The government has stood by its decision to replace Zhemgang with Sarpang as one of the four dzongkhags in the tourism flagship programme despite objections from the National Council and the Opposition.
However, questions remain on whether or not the proposed tourism flagship programme in Sarpang will be implemented, as the government is uncertain about opening of a tourist entry point in Gelephu.
The programme is meant for implementation during the fiscal year 2019-20. Observers say it would make little or no sense to take the tourism programme to Sarpang in absence of a tourist entry point in Gelephu.
The government’s decision to shift the tourism flagship programme from Zhemgang to Sarpang had ignited hopes that the parliament’s resolution to open entry points for regional tourists in the southern border, at least in Gelephu, would be implemented.
The first session of the third parliament passed resolution to open entry and exit points for tourists at Samdrupjongkhar, Gelephu, Samtse, Nanglam and Panbang. Currently, Phuentsholing is the only entry point for regional tourists to travel into the country by road.
However, the doubts remain if the government will implement the parliament resolution.
The government earlier cited security concerns on implementing the parliament resolution.
The first two and a half months of the current fiscal year has elapsed and the budget will go unused if the government does not implement the programme in the remaining months of the fiscal year.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering at the Friday Meet on September 13 said that the government was working on the issue. However, the government is not certain when the entry point would be opened.
He said that the parliament resolution does not specify when the gates should be opened. “We must have checks and balances in place. It’s being looked into on a daily basis.”
Asked if the government would open the proposed entry point in the current fiscal year the prime minister said, “When it comes to opening of southern gates for regional tourism, I don’t know whether it will be opened this year or not. But it will be looked into very seriously.”
The tourism flagship programme, he said, has been approved by the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC). He said that the Tourism Council of Bhutan would provide the details on the implementation status of the programme.
“The parliament discussion was to open the entry points or not. It’s also in our election pledge. Please watch us. We have four years to go. You have to be in doubt until we do it,” the prime minister said.
The parliament has passed the National Budget Report 2019-20, which allocated Nu 11 million each for Zhemgang, Lhuentse, Dagana and Gasa for the tourism flagship programme.
However, the government later replaced Zhemgang with Sarpang, saying that the decision was taken to ensure regional distribution in selection of the focus dzongkhags.
According to the parliament resolution on new tourist entry points, regional tourists coming to Bhutan should use local vehicles.
However, the government later said it would study the pros and cons before implementing the decision and that they would be opened on a need basis.
The resolution was passed to promote tourism for balanced regional development. In 2017, Bhutan recorded tourist arrival of 254,704, of which 183,287 were regional tourists.
The sector contributed USD 79,807 to the exchequer. However, direct benefits of the industry have not reached all the dzongkhags.
Paro had the highest number of international arrivals at 27.5 percent in 2017, followed by 26.4 percent in Thimphu and 23.1 percent in Punakha. Wangdue saw 7.9 percent arrivals while Bumthang received 5.1 percent of the arrivals.
The rest of the dzongkhags saw less than five percent of the total arrivals in the country. Pemagatshel, Tsirang, and Dagana did not receive any tourist in 2017.