Businesses in Samdrup Jongkhar town come to a halt
Ever since the Gyalposhing- Nganglam highway was commissioned earlier this year, a dry spell has cast a shadow over the border town of Samdrup Jongkhar
While handing over his hotel to the new owner, Budhi Man Tamang had only one thought in his mind - what could have he done differently to save his business?
Giving up his life’s work and investment wasn’t easy for the 41 year- old. Having spent the last two decades nurturing his business, which had given him and his family a steady life, he never thought he would have to give it up one day.
“But holding on meant bankruptcy,” he said.
For the last six months he had been paying the bills from his
personal savings and with business down by 80%, he could no longer continue.
“I still have two school going children; their expenditure has just started,” he said, adding he fears for their future now.
Another new owner of a hotel, Pema Lepcha, 34, is equally concerned too. He has invested a lot of money on the renovation works, while trying to give his hotel a new makeover.
Asked why he took over the hotel despite being aware of the market situation, he explained that the current crisis is not driven by the market dynamics but rather it’s due to a policy restriction, which if tweaked would transform the whole economy in the region.
“We cannot do much about the new highway, but we can always fall back on regional tourists from the north eastern states of India,” he said, “The new government is keen on promoting tourism in the east, and I am hopeful it would be initiated at the earliest.”
Although the 77-km Gyalposhing-Nganglam road has greatly benefitted the people of the northeastern region, it had a catastrophic impact on the businesses in Samdrup Jongkhar as travelers now take the new highway.
The once famous gateway to the east and the oldest transit town in the country is completely isolated and dry today.
Omni Krishnan, a second generation hotelier, had never seen the market hit such a low point in the last 45 years he has been in this business.
“It’s supposed to be our peak season but look outside the streets are empty,” he said.
In the past couple of months he has defaulted on his taxes and had borrowed money to pay of the staff salary and other overhead costs.
“Market is dying,” he warned.
Like him, Sonam, who runs a low budget hotel in the town, has also failed to pay the sales tax for the last couple of months, and has already received two notifications from the customs office.
Bhutanese travelers and shoppers from the north were his main clientele but with the construction of the new bypass from Nganglam, he lost his business overnight.
It’s not just the hotels and restaurants; business in general has been hit hard.
Sonam Zangmo, a 28 years old garment dealer, had to travel every two months to replenish her merchandize, but this year it took her almost five months to clear her old stock.
“Where have all the people gone,” asked Raj Kumar, 56, a barber, whose father started the business from a simple hut some 50 years ago. Likewise, the manager of Tamang Electronics is equally worried as he did not receive a single customer in the past five days.
The Regional Secretary of Bhutan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (BCCI), Ugyen Chopel, also expressed concern over the market taking a nosedive.
He believes promotion of regional tourism will revive the local economy and end the dry spell.
“I am not talking about opening the flood gate or undermining the security, but to fix a ceiling on the numbers of regional tourist’s entry from the border town,” he said.
Current immigration rule in Samdrup Jongkhar does not permit Indian tourists to travel beyond the municipality area. According to an official from the department, this rule is in place due to security reasons.
However, earlier, Indian tourists were allowed to travel beyond Samdrup Jongkhar on special permit, especially after an undertaking was signed by the concerned person or agency facilitating the trip.
“But it was stopped about three years ago. If that arrangement is revived, it could solve the current market woes,” said Karma Choki, from Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan in Samdrup Jongkhar.
She added we should take advantage of the proximity with Guwahati, a bustling city of one million people, and the shopping destination for the people of the seven north eastern states of India.
“There is huge scope for tourism in Samdrup Jongkhar and its trickledown effect will be felt across the entire eastern region,” said a resident of the town.
Tenzin Dorji, 40, a cabbie, recounted how earlier more than eight big taxis would depart for Phuentsholing from Samdrup Jongkhar everyday but now hardly two taxis get filled.
“Most of us have bank loans. At this rate, we may have to switch to a new trade,” he said, adding Indian tourists should be allowed to travel beyond the municipality area.
The Samdrup Jongkhar Thrompon, Dasho Karma Sherab, also agrees that regional tourism would drive the local economy, and that in the past the Thromde Administration had written to the concerned authorities regarding the same but to no avail.
“There is a lot of potential for eco-tourism here,” he added.
However, he thinks the business community should not be completely dejected by the current crisis. Once the industrial area in Martanga is complete, he said, it will bring in a lot of people, and greatly benefit the business community.
Meanwhile, Bidhi Man Tamang runs a small restaurant on the ground floor of the same hotel building he gave up a month ago.
“Unfortunately, even restaurants aren’t doing that well,” he said.