Affected sectors say they can do little to mitigate the impact of the tourists ban

MB Subba

The two-week tourist ban due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) scare, which is expected to prolong, will hit the livelihoods of thousands of employees in the tourism and allied sectors. 

Even as the government is working on a contingency economic plan, the sectors that are dependent on tourism are struggling to identify any concrete measures to minimise the impact of the tourist ban.

 Officials in the tourism and allied sectors say that there is not much they can do to minimise the impact, except hope that the situation will subside and support the government’s efforts.

In its efforts to protect the livelihoods of tour guides, the Guide Association of Bhutan (GAB) yesterday called on Finance Minister Namgay Tshering to request government to come up with plans to keep guides economically engaged.

There are more than 4,300 tour guides in the country.

President of GAB, Garab Dorji, said that he shared his concerns about guides’ livelihood in case the COVID-19 situation prolonged. The finance minister, he said, assured that the government would look into the suggestion.

“If the government can think of engaging our guides in other economically gainful activities, that will be a huge respite,” Garab Dorji said.

According to Garab Dorji, the finance minister said that keeping tour guides, and those in hotels and tour companies engaged in different activities like up-scaling training and similar activities was possible.

The tourist ban and the closure of schools were supposed to be lifted after a week from today. But Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering on March 12 said that the tourist ban would be extended because of the detection of new cases globally.

 “We are worried about the chances of the virus spreading. But we are also worried about the economy and jobs,” the prime minister said.

 About 50,000 people are in the tourism and allied sectors. “If we consider the families supported by the sector, the livelihood of more than 150,000 people could be affected,” he said.

The government, the prime minister said, was working with various agencies on mitigating the impacts of the COVID-19 on the economy.

 The private sector is one of the hardest hit.

Secretary general of the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI), Sangay Dorji, said that the chamber was collecting data to estimate possible losses the private sector could incur. “We are planning to analyse the data and see how we can help the private sector,” he said.

The private sector, he said, was also worried about the worst-case scenario that could lead to lockdown of affected places and closure of border gates. About 85 percent of goods are imported from India.

 Bhutan Airlines (Tashiair), which is the only private airlines in the country, solely depends on tourism. It will be one of the hardest hit among private entities.

 Officials from the airlines said that lifting the ban was the only solution to mitigate the impact on the airlines.

 The airlines’ general manager for commercial, Ugyen Tenzin, said that the airlines solely depended on tourists, 90 percent of which come via India. He said there were neither incoming nor outgoing tourists and that the company had refunded many clients over cancellation of visits.

 “The tourists season lasts until June but we have received many cancellations. We will lose in millions of income,” he said.

Executive Director of the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO), Sonam Dorji, said that the current priority for the association was to help the remaining tourists reach home safely.

 He said that the associations would discuss the way forward with Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) and other agencies after all the remaining tourists return home.

 According to TCB officials, there were about 1,000 tourists in the country when the government confirmed the first and only detected COVID-19 case in the country on March 6. As of yesterday, there were more than 139 tourists in the country.

Director general of TCB, Dorji Dradhul, said that the council had not been able to do much in terms of mitigating the impact on the tourism sector. He said that the sector would remain affected even if Bhutan lifted the ban but the neighbouring countries did not.

Neighbouring countries, including India, Nepal, and Thailand have imposed travel restrictions to contain the COVID-19. 

Dorji Dradhul said that the TCB was working on plans to minimise the impact. “We will collaborate with the government on our efforts,” he said.

The government has said that the country has incurred an estimated loss of USD 2.2 million so far since the ban came into effect.

The BCCI has formed a private sector task force to fight against COVID-19 in Bhutan. The taskforce will support the government to appropriately respond to the emerging challenges triggered by COVID-19.

 As part of its effort, the BCCI is launching disinfection initiative in risk prone areas on March 18. “We have seen that maintaining cleanliness of our places is very important to fight the virus,” he said.