Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

There is normalcy returning to Phuentsholing, the busiest commercial hub in the country.

Business activities are beginning to see some progress, albeit gradually, more than two months after the border gate was sealed on March 23. More people are out shopping. As the daytime heat gives way to the evening’s cool, the town gets busier.

At Goedoe Lam, DC Mart is doing brisk business. The mart deals in household items and toys. Its owner, Damcho said the business is better than it used to be.

“Surprisingly, business has improved by more than 60 percent,” she said.

Damcho, however, attributes this to the closure of the gate. Bhutanese customers who shopped across the border are now forced to shop within the town.

“I thought our business would be hit but it is not,” she said.

Hardware shops that were struggling in April have bounced back.

Vipul Tiwari of Suresh Hardware said business was affected after the lockdown in India on March 25. The sales are not that high but it is picking up and the situation is returning to normal.

“The mess in the beginning could be because of the panic buying,” he said, adding it was also because they were unable to import for some time, which is not the problem anymore. “It is as if everything is normal these days.”

However, Vipul Tiwari said labour costs have increased, which pushed the prices of hardware items. Production in India is also affected, resulting to a marginal price increase.

Businessmen are however aware that customers would return to shopping from Jaigaon if the border opens. If shopping within Bhutan would be the new normal would be seen only after the gates open, said Vipul Tiwari.

Those in the grocery business were not much affected by the pandemic.

An official with the biggest departmental store in the town, Tashi Shopping Complex, said the store was running fine.

“It is because we are selling essentials,” he said.

However, the wholesale department, he said has been affected due to various factors. Bhutanese labourers cannot work as much as the Indian labourers and the whole procedure is slowed down, he said, explaining there were also many items, which were non-essential in nature and their supply has been disrupted.

Restaurants are also slowly seeing more customers. Owner of Upstairs Kitchen, Dorji Gyeltshen, said his customers are mostly those he knew personally.

“But compared to the initial days, customers increased,” he said.

Thakali Kitchen’s owner, Karma Chen said customers are aware of Druk Trace and that safety measures are all in place.

Safety protocols are stringent in the town with police and desuups monitoring the movement of people. People are required to wear masks. Police and desuups are seen advising people on the road to wear masks and maintain distances.

Every day, at seven pm, a police hilux scans the town blaring the physical distance song, “wai wai chim na sho, wai wai sato zha” from a mic inside. People in the streets cooperate.

Meanwhile, hotels are still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic. Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan (HRAB) representative in Chukha, Jigme Tshering said there is no business prospect for hotels until the pandemic is over.

Forty-one hotels in Phuentsholing voluntarily registered as quarantine centres. First phase of using the facilities as quarantine centres is over, Jigme Tshering said, adding that the second phase is on these days.

“We are following a sequence, so some are empty and others have been filled as of now,” the HRAB representative said.