Coronavirus scare: Bhutan closes the doors to foreigners, 1,200 tourists cross into West Bengal

KOLKATA/SILIGURI: Bhutan closed its doors on Friday against foreign tourists, including Indians, to protect the Himalayan kingdom of Covid-19 that has so far infiltrated 93 countries. A day after Sikkim announced the ban on foreign tourists, including citizens of Bhutan, the measure has taken another blow to the wobbly travel trade industry.

Around 150 tourists from Calcutta travel by plane every day to Bhutan. Another 350 or so enter through Phuentsholing, bordering Darjeeling. On Friday, about 1,200 tourists crossed to Darjeeling across this border following the ban on foreigners.

Bhutan said Friday that it had banned tourists from entering for two weeks after confirming the first case of coronavirus in a tourist who arrived from India. The 79-year-old American had flown on March 2 and subsequently tested positive for Covid-19.

The government will impose a two-week restriction on all incoming tourists with immediate effect, the health ministry said in a statement Friday morning.

However, when the order was made public, the flight from Bhutan Airlines to Paro from Kolkata had taken off with 70 passengers. There were fears that foreigners would be sent back on another flight. But passengers were allowed to enter after the thermal evaluation.

While Bhutan Airlines is scheduled to cancel daily flight operations, Druk Air, which also operates a daily flight, has not yet confirmed its plan. A source said that while the Airbus A319 can be operated for a few days to evacuate tourists already in the country, it would not make much sense to continue with it and Druk Air could fly the ATR that has a smaller capacity.

Tour operators in the region have established assistance services and emergency numbers have circulated for tourists stranded in Sikkim and Bhutan. State tourism minister Gautam Deb said the government will extend aid if a tourist is trapped somewhere. We have spoken with tour operators and we have instructed them to properly care for tourists, he said.

The general secretary of the Himalayas Hospitality&Tourism Development, Samrat Sanyal, expects the curbs to rise after fifteen days. “That will save the peak tourist season. Otherwise, there will be major cancellations, ”he said.

On Friday, travel agencies managed to avoid cancellation requests for vacations booked more than two weeks. But they are not sure how long they can ask customers to wait. We are trying to tell tourists to travel within India as there are still no curbs, except to travel to Nathu La, Sanyal said.

The high tourist season begins in April and continues until June.