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Himachal's big plan for rest houses

Built in picturesque and remote locations, the rest houses and circuit houses are being thrown open to public for better upkeep and to generate revenue

Himachal's big plan for rest houses

Circuit house, Manali. Jai Kumar

Pratibha Chauhan

Available at highly subisided rates, the maintenance and running of over 800 circuit and rest houses, owned by various state government departments, is proving to be a major drain on the exchequer. The cash-strapped Himachal Pradesh government, with its debt mounting to over Rs 80,000 crore, is looking at ways and means to make these rest houses a profitable venture. The fact that a majority of these are located in the most picturesque settings makes the proposition even more attractive for visitors.

Forest Rest House, Kalatop. File

Services need to be up to the mark

Throwing open circuit houses and rest houses is a welcome step. The only word of caution is that it must be done professionally so that the services are up to the mark. Most of the rest houses, specially the ones set up by the British, are in the most idyllic locations.

It would be far better if the rest houses are handed over to some private company which can run these professionally as a chain. The government doesn’t have the expertise to handle hospitality services which meet the desired standards. —  Sumit Raj Vashisht, Writer

The state government also runs Himachal Bhawan and Himachal Sadan in New Delhi and Himachal Bhawan in Chandigarh.

The ball has been set rolling to improve the earnings from these rest houses by throwing open the bookings to the public through an online portal. It has also been decided to outsource the food and housekeeping services to ensure better upkeep.

Circuit House, Dharamsala. Kamaljeet

The Forest Department has the highest number of 450 rest houses, followed by 25 circuit houses and 278 rest houses of the Public Works Department (PWD), 32 of the Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board (HPSEB) and 113 of the Jal Shakti Department.

Interestingly, the Aam Aadmi Party, which was hoping to gain a foothold in the hill state in the 2022 Assembly elections, had promised that all the rest houses would be commercialised to generate revenue. However, AAP performed miserably with all its candidates forfeiting their security deposits.

Decades back, the absence of hotels, either of the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC) or privately owned, in the remote and far-flung areas of the state had made it imperative to build government rest houses. However, with better accessibility and road network now, some of these rest houses are not so much in demand as private hotels, guesthouses and homestays have mushroomed across Himachal.

The maintenance of these rest houses and the staff deputed here is proving to be a major burden on the government, which is desperately looking at ways to generate revenue. The options available for executing this plan are to either lease out the rest houses or outsource the services.

The room tariff at some of these rest houses — a few are located at sites that score over prime private hospitality properties — is barely Rs 100 per day. Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, in one of the first decisions taken after assuming office, had decided to hike these nominal tariffs.

Though majority of the rest houses were constructed at the most appropriate locations, over a period of time political considerations became paramount, resulting in some of the rest houses being located at the most unsuitable places.

Some rest houses require major repairs, putting a question mark on the maintenance and often lack of professionalism in hospitality services. The 32 circuit houses, which are mostly located at the district headquarters and other prime locations, are better managed as they are frequented by the CM, ministers and senior officials. Though these rest houses are managed and run by the PWD staff, the booking is done through the office of the Deputy Commissioner.

A large number of rest houses were constructed in Assembly segments represented by the Chief Minister, ministers or powerful politicians without taking into consideration the relevance and footfall of visitors. This has been witnessed during successive regimes, be it the Congress or the BJP, with the result that some of these rest houses are crumbling and in want of major repairs. Considering the financial health of the government, the task is proving to be impossible.

Even as the decision by Chief Minister Sukhu to enhance the room tariff at the Himachal Bhawans in Delhi and Chandigarh was met with opposition by both politicians and officials, it has proved to be a boon in many ways. “Not only has the revenue improved, the availability of rooms which was earlier next to impossible has become easy. With a pittance of Rs 100 as a day’s tariff at Himachal Bhawan in the heart of Delhi, families of those who are well connected stayed on for days together, making room availability for others difficult,” revealed an official. The enhancement of the room rent to Rs 1,200 per day has eased the situation.

The HP State Electricity Board too has thrown open all its 32 rest houses by way of online booking. “Anybody can book a room online in our rest houses, the list of which is available on our department website,” says Manish Mahajan, Chief Engineer, HPSEB. Services like hospitality and food have been outsourced to ensure professionalism, he adds.

The Jal Shakti Department, which has 113 rest houses and inspection bungalows, is also exploring the possibility of putting some of the under-utilised rest houses to better use. “With 10,000 water schemes across the state, our officers and staff stay in the rest houses during inspection. However, we are contemplating opening our offices in some rest houses which are practically unused,” says Deputy Chief Minister Mukesh Agnihotri, looking after Jal Shakti and transport portfolios.

Sanjeev Kaul, Engineer-in-Chief of Jal Shakti, says the department will soon be throwing open 83 of its 113 rest houses and inspection huts for online booking. The remaining are either non-functional or under construction, he adds.

Aimed at generating revenue and popularising eco-tourism sites located in the most pristine locations, 75 rest houses and inspection huts of the Forest Department will be operated by Eco Tourism Societies.

The Forest Department, which has 450 rest houses and inspection houses across the state, proposes to gradually enhance the number of rest houses which will be handed over to Eco Tourism Societies. “We are planning to increase the number of such rest houses to 100 so that anybody visiting the area can stay here,” says Rajeev Kumar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests.

The PWD has paved the way for creation of the HP Public Works Society, which will run all the 278 rest houses and 25 circuit houses more professionally. “The earnings of the Society will not go to the government exchequer but will remain with the Society to be utilised for upkeep and maintenance of the rest houses,” says Public Works Minister Vikramaditya Singh. There are over 1,600 rooms in the 278 rest houses, of which 80 per cent will be available through online booking, he adds. The remaining 20 per cent will be kept reserved for VIPs in case of sudden arrival.

The PWD has decided to outsource services like housekeeping and food in its rest houses to ensure a certain level of professionalism. “The tariff has already been enhanced from very nominal so that there is an element of professionalism and people wanting to visit any part of the state can get a room booked for stay,” points out Vikramaditya Singh. He admits that at present, there is a grave staff shortage, be it of cooks or the help staff, which affects services and maintenance of rest houses. The rest houses will, however, remain under the control of the Superintending Engineer of the Circle for all administrative purposes.

The PWD had initially started online bookings on the department website for 80 rest houses on a pilot basis, which helped generate revenue. Now all the circuit houses and rest houses have been brought under the ambit of the Society.

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