Some are ready to go home and work on farms

Choki Wangmo

About 20 tour guides are busy at work at the Guide Association of Bhutan’s (GAB) office in Thimphu—ruffling through papers, taking down details, and continuously having telephonic conversations.

In the past 3-4 days, these guides had been volunteering at GAB’s office to collect details of more than 4,000 tour guides in the country. With the tourism sector badly hit with the COVID-19 outbreak and the earlier two-week restriction on tourists, most of the guides are rendered jobless.

The office is collecting information of the guides to deploy them in different sectors based on their skills and expertise even for a minimal fee to sustain before the government lifts the restriction, which now is extended “until further notice.”

GAB records show that out of 2,900 active guides, 1,866 are freelancers whose main source of income is from tourists. GAB’S executive director Sonam Tashi said: “Freelance guides are the most affected with their source of income gone dry within these  few weeks.”

Yesterday, with the government’s announcing an extension of the two-week tourist restriction, the situation is only expected to worsen. While some guides have decided to go to their villages and start farming, others are exploring opportunities to engage themselves.

A freelance guide, Jinpa Phuntsho, the single bread-earner in the family had been participating in voluntary services in the past two weeks. “When guides sit together, we come up with ideas to involve ourselves during this tiring time,” he said, adding that in his 20 years, it is the first time he witnessed such impact.

“I am ready to take up any kind of job in a government or private sector but if the situation worsens, I will go back home and work in my farm,” Jinpa Phuntsho said. But he is also looking forward to domestic tourism. If tour operators could develop tour packages, he said, it would help guides sustain. “It would promote and engage us and generate revenue for the government.”

Another freelancer, Yeshi Gyeltshen, had 18 groups cancelled within two weeks. He said the earnings from these cancelled groups could have sustained him for the whole year. However, he participates in GAB’s activities.

GAB is preparing for the worst. The association’s priority is on the active freelancers. Sonam Tashi said that the office was proposing trainings for guide and conduct interaction meeting among guides to develop new ideas.

The guides are ready to take up works in construction site for a minimal fee, while others are interested to take up roadside tourism activities such as cleaning washrooms on the highways. Most of the guides are skilled and had experience in the vocational and health sectors, teaching, driving, business and farming among others.

Yesterday, more than 300 guides cleaned the thromde area and about 40 guides donated blood at the national hospital.

On March 17, the Tourism Council of Bhutan met with key stakeholders to prepare and implement projects and create new job opportunities to engage the unemployed.

An employment taskforce was formed and is expected to finalise the list of projects within two days.