The government’s helicopter service hit a significant milestone last week. They got their first local customers.
A group of 18 Lunaps chartered the helicopter to return home from their winter migratory grounds in Punakha.
The event showcased that Lunana is now not completely cut off from the rest of the country during the winter. If required, emergency services like medical and relief during disasters can now reach the remote settlements of Lunana gewog in Gasa.
The valley of Lunana, even when not cut off by snow is still largely isolated from the rest of the country. Encircled by rugged mountains, getting to or leaving Lunana from Laya requires crossing six passes, all higher than 4,500m, with two being above 5,000m. Some of the passes are steep.
The journey can be treacherous and perilous, especially for the young and elderly. Even seasoned international trekkers regard this trip, dubbed the “Snowman’s Trek”, as one of the most difficult in the work.
Some have even died on this trek which usually takes up to eight to nine days.
It is for this reason, the government’s helicopter service could prove most useful to the Lunaps.
The Lunaps, while primarily nomads also have the privilege of harvesting the lucrative fungi, cordyceps. It is for this reason they are and will be able to pay to hire the helicopter.
But the Lunaps have still asked the Prime Minister for a discount which is being considered.
While the costs of running a helicopter service is high, even higher than fixed wing aircraft, and the sustainability of the helicopter company has to be considered, it would make sense if the Lunaps are provided whatever further discount possible.
They are the only community cut off from the rest of Bhutan by so many days and so dangerous a trip. A helicopter service, reasonable by their standards, would provide them with a vital air-link that lessens their isolation.
With up to 40 percent of the around 2,000 strong Lunap population migrating to warmer temperatures every year, even half of them using the chopper annually could translate into a steady revenue source for the helicopter company.
More affordable rates for the Lunaps, not just for passengers but cargo as well could also mean that important goods like basic necessities can be transported to Lunana on a more regular basis. Such a service could play some role in being a factor that discourages rural-urban migration.