The image of a tourist for a long time had been a white person with sunglasses, a camera hanging down his neck with wallets bursting with dollars, even if they are not carrying.
Tourists used to be welcomed and greeted just for the sake of striking up a conversation. In the interiors, students walking to school, wait in line and wave or bow, as tourists in flashy cars or clean coaster buses pass by.
This is changing suddenly in the wake of the new coronavirus outbreak and the country reporting its first positive case.
If in the west the disease was known by an Asian man in a face mask, because the disease originated in Asia, the comfort level with tourists at home is changing. The tourist on the street, whether American, European or Asian, is seen with some apprehension.
The image of a tourist has suffered not because Bhutanese are inherently discriminating foreigners, but because of the limited perception by the fact that the first victim was a tourist. But tourists and their guides are feeling the repercussion of the new coronavirus, even if they are not affected. It is worse as tourists move out of Thimphu and Paro to see rural Bhutan. A group of tourist nearly got locked up in a hotel in Mongar.
Avoiding tourists is not a problem, but making remarks or shouting at groups is making guides and their guests uncomfortable. There is a ban on tourists, an unavoidable one. The tourism sector is hit hard. Those who are in the country should not bear the brunt. They have risked coming to Bhutan. They are our guests. The last thing they need is being looked upon as coronavirus carriers. We are known for our hospitality and friendliness.
Neither are tour guides or their vehicles “coronavirus cars” as some are pointing out.
What we need to understand is there is strict surveillance and those who are already inside the country are closely monitored on their health. Hotel and restaurants staff avoiding tourists or guides should be made aware of the precautions. Generalizing all tourists as virus carriers is not going to go down well for the service sector. Especially when they are seeing fewer customers.
All these problems bring us back to the awareness level. The efforts are there. Led by the Prime Minister, updates on the new coronavirus and the situation in the country are provided on a daily basis. There are several awareness messages disseminated both through mainstream and social media. The Prime Minister comes live on the national TV and social media allaying fears and trying hard to convince people on the situation.
The fear is not only for tourists. There are reports of locals trying to stop people coming to their dzongkhags from places like Thimphu, Paro and Punakha where the first victim of COVID -19 had visited.
This knee-jerk reaction is not a healthy trend.
What if all the dzongkhags or people take their own decisions for lockdown? It is going to challenge the efforts to control the spread of the virus.
We hope the unrelenting efforts to make people aware and not panic would help us avoid such problems. The need of the hour, it seems, is still awareness.