Phurpa Lhamo

At the Bhutan Echoes literary festival on April 24, the tourism sector made some concrete recommendations to move past the Covid-19 restrictions.

Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan’s (HRAB) chairman Sonam Wangchuk and Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators’ (ABTO) executive director Sonam Dorji discussed concrete timeline for proper reopening, building confidence for visitors, and being flexible in terms of refunds for tourists.

Sonam Dorji said that a proper opening timeline would be beneficial for the tour operators and the travel industry to plan ahead. Flexibility in terms of refunds, change in itineraries, and flights, he added, is necessary. “The other thing is we need to build confidence in the tourism service providers.”

Certification of hotels, ensuring drivers, and reliable itineraries give confidence in Bhutan’s tourism industry, Sonam Dorji said.

While the tourism industry is ready to welcome tourists, concerns regarding the loss of skilled professionals were also raised.

Sonam Wangchuk said that the professionals who left the tourism industry due to the pandemic have shown their interest to return.

The longer Bhutan waits to open the sector, the more skilled people would leave the sector for places such as Australia, Kuwait, Dubai … where hotels and businesses have resumed.

“I think the important message that we need to send out is when can we actually do away with the quarantine requirements and come out stronger?” he asked.

When the tourism sector closed due to the pandemic, of around 32,000 who applied for the Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu (DGRK), more than 11,000 were from the tourism sector.

Sonam Wangchuk said that were it not for the DGRK and the economic contingency plans, the industry would have collapsed a long time ago. He added that apart from the damage the pandemic caused to the industry, it also encouraged those working in the sector to engage in other opportunities instead of staying idle.

Sonam Dorji said that during the pandemic and subsequent restriction, trail development, rescaling, and up-skilling programmes were initiated to build tourism products.

Further to that, he added that tour guides have been able to engage themselves productively. “I think some of the operators with zero business have moved on to other businesses like real estate, retail, groceries, and some have returned to their village to start agriculture business.”

Although not in large numbers, the pandemic and restrictions also encouraged local tourists to explore Bhutan’s unique tourism products.

Sonam Dorji said that even in the face of lockdowns, local tourism was picking up.