Lhamo and her husband, both cultural tour guides, lived a comfortable life in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu before COVID-19 broke out. Prior to the pandemic there was no dearth of work as tourists continued to pour into the country, dubbed as “the last Shangri-la”.
Bhutan reported its first COVID-19 case, an American tourist, on 6 March 2020. In a bid to keep the highly contagious virus at bay, the Bhutanese government immediately closed its borders, a restriction that’s yet to be eased, let alone lifted.
Job hunting in the face of a massive global crisis was anything but easy. With no source of income and little savings, they struggled to pay rent. “We requested our landlord for a waiver but in vain. Had it not been for His Majesty’s COVID-19 relief support, we would have had no choice but to vacate,” Lhamo said.
Unable to find work and desperate to stay afloat, they took to gardening. The couple leased a land in the outskirts of Thimphu where they grew chilies. It was a far cry from the income they had before. But it was better than nothing.
After months of trying, Lhamo’s husband managed to get a job with Thimphu municipal’s ‘cash for work’ scheme initiated to cushion the COVID-19 socio-economic impact on tourism workers. And Lhamo signed up for the Trekking Guide Course offered through the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) and the UNDP project “Protecting Livelihoods and Reinforcing the Tourism Sector in Bhutan”.
The project was initiated under the country’s economic contingency plan aimed at gainfully engaging those in tourism. UNDP supported the project as part of its National COVID-19 Response and Recovery efforts. It was funded by the UN COVID-19 Multi Partner Trust Fund.
Lhamo was among the 100 cultural tour guides who availed themselves of the opportunity to develop new skills. The Trekking Guide Course, Lhamo said, couldn’t have come at a better time. “I’ve always wanted to try out what it’s like to be a trekking guide but never got the time to pursue this dream. This is a great opportunity,” she said.
Lhamo and her husband’s predicament is shared by thousands of other tour guides.
Tourism remains among the sectors hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic in Bhutan. The government’s Rapid Socio-Economic Impact Assessment carried out in April last year, which UNDP acted as technical lead in collaboration with UN agencies, revealed how hard it had hit the small mountain nation which relies so heavily on visitor.
Sonam Dorji from Trongsa is another cultural tour guide whose life took a 90-degree turn when the pandemic his. He and his wife have a young toddler. “This pandemic has affected us badly,” Sonam said. “We couldn’t afford to pay rent for our apartment anymore and had to move into my wife’s family house. His Majesty’s COVID-19 relief fund support at least provided us some respite.”
Like Lhamo, Sonam Dorji grabbed the opportunity to upgrade to trekking guide. “The trekking guide course costs Nu 45,000. But this time thanks to the support from the tourism council and the UN, we get to take the course free of cost. It’s a great opportunity,” Sonam said.
Tandin Gyem from Punakha, another cultural tour guide, lived in a rented apartment in Thimphu before COVID-19 happened. With a steady income, Tandin was able to send money regularly to her brother who is a college student. But these became a thing of the past ever since the pandemic upended her life. She has been forced to give up her apartment and move in with her cousins.
The trekking guide course offered her some hope and kept her engaged during these difficult, uncertain times. “I love hiking and have always wanted to become a trekking guide. I am grateful for the opportunity,” she says.
Others like Sangay Tenzin and Choki Zangmo, are considering returning to their villages until the situation improves. Karma Norbu, says he is worried about his future. But for now, he is helping his mother with her business.
The future looks uncertain, but these young Bhutanese tour guides hope that it won’t be long before tourism reopens, and they are able to lead trekking groups to the beautiful snow-capped mountains that dot the country’s north.
The TCB-UNDP project “Protecting Livelihoods and Reinforcing the Tourism Sector in Bhutan” directly benefitted more than 150 affected tourism workers (including 27 women) and their families. The project also supported the engagement of tourism workers in the digitization of Bhutan’s popular snowman trek and enhancement of the Phajoding trail in Thimphu. These interventions helped provide immediate support to people working in tourism.
Story: UNDP Bhutan; Photos: UNDP Bhutan, except where noted.