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10 percent increase in tourist arrivals

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The number of dollar-paying visitors though saw but a marginal rise

Tourism: With a total of 116,224 international and regional tourists visiting the country last year, Bhutan saw an increase in arrivals by about 10 percent or 10,810 tourists from the previous year, records show.

Of the total arrivals, 44,267 were international or dollar-paying tourists, 8,531 visited the country under international business, while the remaining 63,426 were regional tourists.

The highest international visitors were from the US with about 6,927 visitors, followed by China with about 4,764, Japan with about 4,015 and Thailand with about 3,494.

Visitors from India, Bangladesh and Maldives are referred to as regional tourists and exempt from paying the minimum daily tariff and do not require visas.  A majority of the regional tourists were from India.

Regional tourists, who come in by air, are considered high-end, owing to their significant contribution to tourism through airline earnings.

In 2012, the country recorded 105,414 arrivals, of which 53,504 were international tourists and 51,910 were regional tourists.

Most tour operators saw a drop in arrivals last year, but it didn’t affect their revenue, because of the increase in exchange rate and tariff.

The minimum daily tariff a tourist a day is USD 250 during peak seasons and USD 200 during lean seasons, from which the government retains a royalty of USD 65 a tourist a day.

Of the total dollar paying tourists last year, 44,267 visited Bhutan solely for holidays, which is an increase of 329 tourists from the previous year’s 43,938.

Tour operators said some potential visitors to Bhutan diverted to countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka, which are emerging as new destinations in the region.  Even major festivals, like the Paro tshechu and Thimphu tshechu last year, failed to draw crowds unlike the past years.

A tour operator, requesting anonymity, said his company saw a drop in arrivals by about 20 percent last year. “We’re hoping for things to be better this year,” he said, adding they are trying out different products this year, for which they received a lot of inquires from overseas agents. “We’ll be just concentrating on cultural tours this year, instead of both cultural and trek like we did in the past,” he said.

With the country seeing an increase of just 329 dollar-paying tourists, some tour operators expressed concerns and called for all stakeholders to put in more effort.

“The road infrastructure needs to improve, which is one of the most frequent complaints we get from visitors,” a tour operator said.

For instance, tour operators said the Thimphu-Punakha/Wangdue highway, which usually takes about two hours, is now more than three hours drive due to the deteriorated road conditions.

“Tourists complain about the journey not being comfortable enough,” the tour operator added. “It’s also time we have better roadside amenities.”

Apart from roads and roadside amenities, it’s either cuisine, capacity of guides or standards of hotels that tourists also complain about.  Hotels in the east and central Bhutan need to improve, said tour operators and guides.

“To live up to the image of having the country as a high-end destination, we must start doing more than what’s being done currently,” another tour operator said.

Meanwhile, the tourism sector is second after hydropower when it comes to revenue earnings.  The total tourism earnings including official and business segments amounted to USD 211.5M in 2012, according to the tourism monitor.

By the end of the 11th plan, the Tourism Council of Bhutan intends to meet the goal of bringing in 200,000 tourists.

By Kinga Dema

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