After Bhutan opened to tourism in 1974, the industry has grown to become one of the major backbones of the country’s economy.
In 1991, tourism industry, which was under the government, was privatised with 33 licensed tour operators. In 1998, the government further liberalised tourism making it possible for any Bhutanese to hold tour operator’s licence.
The number of tour operators grew steadily and has today reached 1,750.
As the number of tour operators grew, it became difficult for the government and operators to coordinate. Therefore, Department of Tourism and tour operators came together to form a Mutual Benefit Organization called Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) in January 2000. The agency would represent the tour operators and the tourism industry in general, to give them an official and collective voice to bring up issues affecting the industry, and to liaise with other government agencies.
ABTO was formally registered with Civil Society Organisation Authority (CSOA) on March 3, 2011.
Executive director of ABTO, Sonam Dorji, said that government could deal directly with ABTO instead of dealing with over 1,700 individual tour operators. “Tourism industry being a private sector driven industry, industry personnel would be best in the position to know the issues concerning the industry. Therefore, private sector through their representatives would be in better position to suggest alternatives if taken aboard and government being receptive.”
He said that the growth of tour operators is good in one way as more people in the private sector are joining the industry because of huge potential. “However, there is an requirement to put some kind of measures on licensing and also follow up supports for those licensed in order to maintain standards and professionalism in the industry. This is also to make it easier for monitoring, evaluation, management and planning purposes besides promoting healthier and sustainable industry.”
The mission of ABTO is to develop and promote the Bhutanese tourism and travel industry with the highest standards of service, ethics and professionalism in line with the Gross National Happiness.
The Secretariat and Board are the two fundamental functional bodies of ABTO for professional conduct, research, operation, management, representation, negotiation, facilitation, coordination, communication, networking, and promotion. They share responsibilities to effectively uphold trust and confidence between tour operators and the government, public-private partnership, and to fill up tourism developmental gaps to promote Bhutan as a unique and exclusive high-end tourism destination.
All the tour operators constitute ABTO’s general membership. However, about 780 operating tour operators are active members.
ABTO provides its members a platform to raise their issues or proposals to agencies concerned. It also helps the members to increase their credibility so that they can better market with agents within and abroad.
“Being part of the association, the credibility and visibility of tour operators would be augmented for being associated with professional business association like ABTO. Further, they would be the first one to be informed of trends and changes in the industry and also bringing confidence that they have representative who will represent them in all aspects of tourism operation,” Sonam Dorji said.
ABTO currently represents the tour operators in agenies such as Tourism Council of Bhutan, Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, CSOA, Labour Human Resource Committee, National Ecotourism Taskforce, Better Business Council, Advisory Committee of RoyaI Institute for Tourism and Hospitality.
ABTO is today engaged in activities such as analysis of the tourism trend and is coming up with new products, and capacity development of the members.
“Tourism being a labour intensive industry, capacity development for the industry personnel has to be done on a regular basis,” Sonam Dorji said.
ABTO also makes submission and recommendations of such activities, studies, and issues to the government.
ABTO has been instrumental in bringing several positive changes to rural livelihood development, and environmental conservation, among pothers. Some of the notable piloted initiatives and contribution of ABTO in partnership with various agencies are: Tourism Information and Management System (TIMS) 2017, Enhancing Green Economic Growth in Bhutan for Sustainable Promotion, Production and Consumption of Tourism Products and Services through Use of ICT 2017. Handling Emergency and Rescue Services (HERS) 2016, Tourism Review and Recommendation-2016, Bicycle Tourism 2013, Environmental Conservation and Socio-economic Development-2013, Sustainable Tourism in Bhutan: An Integrated Approach to Production, Consumption and Livelihood Development as part of Low Carbon Tourism 2012, Introduction of Natural Fencing and Organic Farming 2011, Rural Adventure Tourism Development (RATE)-2010, Strengthening Tour Operator Associations: Improving Market Access and Linkages for Sustainable Tourism-2010, Enhancement of SCBT: Solar Lighting System and Waste Management- 2007, Sustainable Community Tourism Development (SCTD)-2004, and E-governance Bhutanese Information System (EBhutIS)-2004.
Sonam Dorji said that the challenges that the association faced initially such as operation issue and flight cancellation have been solved over the years, and that the association would look into the challenges the members bring up. “As the industry grows, new issues would emerge which will be multifaceted and challenging. However, ABTO is here to face those challenges, and together with the Board and members we are ready to discuss, study, analyse and submit our recommendations.”
The association also faces questions of financial sustainability. Sonam Dorji said that if there were enough fund, training, marketing and promotion, development of products, engaging and collaborating with other stakeholder would be taken care off. “In order to live up to our policy of “High Value – Low Impact”, there is requirements to have refresher courses for people who are already engaged in the tourism industry which would raise quality, and maintain the standard of the industry and image of the country.”
He said that support from the government could help tourism related agencies and organisations to coordinate and collaborate effectively for any tourism activities. “Tourism planning could be more inclusive engaging stakeholders such as ABTO, Guide Association of Bhutan and Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan.”
ABTO in the future aims to help the members build standard, quality, professionalism, and do business through market linkages.
ABTO will develop and promote the Bhutanese tourismand travel industry with the highest standards of service, ethics and professionalism in line with the noble vision of Gross National Happiness.
To effectively represent and promote the general interests of Bhutanese tour operators in the national, regional and international travel and tourism industry.