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Low tourist numbers belie highlander hopes

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

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One comment

  1. As a recent trekker on the Merak/Sakteng trail, I was impressed by the rugged beauty, friendly people and remote outdoor experience the trip provided. My group of four make up half the tourists visiting the area for 2014, which was a shock and surprise. There are competing views here that will be difficult to balance and keep trekkers like my group coming to visit.
    First is the remote nature of the area. This was the main reason we chose to visit. The challenge here is that we saw the road construction, both into Merak and Sakteng. While those villages believe the roads will bring more tourist, they will bring a different kind of tourist. And the expense of building infrastructure for an area that takes two days to get to from an international airport seems shortsighted. If you want more tourists to visit the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, you need to work on access to the trail heads. Reopen Yonphula airport to domestic traffic.
    Next, there needs to be a concerted effort in improving the condition of the trail through a dedicated maintenance program. It should include trail clearing and marking, litter removal(growing problem) and campsite sanitation repair/upgrades.
    Finally, towns along the trail should be encouraged, through low or no interest loans, to develop local properties for home stay and farm stay experiences. Tourist don’t want hotels when they can find comfortable lodging with families. This trend is huge in the rest of the world. We call the bed and breakfast lodgings. Merak and Sakteng are already positioned to take advantage of this trend.
    Then there is the road building. The work on the Sakteng road was deplorable by all environmental standards. If you are going to build it, do it in an ecological way.
    The Sakteng trek could become one of premiere experiential travel destinations on the planet with the adequate resources to get people in, keep trails maintained and support local micro development of home stays.
    I had an incredible experience on my visit. I would highly recommend making the effort to see this beautiful, remote ecosystem. I know it was worth every ounce of effort to accomplish and would encourage it be protected and developed in a responsible way.

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