The once-bustling Samdrupjongkhar town today stands as a testament to the profound economic upheaval inflicted by the relentless beatings of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the reopening of borders in September 2022, the anticipated economic resurgence remains elusive, casting a pall of desolation over this once-thriving business hub.

The haunting silence on the streets mirrors the struggles of business owners, epitomised by small businesses. In the pre-pandemic days, a small business would effortlessly rake in Nu 4,000 on a good day. Today, shopkeepers and hotel operators consider themselves lucky if half a dozen customers drop by.

This economic decline has left a serious dent in the hospitality industry, where budget hotels grapple with plummeting occupancy rates, contemplating their very survival. A restaurant owner finds herself at a crossroads, contemplating the painful decision to shutter her business and seek more fertile economic grounds. A hotelier mourns the emptiness that pervades his establishment, once bustling with life.

The recent transformation of Samdrupjongkhar into what a Thimphu visitor labels a “ghost town” is both shocking and emblematic of the myriad challenges faced by residents and businesses alike. This town with around 400 business license holders, once pulsating with agricultural trade usual around this time of the year, lies in the throes of stagnation, calling for urgent solutions.

Residents are voicing a collective plea for a comprehensive government policy to breathe life back into Samdrupjongkhar’s economy, which might mean allowing the entry of casual visitors, establishing separate entry and exit points, and incentivising local shopping. The existing integrated checkpost (ICP) at the Indo-Bhutan border has been a major bottleneck, with residents decrying the cumbersome verification and registration processes.

Local authorities will submit a new ICP plan to the government for approval this month.

Concerns about security and retaining existing checkposts for regional tourists and casual visitors echo in the discussions. The economic landscape’s complexities are underscored by the thriving business on the other side of the border town and the diversion of retailers to Phuentsholing due to the Gyalpoizhing-Nganglam highway.

The town’s destiny hinges on the authorities’ ability to make decisive choices and navigate the web of economic intricacies. The time to act is now, before the voices become permanent echoes of loss.