MB Subba

Even as the government is making efforts to contain the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the possibility of new cases remains a major concern for the tourism sector, which has already taken a hit due to the two-week ban on tourists.

Detection of new COVID-19 cases during the two weeks will lead to extension of the ban, according to the government.

“We will have to extend the ban on tourists if more cases are detected. We will also take more stringent measures immediately,” Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji has told Kuensel on March 9.

He said that the government was ensuring that the COVID-19 would not spread in the country.

As per the national preparedness and response plan for outbreak of COVID-19, the country will be in the “red zone” if multiple cases are detected with local transmission.

 Declaration of the red zone will lead to major disruptions, including lock down of all the affected places, according to the preparedness and response plan. The situation now is in the orange zone.

 The tourism industry, which is the second largest industry in the country, and related sectors have already taken a hit. But in what appears to be promising news, no new COVID-19 cases have been detected since the first case was officially confirmed on March 6.

Given the impact on the economy and employment, some observers feel that the country should ban tourists only from the affected countries and those coming through affected routes.

Thousands of people are engaged in the tourism and related sectors.

The government has said that it was cautious about the livelihood of the people making a living out of the tourism and hospitality sectors.

However, the foreign minister said that the novel coronavirus could come from anywhere and that the free movement of people across the Indo-Bhutan border was one of the challenges. 

He said infections could be brought into the country by anyone, including the Bhutanese people, not necessarily tourists. 

“We should have a very good surveillance system in place. Going forward, we will have more stringent measures in place,” he said. 

On whether or not the ban on tourism will be lifted after the after the two-week period, foreign minister said that the COVID-19 coordination team would take a decision towards the closure of the ban. He said the government’s priority at the moment was to contain the virus.

According to the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), 465 tourists remained in the country as of yesterday.

The maximum of 261 tourists were in Paro, followed by Bumthang with 62 tourists. Thimphu, Haa and Wangdue had 47, 23 and 18 tourists respectively.

The foreign minister said that most of the remaining tourists would return home in a few days. The two airlines are operating their flights to drop tourists and bring in Bhutanese from abroad.

The two-week ban on tourists is one of the most difficult decisions any government in the country had to take the recent history. The ban coincides with the start of the tourist season. 

In an earlier interview, Director General of TCB Dorji Dhradhul said that the ban would have huge implications not only on the tourism sector, but also the national economy. But he added that the TCB would lend their support to the government’s efforts. 

Observers say that the ban on tourists will worsen unemployment, which is one of the biggest challenges facing the country.

Many freelance guides have been left jobless after the ban and are worried about their livelihood. Some sources also said that some employees in the tourism sector have been sent on unpaid leave.