The Prime Minister Dasho Dr Lotay Tshering said that even if Bhutan removes the quarantine requirements right now, there will not be much tourists coming for a year or two due to the ongoing pandemic, and now the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
The PM said that quarantine requirements have not changed for now. The unvaccinated people must remain in quarantine for 21 days, while those who have been vaccinated must remain in quarantine for 14 days.
“Given the circumstances, we are reducing the quarantine period for international travelers to five days (from 25 April). We must, however, assess the situation. Five days for fully vaccinated and 10 days for unvaccinated. Some countries don’t allow the travelers, who are not vaccinated, but we are going to allow them but they have to undergo 10 days’ quarantine. It will be difficult if you stay for 15 or 20 days in quarantine, but I’m not sure how they calculated that reducing it to five days will prevent tourists from coming,” the PM said.
Until tourists arrive in the country, there will be no monetary support from the government, but if they want to work or start business, the government will offer loans, licenses, and other assistance to the tourism sector.
Chairman of Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan (HRAB), Sonam Wangchuk, said they are grateful to the National COVID-19 Taskforce and the TAG to have reconsidered the number of required days for quarantine, especially for travelers who are fully vaccinated from 14 days to 5 days and 10 days for unvaccinated travelers.
He said it is a glimmer of hope to the tourism sector. However, HRAB is concerned that even with the quarantine days’ reduction, because the average length of stay for any tourist visiting Bhutan is 5 to 7 nights, this may not help the sector recover because the tourists are required to stay in quarantine for five days without going anywhere.
“If you are required to stay for 5 nights, you are looking at a total of 10 nights in the country, which, I believe, tourists will reconsider because the concern right now is not how many people want to come and how many do not want to come, but rather that if the quarantine requirement is implemented, even those who want to come may be unable to do so due to the quarantine restriction. As long as quarantine requirements remain in place, the number will not recover,” he said.
And, in terms of the Ukraine Russia conflict situation, he said that the tourism market may be affected, but one must also understand that Bhutan remains on many peoples’ bucket list.
“One must understand that the way the government has gone about containing the virus has been so successfully reported by the international media that a large number of tourists want to visit Bhutan. A lot of people who couldn’t make it the first time want to come, and a lot of guests want to return,” he said.
He said that there is a market, but to make a statement that people will not come, and it will be affected is a bit amateur to decide, for now. But he conceded, the number will not return to like 2018 or 2019.
“We may not have the same number, why? Because the numbers in 2018 and 2019 were combined with the numbers of regional tourists from the regional countries of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and India, and again, if you look at the numbers from the regional countries, most of them came by road. So by road, it is not allowed at the moment because of the various reasons, the number will definitely be reduced. The two categories of Blue Poppy hotels will undoubtedly have an impact, but there is a lot of room for high-end hotels in the market, so we believe this should be taken into account,” he said.
Executive Director of Association of Bhutan Tour Operators (ABTO), Sonam Dorji, said that to start off, the country can experiment the reduced 5 days quarantine for vaccinated tourists, depending on how it goes and quarantine could be further reduced like other countries where they have initiated test and go (1 night quarantine).
Further, tourism growth would also depend on how COVID protocols are implemented in the neighboring countries, which are the main gateways for tourists visiting Bhutan.
He said, “We can also come up with strategies to revive our tourism, and this has to be done closely in collaboration with the private sector. Besides strategic and direct promotion and marketing, some other schemes may have to be considered that would be fiscal and non-fiscal measures to help boost the industry. We can use our embassies and consulate to garner support and promote Bhutan. Short haul markets like India, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Japan and Indonesia should be our main target.”
Regarding the Ukraine conflict he said that although there maybe impact on fuel price and overall increase in travel cost, Bhutanese tourism does not depend on Ukraine and Russia, therefore the suggestion is short haul source markets besides also targeting traditional markets like US, and Western European countries.
“Regional countries are opening and relaxing their quarantine requirement hence it’s all the more for us to gauge and accordingly plan based on situations,” he said.
Thinley Namgyel of Bhutan Travel Path questioned, “How effective is or would this 5-day quarantine period be in preventing virus importation? Why quarantine the fully vaccinated travelers with a negative RT-PCR test result when many countries are opening their borders to fully vaccinated travelers with no quarantine protocols in place? Why can’t we put ourselves in their shoes for once? How can we expect to have visitors when we have set up quarantine protocols even for fully vaccinated travelers? The quarantine creates a bottleneck for those interested visitors. Isn’t fewer numbers of tourists considered as tourist? If we do not start with fewer numbers, how do we expect to have many in the coming days? ”
He said that the top priority now is to give it a try without the quarantine requirement for fully vaccinated foreign travelers, and see how it goes.
“If it goes well, we are the ultimate beneficiaries and if it doesn’t achieve a good result, we still have the options to change or put in place different protocols. No one is an expert in predicting the inflow of tourist, so the best option for now is opening up tourism without much hassle which is an ultimate source in reviving our lost economy, and also to provide employment and income generating source for thousands of people working in tourism sector and hotel industry,” he said.
He added that when most travelers spend 7-9 days on average for their holidays to Bhutan, so 5 days quarantine period is a major restriction and relevant agencies have not even taken this into consideration prior to setting up protocols.
Founder and the Chairman of Guide Association of Bhutan (GAB), Garab Dorji, said that if Bhutan opens without quarantine for vaccinated tourists with RT PCR negative test 72 hours before port of embarkation, and test here again in Bhutan that would be good enough.
“Something is better than nothing. Despite the European war, we hope to receive a good number of tourists. I believe that many people will still travel if the quarantine is lifted. People employed in the tourism industry are in desperate need of work. However, many of us are still unemployed. We are fortunate to have the Royal Kidu, but it is difficult to make both ends meet without work. Let’s give it a shot by opening. Nothing is wrong with trying,” he said, adding that they have waited too long without work.
He added that almost everyone in the country had their booster shots, so it is safe to open with other COVID-19 protocols.
“With 5-days quarantine we can hardly expect any tourists,” he added.
However, the Foreign Minister and Chairman of the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) Dr Tandi Dorji told The Bhutanese that by autumn, which is the second major tourism season of the year, the entire quarantine system for foreign tourists could be removed if the situation improves (see story on pg 1).