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After much debate and consultation at the Tourism Council and the Tourism Development Board, the Cabinet is readying the draft tourism policy and draft regional tourism management guidelines, which will be finalised by January. 

Is regulation the panacea to tourism problems?

Tshering Palden

After much debate and consultation at the Tourism Council and the Tourism Development Board, the Cabinet is readying the draft tourism policy and draft regional tourism management guidelines, which will be finalised by January. 

At a  recent dialogue on tourism, stakeholders in the tourism industry were unanimous in agreeing on a robust policy to better manage tourists and improve services. From budget hotels to elite tour operators, everyone in the sector agree that there should be a policy to better regulate tourists.

In the absence of regulation for the regional tourists today, tourists overcrowding at popular sites during certain months, and the subsequent amounting waste issues have increasingly troubled the sector in recent years.  A tourism expert said that solving the problem has been problematic because organisations worked in silos. Can the regulation amalgamate these agencies and make them see beyond their differences?

Tour operators catering to dollar-paying tourists feel that their tourists are not able to enjoy because of overcrowding. “Our tourists pay royalty, stay in star-rated hotels, hire professional guides. They spend a huge amount to visit the country and are confused at the large number of regional tourists who pay almost nothing to be here,” a travel agent said.

On the other hand, regional tourists have helped budget hotels and restaurants that do not benefit from high-end tourists.

A representative said that tourists cannot be judged by their paying capacity. She said instead the system has to ensure proper management of the visitors to avoid any mishap such as the recent Dochula incident. “If there are violations then the local counterparts also have to be held accountable and imposed fines and necessary action taken.”

“We have waited long enough. While the government is finalising the regulations some things can be done simultaneously,” a participant at the session said.

Besides the overcrowding there are issues that tourists felt should be improved. For instance, the TCB’s exit survey 2018 found that banking services, communications and toilet facilities needed to improve.

More than 20 percent of dollar-paying tourists said that they were dissatisfied with the banking system, including exchange, point of sale, and ATM services. Likewise, 15 percent of visitors from abroad said communication facilities, including Internet and telephone services, could be improved.  Then there are issues with poor toilet facilities. These issues have to be addressed in tandem with main works to improve tourism.

TCB record shows 274,097 tourists visited Bhutan last year, which was a 7.61 percent increase compared with that of 2017. In the same year, the country’s second largest revenue contributor, saw its earnings go up by USD 5.6 million from the previous year.

The gross receipt from tourism is expected to increase from Nu 10.6 billion in 2018 to about Nu 39.16 billion in the next five years. Similarly, direct revenue contribution is expected to cross Nu 5.48B, about Nu 3.91 more than in 2018.

While tourism has earned millions in revenue each year, there has been only negligible investment in the sector. For instance, TCB office has only about 50 employees. For years, they have been asking the government to build roadside amenities for tourists.

There is a need to diversify and this would need investment.

TCB wants to involve everyone. Each Bhutanese is urged to take ownership in promoting tourism and not leave it only to those involved in the sector.

Diversifying tourism would mean involving local communities. Most tourists are concentrated in Paro, Punakha, and Thimphu today. But some research found that there is a need to create awareness among communities, train monks and nuns on how to deal with tourists at temples and monasteries. The holy monuments mean so much to the locals, said one, but to those foreigners a choeten would be only a stack of stones white washed.

The draft policy and the regulations emphasise on ‘High Value, Low Volume’ proposing to put a cap on the number of tourists, mandatory guides, and entry fees at sites, spread tourist visits across the year,  among others.

Within the sector itself, there are apprehensions that one industry could lobby to influence the policy. For instance, budget hotels that cater mainly to regional tourists would not want a cap on the number of regional tourists entering the country any time of the year.

The general consensus at the dialogue was that everyone wants the tourists to have an enjoyable experience and the best of Bhutanese hospitality. Stakeholders want to treat all visitors the same. They said the regional tourists would not mind paying a nominal fee to avail of the services for their safety, a comfortable stay and make the best out of their journey in the country.

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