[We Care, We Share] Inspiring story: Coming together in times of COVID-19: Revamping our future

We Care We Share

A joint initiative of UN and JICA Bhutan- resilience tools for COVID-19

Coming together in times of COVID-19: Revamping our future

Without a single tourist in the country, many of us would imagine popular hotspots such as the Tiger’s Nest perched on a distant cliff above the Paro valley, growing further away from the public eye as we continue to feel the effects of COVID-19. But if one were to visit the monastery, you would be surprised to find workers along the trail, with shovels, spades and rubber boots coated in mud. They come from a range of professions. From tour guides, tour drivers and cooks to hoteliers and handicraft shop staff- they represent the greatly impacted tourism industry.

Lam Chencho is 39 years old. He is a freelance trekking guide and one of the many Bhutanese who rely entirely on the tourism sector.

“Being part of the tourism family, we were all excited to welcome the year 2020, Bhutan was becoming the talk of the world. But then, the pandemic came. We lost all our guests, yet we were still so optimistic then. We kept hoping that the situation will die down after a month. But no. It only became worse. I couldn’t believe it,” said Lam.

The pandemic hit one of Bhutan’s biggest sources of revenue, shaking thousands of lives that depend solely on the tourism and travel sector. Around the world, vacations are now a fantasy and many dream of a post-COVID life. People may choose the comfort of their homes for the time being, surrounded by their families. The buzzwords stay safe, stay-at-home make their way into bulletins and global news headlines. Lam recalls how grateful he was when he received the Kidu.

“It helped me beyond words, it filled me with so much gratitude and I really wanted to give back. I volunteered to offer my help. It was then I became part of the Taktsang Project,” added Lam.

In a proactive response to COVID-19, the Taktsang Refurbishment Project took off in May. It is an initiative of the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) implemented through the Committee of Tourism Associations (CTA) with a view to “facelift” the trail to Taktsang and re-engage and employ the newly unemployed under the broad tourism umbrella. Lam is currently the Project Manager of the initiative in Paro. The project was divided into two phases. The first phase consisted of widening the trail all the way up to the monastery, revamping and separating the trail used by both horses and people and also constructing small gazebos for brief pauses while hiking. They built make-shift camps and tents at the base of Taktsang monastery, complete with a kitchen. Phase one was completed towards the end of June 2020. Lam currently lives at the site.

“Reflecting on the visible impact of the pandemic, we see this as a rare opportunity to rethink and reform our past tourism strategies, structures and customs. There is finally a pause in our system, giving us a chance to look deeper and make significant changes. And there is no disturbance in our work too,” said Lam.

Phase two of the project started in late July. It is still underway. This phase includes building retaining walls along the path, constructing small restrooms and drinking water faucets and troughs for people and horses.

“After the lockdown, we were reassured that we will get to continue our work. It had benefitted us so much. Every day we learn and develop new skills. It has helped build and expand our capacities and abilities. We have gained vast amounts of knowledge, it was an unforgettable opportunity for all of us. We are beyond grateful to our country. In the near future, we will look back and remember how we triumphed over the disease,” said Lam.

“It is rare for tourists to miss the hike to Taktsang in their itinerary. For us guides, the Taktsang monastery is like our home, our pha-zhi. We feel blessed to rebuild the path. After the pandemic when the world has healed, the first tourist will enter the country and the trail to Taktsang will show our pride, resilience and unity,” continued Lam.

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