Contravening the government’s recent announcement that international tourists wishing to come to Bhutan, at this time of the pandemic, should undergo a 21-day quarantine if unvaccinated and 14 days quarantine if vaccinated, and bear quarantine expenses, the Tourism Council of Bhutan has said that it would not entertain any tourist visa application until the Council is ready.

Dorji Dhradhul, TCB’s director-general, explained that the “overall situation” in the country is yet to return to “normal”. That means more than taking precautions against the virus that is taking a toll the world over even as we speak. There is a need, he said, to enhance services such as tourist-standard quarantine facilities. It’s a fair deal.

The government, possibly to placate and pander to the growing number of frustrated agents and desperate employees in the sector, said that tourism was always open. If the statement was to assuage pain and worries and to give hope to the many eking out a living from the sector, it only added to the confusion.

In the face of hundreds and thousands of people in the sector still trying to get by with job and income loss, many might be disinclined to accept the decision for reasons that do not always make sense. But that is to be expected; Covid-19 has been protracting its stay and is, indeed, threatening to linger on under the cover of new variants, some of which are expected to be more deadly than the kinds we have so far witnessed.

The danger is far from over. Any recklessness on our part in the rush to open up could throw a spanner in our achievements. Thanks to border closure and strict protocols, we do not have new positive cases in the country.     

At a time when the sector, one of the highest revenue earners, is in the throes of redefining “Bhutanese tourism” itself, the decision is welcome. What we need to understand is that there is more to high value-low volume policy principle when it comes to Bhutanese tourism. More than the number of international tourists visiting the country every year, the idea is to promote tourism in a sustainable manner to meet the needs of the present tourists while protecting and enhancing opportunity for the future. 

In this sense, the pandemic gives us time to reset the orders and improve our service standards. We have not made a significant headway in product development, for instance. But certainly we can offer more than, lhakhangs, dzongs, tshechu and chaams to the visiting tourists. In other words, time has come for Bhutan to look beyond FDI and fast-mushrooming budget hotels.      

Sustainable tourism is the way forward. That means a need for a reboot which the pandemic allows. Tourism so should open only when TCB feels it is “ready”.