Omicron could unravel tourism comeback

Bhutan received its first tourist in August this year

Tour operators’ struggle to make a gradual comeback after being in a limbo for almost two years could be unraveled by the emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant of Covid-19, which has already made landfall in India.

The hospitality sector has been in shambles following the closure of the international border and the suspension of tourism, which the government initiated after the first case of Covid-19 was detected in the country.           

However, following the decline in the number of positive cases and the high vaccination coverage achieved within a short duration, the sector appeared to be on the mend but the fear of Omicron variant has reignited fear among tour operators, who feel that the work they have accomplished so far to restart tourism could be completely derailed.  

According to an official from the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), the peak tourist season is usually between March and May in spring, and September and November during the fall,

“But this season due to the new variant, the future of tourism looks bleak,” he said, “Before the emergence of Omicron, we were confident about opening up tourism by June 2022 but now we are apprehensive about the situation becoming worse.”  

Bhutan received its first tourist in August this year, which rekindled the hope of the people associated with the industry, who thought the return of normalcy was imminent.

However, he added that the tourists could still be discouraged by the cost of the mandatory 21 days quarantine, besides being subjected to the RT-PCR test upon its completion.

Meanwhile, in the absence of international tourists, domestic tourism has picked up very well, with many operators offering tour packages to interested adventurers in many pristine locations popular among tourists. Nevertheless, it had little impact on the lives of tour guides whose primary source of income is overseas visitors.

“Currently we have over 4,500 members registered with us but it is hard to provide employment to all the laid off tour guides,” said the Chairman of the Guide Association of Bhutan (GAB), Garab Dorji, pointing out the difficulty in keeping the employment of all his staffs intact if the situation does not improve.

Despite the obvious challenges, GAB in collaboration with the Tourism Council of Bhutan, Ministry of Labor and Human Resources and Druk Global Positioning System (GPS) is providing important training to keep the tour guides engaged, besides involving them in waste management and cleaning programs, along with the construction of trails.

“However, due to the large number of tour guides, employment issues are still persistent. Moreover, they don’t receive a good salary for constructing the trail.” he said.

Meanwhile, he lauded the government for being very helpful during these difficult times, providing employment opportunities, a lot of guide refresher courses and skilled based training, not to mention the exposure to intensive nature tour guiding.

Many suspect that with the outbreak of the Omicron variant in India, the situation could exacerbate, dimming the hope raised by the first tourist, who arrived in Bhutan after almost one and half years. Francis Bak, 70, from the USA, gracefully agreed to stay in quarantine for 21 days so that she could spend the next three months in the country she is so fond of.     

In fact the situation was improving from August this year but now nothing seems certain, said Garab Dorji, whose office has been presently surviving on monument foundation, which operates ticketing counters and services.

“We have done a lot of meaningful work along the trails in Phajoding, Taktsang, Bumdra and upper Motithang,” he said, “Tourism is the worst affected sector and sadly we are not sure when it will reopen,” he added.

Tshering Pelden from Thimphu