Handicraft and painting galleries struggle to survive

Handicraft and painting galleries struggle to survive

Once a flourishing business, handicraft and other related businesses are today without any or few customers

Located on a round hilltop in the Lobesa Valley in Punakha, Chimi Lhakhang (monastery) is the famous fertility temple in Punakha, built in 1499 to honour the divine madman, Lam Drukpa Kuenley. Overlooking the rice fields, the Lhakhang is a must-see for tourists and Bhutanese alike, and over the years handicraft and painting shops/galleries have mushroomed around the Lhakhang.

After a two-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, handicraft shops reopened around the Lhakhang, hoping for a steady upswing, but the start was not as good as the shopkeepers had expected. Once a popular tourist destination, the area has seen hardly any tourists visiting the stores, unlike in the past.

The narrow country road to Lhakhang looks like a desert. On both sides of the road are handicraft and painting stores and galleries, some of which are closed and some of which are open, with shopkeepers patiently waiting for tourists.

Among them is Sonam, 33, talking with another woman eating doma (beetle nuts) in her shop. It was almost dark, but she was hopeful that a few tourists would stop by after learning from another shopkeeper that a group of tourists were on their way to Chimi Lhakhang.

Sonam’s brother was the first person to open the handicraft shop between 2013 and 2014 when she worked with him. She has her own shop, Mantra Mandal Handicraft, which she reopened after two and a half years because of the pandemic.

Over the years, handicraft and painting shops/galleries have mushroomed along the area. Today, there are 18 handicraft shops including paintings and galleries in the area, 11 of which are in Chimipang and seven in Youwakha, Lobesa.

Speaking to Business Bhutan, Sonam said, “Tourists come, but unlike in the past, they do not buy because they think the visit itself is expensive and do not want to spend much. Even if they want to buy something, they look for cheap items.”

She said that with the introduction of the Nu.1000 fee for visiting the Lhakhang, the tourists are not buying much..

“Before the pandemic, I used to earn about Nu.20,000 to Nu. 25,000 a day but today it is difficult to earn more than Nu.10,000 and sometimes even less. Before there was more arrival of tourists but today tourists are few and revenue less,” Sonam added.

Her shop is popular for displaying and selling different designs, shapes, and colors of wooden phallus besides other artifacts such as Thangka’s, religious items, and old traditional clothes.

The wooden phallus cost ranges from Nu.10,800 to Nu.1000.

Kinley Wangmo, another handicraft shop owner had just reopened her shop a month ago after it remained closed for more than two years. She started her shop in 2019 but before she could begin her business, the pandemic begin. “Compared to the past the business is down and in the past with the arrival of a lot of tourists, I was able to sell more items from my shop but today it is just the opposite,” the 40-year-old owner of Yuthra handicraft said.

She said despite offering the lowest price the tourists still don’t want to buy. For instance, a Mandala costing Nu.350 is offered for Nu.200 but still, the tourists don’t want to buy it.

Someone who used to earn more than Nu.30,000 a month in the pastis not able to sell a single item today. “Past few days I have been going home empty-handed with no revenue, as I am not able to sell anything,” she said.

 The 40-year-old said connection with the guides also plays an important role. “If you know the guides then they bring the guests to your shop otherwise the guides take the tourists to other shops. There are some good guides who don’t interfere and let the tourists buy from wherever they want to,” she said.

Om Lhamo Kalden, working for one of the handicraft shops said that with the shop open, she sits inside the shop the whole day without a single tourist at times.

“Increase in SDF has been attributed as one of the reasons for fewer tourists coming to the country and businesses like ours getting affected. They come inside the shop, look at the items then ask the cost and leave without a word,” she said.

The 37-year-old Yonten has been running a painting gallery for the last eight years and has been able to earn more than Nu.200,000 a month before the pandemic struck but today his story is no different from others. However, he does earn much better than others as he just not only sells his painting but also paints for other’s houses.

“I reopened my shop in September and the sale is not as good as I expected or what it was in past but I hope that over the months it might change,” he said.

He said he knew a few of the guides who bought in some tourists to his gallery and because of them, he was able to sell a few of his paintings. “Increase in the SDF would be another reason for the handicraft businesses to be affected and after the pandemic, a greater number of shops have opened in the area. I think authorities concerned should monitor the number of shops opening in the area otherwise the whole village will be converted into shops,” he said.

Chencho Dema from Thimphu