TCB proposes measures as regional tourist numbers reach three times of international tourists this year
Tenzing Lamsang 11/18/2017
TCB submits to the cabinet measures to manage and improve the experience for regional tourists which include mandatory e-permits, hiring only Bhutanese vehicles and guides, etc
In what is becoming a matter of increasing concern for Bhutan’s ‘high value and low impact’ tourism policy, the regional tourist numbers for the last 10 months from January to October 2017 have reached 152,896 as opposed to 54,641 international tourists.
This is the highest and record number till date where regional tourist numbers now number around three times that of international tourists. The numbers are expected to go up after November and December 2017.
The concern is not only with the huge numbers but also with the fact that back in 2012 regional tourists in fact numbered less than international tourists coming to 50,722 regional tourists versus 54,685 international tourists then.
While dollar paying tourist numbers have remained constant and increased slowly the story is quite different for regional tourists.
In 2016 regional tourist numbers increased to 146,797 as opposed to 62,773 international tourists. (see main box)
Regional tourist numbers also include regional visitors like visiting professionals, family friends etc but they form only a small and stable portion of the numbers. The regional tourist numbers exclude the labourers that come for hydro projects and construction activities as they come through the labour permit system.
The huge influx and growth of regional tourists became an issue in the last few years with its resultant impact on the high value and low impact tourism offering of Bhutan.
The impact is visible in the form of more trash even in sacred sites, high number of foreign vehicles and bikes on the roads, competition with international tourists, safety issues for regional vehicles and tourists as they get into various accidents, crowding of hotel rooms, cultural impact of higher numbers, disturbance in usually quite areas with increased vehicle traffic, traffic congestion and more.
There is overall concern on how Bhutan’s limited infrastructure can continue to take such huge numbers apart from the impacts mentioned above and also a very real fear of being turned from an exclusive destination into a Darjeeling of sorts.
As a result the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) has been discussing and coming up with measures to ensure that firstly the regional tourists coming to Bhutan get a good experience, and secondly to regulate their stay in Bhutan.
The TCB has already implemented the E-permit system for tourists whereby tourists have been getting permits online instead of having to stand in line.
The TCB recently submitted its recommendations to the Cabinet after discussions with various stakeholders like the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO), Guides Association of Bhutan (GAB), Hotel and Restaurants Association of Bhutan (HRAB), Department of Immigration and the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
Apart from the popularly discussed Nu 500 per night per regional tourist charge for the Sustainable Development Fund (SDF) there are other measures proposed by TCB.
The TCB has proposed that regional tourists will have to use valid passports to enter Bhutan instead of other identification documents like in the past.
It is proposed that regional tourists come through a licensed Bhutanese hander like a tour operator or TCB certified hotels who would ensure a Bhutanese guide, Bhutanese vehicle, approved accommodation and the SDF fee of Nu 500 per person per night. The SDF will not apply to children below 12 years.
This in other words would mean regional tourists having to use local vehicles inside Bhutan.
The proposal is to bring about full implementation from 1st January 2018 which requires all regional tourists to obtain e-permits to enter Bhutan.
TCB has said the new system would bring about safety, enhanced visitor experience and would ensure permits ahead of arrival for regional tourists. It said for the host which is Bhutan and the tourism sector it would mean better visitor management, fixed accountability and upkeep of the high value and low impact policy.
TCB, however, was at pains to explain that this policy is not to stop regional tourists from coming but to only better manage their entry and stay.
It has been proposed that for monitoring TCB will recommend e-permits for those Bhutanese handlers who submit online applications for their guests with a scanned copy of the passport, payment of SDF in full, full itinerary and identification of the approved hotel.
TCB will also carry out random monitoring to ensure that tourists are kept in approved accommodation facilities, guides are provided and Bhutanese vehicles are used.
The Department of Immigration is proposed to check and monitor the use of Bhutanese guides and vehicles for regional tourists.
One additional proposal has been that airlines should issue tickets to regional tourists based on e-permits only.
While ABTO and GAB have been supportive of the proposals there has been some pushback from the HRAB which is concerned about the impact on lower end hotels.
To partly address this issue the TCB and the MoEA are coming up with a B+ category for non three star hotels of a certain standard that would be allowed to keep regional tourists too.
Another issue pointed out was on the non regional tourist visitors like professionals, family members, friends, personal guests etc. Here too deliberations are going on between government agencies on how to deal with this category. One possible way out is how third country citizens can come to Bhutan without paying the visa fee as long as they are professionals coming for projects in Bhutan, family or invited friends.
The cabinet is yet to take a decision as some of the above issues are still being sorted out but the elephant in the room is the reaction of the Indian government with which Bhutan has a Free Trade Agreement which includes a transit provision for commerce.
Bhutan’s measures could be questioned if interpreted narrowly by officials in India but for Bhutan this is not a violation of the Free Trade Agreement as free trade will continue and the measures do not stop any regional nationals from coming into Bhutan but only regulates it to provide them with better experience and safety, as the free trade agreement itself gives some leeway to both India and Bhutan to regulate commerce.
This also raises the matter of reciprocity. The BBIN agreement failed to garner enough support in the Parliament specifically over concerns from MPs on matters of reciprocity since they felt that Bhutan being the smallest country cannot allow for reciprocal rights and numbers to much bigger countries. This was in spite of the current government saying nobody wanted reciprocity from Bhutan.
Any effort by officials in New Delhi to push for reciprocity on regional tourists may not only impact efforts to pass BBIN in the future but may also send a negative message as the dramatic rise in regional tourists and Bhutan’s ability to regulate them is becoming a sovereignty issue as well.
A TCB official said that given the good relations between the two countries India has been supportive of Bhutan on various issues in the past, and they are hopeful that India will support the Bhutanese government on this issue to improve the experience for regional tourists and keep them safe while preserving high value and low impact.
BBS Govt. to open consulate office in Guwahati next year
Kinley Dem, Thimphu
Nov 22, 2017
The government will open a consulate office in Guwahati, India next year, coinciding with the Golden Jubilee of Indo-Bhutan diplomatic relations. Foreign Minister, Damcho Dorji, said this while responding to a question raised by Member of Parliament from Kengkhar-Weringla constituency under Monggar, Rinzin Jamtsho in the National Assembly session yesterday.
The MP said the government has pledged to establish a consulate office in Guwahati but despite opposition’s repeated enquiry about it, they did not receive any information.
“Still, we did not hear that the consulate office has been opened in Guwahati. So please tell us when it is going to be opened,” was the MP’s question. The Foreign Minister Damcho Dorji said they discussed the matter with the Indian government and the latter has given a green signal.
“Director General and few other staff from Foreign Ministry visited Guwahati to look for suitable place to open the office. We took into consideration the number of rooms and are submitting report on the matter to the government,” said the Foreign Minister, adding that the government intend to open the office next year to commemorate the 50 year of Bhutan-India diplomatic ties.
Lyonpo Damcho added the consulate office will play pivotal role in enhancing business, medical referrals, tourism and most importantly the security of the country.
BBS MoWHS Minister quizzed if East-West highway widening could finish on time
Passang Dorji, Thimphu
Nov 22, 2017
With only eight months left for the government to complete its term, the Works and Human Settlement Minister, Dorji Choden, was questioned if the east-west highway widening works will finish on time.
The question was put up by the Member of Parliament from Wamrong constituency in Trashigang in the National Assembly yesterday.
“Looking at the current condition of the East-West highway, many people including commuters, bus drivers, and tour operators are irked by the bad and rough road. The present government has only 8 months to serve, will works be complete on time,” asked the MP to Lyonpo Dorji Choden.
Responding to the MP’s question, the Works and Human Settlement Minister said looking at the current progress of the work, she is confident, it will meet the deadline.
“We have completed 65 kilometres of road widening from Simtokha to Wangdue. Then from Wangdue to Chhu-sherbu, we have done the first cutting of the 86 kilometre stretch and over 90 per cent of the base course work along this highway was over,” added the minister. “Out of 86 kilometre, about 50 km is being blacktopped which will be completed by March next year.”
Lyonpo Dorji Choden further clarified the widening works from Limithang until Yadi, Monggar is hoped to be finished within current Five-Year-Plan (11th Five-Year-Plan). Another 52 km of road widening from Yadi to Kheri is going to be complete within the same time frame.
The minister was asked about slow progress of widening works along Trongsa-Bumthang highway, specifically from Tsheringma Drupchu till Yotongla, by MP Nidup Zangpo from Nubi-Tangsibji constituency under Trongsa.
The Works and Human Settlement Minister explained that, “After crossing Chhu-Serbu till Trongsa Nangar, we have 97.6 km. And area between Chhu-Serbu and Tshangkha and Yotongla are very inconvenient for the construction. In some places, we are encountered with cliffs and rugged terrain which pose risks in executing the works.”
The Government of India is funding Nu 7 bn for the entire widening works of the East-West highway. The work started in 2014.
Man earns his living by inking others
Pema Seldon Tshering, Thimphu
Nov 22, 2017
As much as getting a tattoo is becoming trendy among people in the country, there is still a stigma associated with it. But on the brighter side, it has become a source of livelihood for some.
Yeshey Nidup is one such man who has earned his name in the skin art. He narrated how he was not so serious in the beginning.
“At first, I wasn’t interested in tattooing much. I saw my friends trying to make some on each other and ended up spoiling it. So, I started off with re-doing the tattoo using the handmade tattoo machine for three years,” added Yeshey.
From that point, there was no looking back for Yeshey Nidup. As he got better in the art, he bought a professional grade tattoo machine. Today, he is into his 12th year as a tattoo artist and earns at least Nu 50,000 in a month.
“Some people come to get those tattoos that popular celebrities have. For some, it’s a method of remembering their loved ones, both living and dead. And when it comes to tourists, they want to get inked on the Bhutanese Art. People also come to cover up their spoiled tattoos.”
While he accepts that to some extent, there is still a stigma attached to having tattoos, the notion, he adds, is slowly changing. From a few clients then, today, the number has increased to more than 20 a month. However, he does not entertain clients below the age of 18 years.
Now, having made his name among the top local tattoo artists, Yeshey plans on opening a tattoo studio soon.
Keeping our children away from drugs
November 23, 2017 Editorial
One of the biggest scourges of the modern times, drug abuse, is gnawing into the Bhutanese society. Going by the reports of incidents that come out in the media from time to time, the number of people peddling and abusing drugs seems to be increasing by the year.
This is worrying, especially when our young are involved. Many, who are still in school, are already dependent on controlled substances.
Whenever we bring the issue of substance abuse to the table, we spring to our feet and blame the porous border. What can we do about it, really? Build a wall? This harkens back to bizarre election sound bite from halfway around the world. How do the drugs get in and why are our children taking increasingly to substance abuse are some important thoughts that elude us. It is that our children are going to the drugs, or is it the drugs that are drawn to our children? Either way, there is a problem.
It has been observed that drug abuse and trafficking have increased over the years. In the recent times, over-the-counter sale of SP+ and N-10 has topped in the medical shops across the border, but peddlers have proliferated and the Bhutanese continue to have easy access to the controlled substances. Until as recently as early November this year, police intercepted and registered 70 drug abuse and trafficking cases in Phuentsholing.
We are told that drug abusers and traffickers are from all sections of the Bhutanese society, from students to civil servants, including teachers, to private employees and pensioners. For some, the problem is with addiction. For a large number of people, it is about money. So we get some picture of our changing society. It speaks volumes about our policy, planning and intervention failures. A society is not at the best of its health when its citizens, particularly the young, have been lost to drugs and other unproductive indulgences.
Although it is seen and practised as a deterrent measure, tightening the grip on the issue of drug abuse and trafficking may not be the answer. Hard rules have seldom worked. Our struggle with tobacco control is a case in point. It has been observed that trade and consumption of tobacco products have in fact risen after the control Act of 2010.
The National Assembly will today discuss amendment of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances and Substance Abuse Act 2015 as an urgent Bill. It is now incumbent on our honourable members of the Parliament to look at the long-term future of this country as they deliberate on changes to the law.
Laws by themselves, though, can do only so much. A great deal depends on how earnestly with courage and in manner fair we implement them. Delving deep and looking into the root causes of the problem could be the most sensible move. Hopelessness and lack of self-worth are often the reasons why our young people engage in sad indulgences. Maybe we should have more rehabilitation centres with professional services and ways to bring our young people back into the society with worthwhile jobs.
AMICI DEL BHUTAN - ITALY