils trade market is too important and that as a price-driven industry it couldn’t possibly become collateral damage from the deepening diplomatic strain 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 price spike this year for staples such as lentils, onions and tomatoes. 

Kothari told CBC News that he “understands the apprehensions that Canadian [lentil] exporters have in mind.”

“But I don’t think that this political situation … will have much impact on the [lentils] trade unless it worsens further and further,” he said. 

“Then we do not know what may happen.”