Tourism: Contrary to the expectations of seeing a flux of foreigners visiting the breathtaking lush meadows of Merak and Sakteng in Trashigang, only 52 tourists have visited since the highland opened its doors to eco-tourism in mid 2010.
The number of tourist arrivals, on an average, has dropped from 2012 and 2013 for some unknown reasons.
The number of tourist dropped from 18 in 2011 to just 10 in 2013, the lowest arrival in three years since the inception of eco-tourism. In 2010, 11 tourists visited the gewog, although it was already half way through the season when the gewog opened to tourism.
“Tourist arrival haven’t been what we expected, if 52 is what we received in four years,” Merak gup, Gaydhen said.
Although it is unknown why only a handful of tourists visited, Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS) park officials say distance could be the possible reason.
“I heard some people say that Merak and Sakteng are a relatively costlier destination than places like Laya and Lingzhi in terms of porter and pony,” Sakteng gup, Tshewang Tshering, said.
But he said that Merak and Sakteng ought to be a costlier destination because eco-tourism was planned as a main source of cash income by leaving the road connectivity halfway to gewogs’ centre.
“The community won’t be able to tap the benefit if porter and pony charges are slashed,” Tshewang Tshering said, adding that trekking to Merak and Sakteng becomes expensive as much has to be spent in just reaching Trashigang from Thimphu.
SWS, however, cited poor advocacy as one of the main downside of tourism in the highlands.
“I think only through persistent advocacy by tourism council of Bhutan (TCB) the inflow of tourist could be increased here,” said SWS park ranger, Jambay Dhendup.
Gups of Merak and Sakteng said road connectivity is the only answer to increase tourist arrival.
“What we need is road because it’s only when Merak and Sakteng would have road that we can improve services like infrastructures, because most tourists who visited the places have complained of poor infrastructures,” Tshewang Tshering said.
To improve infrastructures, road to the gewog centre is essential to transport construction materials in huge quantities.
Tourists complained of poor trail maintenance. Meanwhile, SWS is expecting better turnout in 2014, with eight tourists already visiting the gewog.
More visitors are expected in the coming months since autumn is the peak season for tourist arrival because of its pleasant weather conditions.
Gup Gaydhen said that it was difficult to point out why Merak and Sakteng, despite being a promising destination, failed to attract tourists.
“In order to increase the flow, stakeholders, including TCB, tour operators, SWS and gewog, must meet to discuss challenges, constraints and finding solutions to the shortcomings,” Gaydhen said.
By Tempa Wangdi, Sakteng