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Covid-19: Sikkim debars foreign tourists

According to sources, Sikkim officials have camped at Rangpo, the Check-Post at the border with West Bengal and the main entry point to the Himalayan state, to keep an eye on travellers to identify foreign nationals as well as other tourists

Statesman News Service | Siliguri |

The Sikkim government has stopped issuing the Inner Line Permit (ILP) to all foreign nationals in view of the coronavirus spread across the globe.

In a letter to the Secretary, Tourism and Civil Aviation Department, the Joint Secretary-I of the Home Department has said that in view of the rapid spread of Coronavirus, no ILP may be issued with effect from 5 March to all foreign nationals. This includes nationals of Bhutan, the letter said. “No permits for Nathu-La may be issued by Tourism and Civil Aviation department with immediate effect,” the letter further adds.

According to sources, Sikkim officials have camped at Rangpo, the Check-Post at the border with West Bengal and the main entry point to the Himalayan state, to keep an eye on travellers to identify foreign nationals as well as other tourists. “Two UK nationals were stopped at Rangpo today. They had to return to the Bengal part,” the sources said. Around 50 inbound tourists, mostly Bangladeshis, also had to return from Rangpo as Sikkim officials stopped them, it is learnt.

The Sikkim government will maintain the precautionary measures for at least 10 more days, a senior tour operator said today. Sikkim took such a decision in the wake of at least 16 Italian tourists testing positive for the virus in Rajasthan, sources further said. It may be noted here that neighbouring Nepal has also started monitoring the spread of the virus (COVID-19) and has decided to temporarily suspend visa on arrival for nationals from China, Iran, Italy, Korea and Japan with effect from March 10. Meanwhile, two tourists from Germany were detained at Phuentsholing as they were officially entering Bhutan from Sikkim. One of them was suffering from fever, it is learnt.

Deputy Director of the Sikkim Tourism Department, who is posted at the Tourist Information Centre at the Sikkim Nationalized Transport office in Siliguri, Sonam Peki Bhutia, said: “As per the circular issued by the home department, the government of Sikkim has stopped issuing Inner Line Permit to foreign tourists from today. The decision has been taken because of the rapid outbreak of coronavirus. Around 800 Inner Line Permits were issued to foreign tourists in February.”

Advisor to the Sikkim government’s Tourism Department, Raj Basu, said “Sikkim Government’s decision is a well-thought decision and a good precautionary measure. In Sikkim, except the state capital Gangtok, medical facilities in remotest areas, which are tourist destinations, are not well developed to combat a situation that may come up. As a result, we can say ‘prevention is better than cure.”

According to Mr Basu, it is a big loss for the tourism industry. “A maximum number of tourists from foreign countries usually visit the region in April- May and October and November. They also come to visit specific destinations in Sikkim for their definite objectives. If those tourists are prevented due to the present situation, they will not come here again,” he added.

According to the General Secretary of the Himalayan Hospitality & Tourism Development Network (HHTDN), Samrat Sanyal, tour programmes of inbound tourists have not been cancelled yet, but that it may be cancelled if the Sikkim government does not issue the ILP further. “We are concerned about the present situation of the coronavirus. The industry will face an alarming situation if it has an effect on domestic tourists due to the panic,” Mr Sanyal said. “The UK tourists who were prevented at Rangpo today will return to either Darjeeling or Siliguri,” he added. General Secretary of the Eastern Himalayas Travel and Tour Operators’ Association (EHTTOA), Sandipan Ghosh, said the situation is very alarming now. “Tourists have cancelled their bookings, and around 50 tourists, mostly Bangladeshis, have been barred from entering Sikkim. We are now accommodating them in Darjeeling and the Dooars. A total of 500 domestic tourists (in 10 teams) for Darjeeling- Sikkim package tour have cancelled their programme,” he said. “We have called a meeting tomorrow to decide on other tourists who are scheduled to visit this region, including Sikkim, and to decide on the method to refund the booking amount after the cancellation,” Mr Ghosh said. “Two German tourists have been detained in Phuentsholing. They were coming from Sikkim. One of them was suffering from fever and fell sick. Blood samples of the tourist, who is under observation in Phuentsholing hospital, have been sent for tests,” he added.