The criticisms from the Opposition and the National Council did not stop the National Assembly from passing the tourism levy exemption bill. With this, tourists travelling to the six eastern dzongkhags will not have to pay the daily royalty of USD 65 a tourist until 2020.
The intent to increase the number of tourists to east is clear. What remains unclear is how this policy would be implemented because as a development paradigm, the policy of high value – low impact tourism has to be maintained. Waiving royalty is not enough to lure tourists to visit eastern Bhutan. As a sector sensitive to quality delivery of services and infrastructures, among others, being unable to provide quality service and experience would do more harm than good.
The endorsement of the bill now challenges the tourism industry to promote eastern Bhutan. Since the proposal to tap the potential of tourism in the east through a royalty waiver came from the association of tour operators, it is hoped that some groundwork has been done. Most of the concerns raised stressed on infrastructure but it is first necessary to engage and consult the people. The opportunity to participate in the process of tourism development must involve local leaders and dzongkhag administrations for no other would know their homes better.
In a way, promoting the eastern dzongkhags as a tourist destination would be akin to promoting Bhutan all over again. While the industry operates without an Act and with weak coordination, it is hoped that this time, the industry will work together. It offers an opportunity to the tourism council to take the lead and not get overwhelmed by its own weaknesses.
At the parliament, Prime Minister said that the exemption had to be introduced since most dzongkhags were unable to reap the benefit of the tourism industry. While tourism projects are initiated as a social and economic intervention, it may be idealistic to assume that waiving the royalty would translate the benefits of tourism to the people there. We can ill afford to presume that tourism would address development priorities and its challenges.
But given the tourism opportunities, the initiative deserves a chance. Concerns raised by parliament members are valid and instead of rejecting them, a study must be done to ensure that implementation isn’t weak. Perhaps, the institutional weakness of the tourism council and poor coordination between concerned agencies is one of the main reasons for the lack of confidence in the recent policy from parliament members.
It is time efforts are made collectively to improve basic tourism services. T