The COVID-19 pandemic has crippled many industries in Bhutan, mainly affecting sectors like tourism, hotels, airlines, handicraft and construction among others.
The effects took a further escalation when the Government of India (GoI) went into lockdown. The government along with various sectors, like BCCI, are stepping up to find strategic ways to rebound from the grim economic situation.
Executive Director, Association of Bhutan Tour Operators (ABTO), Sonam Dorji, clarified regarding the components of the Tourism Stimulus Package plan stating that currently they are focusing on three main objectives considering the situation.
He said “Firstly, we are looking towards generating gainful employments towards the people in the tourism sectors who have been effected by the travel restrictions in place. Secondly, we are taking advantage of this time to upgrade the infrastructure in regard to the tourism facilities, and thirdly, we want to opportune on this moment to bring in all the relevant stakeholders to work together and create a bonding dimension.”
He added that this is just one of the many plans that they are looking forward to along with other packages in the TCB, like in terms of souvenirs, trainings and others.
The infrastructure development will consist of roadside amenities development, redesigning, maintaining and beautifying Taktsang trail and other tourism hotspots.
Another sector that has been hit hard is the construction sector where works have reportedly stopped due to a scarcity in manpower and materials. General Secretary of Construction Association of Bhutan, Tshering Yonten, said “Since 5th March, the import of labor was cancelled and those who had work order couldn’t do it in between January and March. That has left the sites greatly affected.”
He added, “Another problem is that, just before the COVID-19 situation, there was a Holi festival for the non-nationals and they had gone to their homes on an unofficial leave. Normally, we don’t report these stuff to the government because they would come back after a week and we could carry on. However, this time it was different as nobody had anticipated a pandemic breakout and things had to be adjusted on an ad-hoc level.”
Another area that he had concern over was for the constructions which were supposed to be handed over by March end but couldn’t be done due to the situation. He said that prices are rising for materials due to unavailability at the sites. He recalled that prior to the outbreak, agents would call in to ask them to buy the materials but now the situation has reversed.
“For the time being, the immigration office has lifted the permit to transfer manpower from one site to another which was previously disallowed,” he added.
Hotels and Restaurant Association of Bhutan (HRAB) Chairman, Sonam Wangchuk, said that they have currently submitted a proposal and recommendation to the government in order to balance the affected sectors after the pandemic ends. He said that government could turn around the economic effects with innovative solutions and looking into some of the crucial decisions like for instance the levy on Sustainable Development Fund (SDF) and by planning alternate opportunities for the affected people in the sectors.
He said, “Even if we had banned travels for foreign countries during this situation, and given that India had not been effected, our economy could have sustained from regional tourists alone. Now once the borders open up, all the countries will be trying to do that, and it will be in the government’s hand to perhaps make attractive packages and give proper discounts to both foreign and regional tourists. Currently, we have recommended those measures to the government.”
Executive Director, Handicrafts Association of Bhutan (HAB), Chorten Dorji, said that they are currently waiting for the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) to release their proposal made for reskilling/skilling those part of the affected people with the backing support from the government.
He said, “The current challenge is in terms of lay-off, and there are few employers already who have sent their staff on leave without pay based on mutual agreements. But if this situation continues for another month or so maximum people might resort to laying off.”