In the wake of COVID-19 outbreak

Choki Wangmo

Tour guide Yeshi Samdrup and his guests from Hong Kong were on tour to Talo in Punakha. As they approached Talo dzong, a group of people uneasily dispersed while a masked young man shouted, “Go away! We don’t want your coronavirus here.”

More than the group’s reaction, Yeshi Samdrup was taken aback by the youth’s comment. He considered it a verbal harassment. “My guest felt uncomfortable hearing the word coronavirus.”

Yeshi Samdrup said that people might be relating the tourists and tour guides to COVID-19 due to lack of awareness among public about the outbreak but he said people need to change their mentality as foreigners have respect and trust on Bhutanese hospitality and friendliness. 

“Bhutanese can ignore us because everyone, including the guests understand that there is fear because of the outbreak,” he said. “Bhutanese values are one of the main foreign attractions.”

He also said that the group avoided crowds since the first confirmed positive case of COVID-19 in the country, saying that his guests were careful with hygiene.

Although the fear of tourists and guides is not rampant, Bhutanese, Yeshi Samdrup, said needs to be aware about the outbreak.

Tourism is the second highest revenue-generating sector and more than 50,000  people depend on the sector for living. “If we damage the image of brand Bhutan, it will have future impacts.”

One of the guests in the group said that they did not face any problems because the guide was vigilant and took good care of them.

Meanwhile, Sonam (name changed) completed his tour recently. He said that Bhutanese refused to walk on the same path with the group and some workers in hotels were reluctant to communicate. “As soon as they see tourist cars, they call us coronavirus vehicle,” he said. “At times, guides are referred to as bodyguard of coronavirus.”

Sonam hopes that with timely intervention and awareness, people would understand and avoid derogatory remarks.

In a separate incident, a taxi driver refused to carry a foreigner living in the country for the past two years. He was allowed entrance when he said that he was not new in the country.

On March 9, a tour guide, Wangchuk Dorji, took to social media to express his grievances. He wrote that the tourist guides were not given permission to enter tour sites. “It is disheartening to see people fearing us as if we carry the virus. As soon as they see our guide license tag, they turn away.”

As of yesterday, Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) recorded 465 tourists in the country and some of the destinations in Paro and Thimphu, such as Kichu Lhakhang, Simply Bhutan and National Institute of Zorig Chusum were closed for visits.

TCB did not receive formal complaints from guides but director general, Dorji Dhradhul, said the council was aware about such cases against guides and tourists which is a concern. “Friendly Bhutanese are one of the features of brand Bhutan. Guides can educate people about the outbreak and create awareness,” he said, adding that everyone had a responsibility during such events.

He said that a few people creating such stigma might be ignorant and urged the public to avoid such stigmatisation.

Chairman of the Guides Association Bhutan, Garab Dorji, said guides were briefed about the outbreak and some are on self-quarantine. “We hope the people will support us.”