KuenselOnline

Friday, March 6th, 2015 - 11:30 PM
Yangphel Housing Banner.gif

Is food self-sufficiency a realistic goal?

With increasing rice imports, the deficit has stretched by 24 percent since 2012

Agriculture: With a food trade deficit of Nu 5.2B in 2013, food sufficiency still remains an arduous task for the country, as the deficit widened by 24 percent from 2012, mainly on account of increasing rice imports.

Bhutan imported essential food items worth Nu 6.3B in 2013, according to the Royal Monetary Authority’s annual report, including Nu 1.5B worth of rice.

The provisional trade statistics for 2014 also reveals that, from January to mid-October, rice imports shot up to Nu 1.45B.

Rice imports, department of agriculture’s joint director, Ganesh Chhetri, said usually hovered around Nu 800M or around 50,000MT (metric tonnes) until 2011.

“People used fake bills, on account of rice import, to avail Indian rupees from the banks since 2012,” he said, attributing this to sharp increase in rice imports.

The Anti-Corruption Commission, while investigating a case on illegal rupee repatriation last year, found that a paan shop in Thimphu had been regularly importing 20MT of rice.

Yet, even without the bogus imports, the country’s rice self sufficiency rate was just around 50 percent.  This, Ganesh Chhetri said, was because rice is the staple diet for Bhutanese, and its production is labour intensive.

However, the overall food self-sufficiency rate is over 80 percent and it is very comfortable, the joint director said.  For instance, Bhutan exports huge quantities of potatoes.

“Bhutan was self sufficient in rice and it even exported to Tibet, which was bartered for salt,” he said, referring to the history, and adding that 95 percent of the population were from farming households those days.

Now, rural-urban migration, he said, occurred so fast that it drained all the labourers from the villages and compelled the country to import more. “Our farmers are self-sufficient in rice, and they also grow additional rice for the urban lot.”

The decreasing share of budget towards agriculture sector was also another reason; officials from the department said which lead to low investment in the sector and thus slow growth.

In the fourth Five Year Plan, agriculture sector was allocated 44 percent of the total budget and 33 percent in the following Plan.  Since then it has been declining to the extent of 5.5 percent in the 10th Plan and 2.3 percent in the current one.

For rice production, irrigation was the main catalyst but, sadly, Ganesh Chhetri said, the level of government investment in the previous years was very low.

But now, another official form the department said, in the 11th Plan, of the Nu 2.3B budget allocated for the department, Nu 1.6B was allocated for irrigation, and Nu 600M has been received so far.

Around 12 irrigation schemes were completed since 2009 and in the 11th Plan, the agriculture department intends to construct an additional 42 new ones.

Even with various initiatives from the department, officials said the rice self-sufficiency rate would increase at most to 65 percent. “The issue is not whether it’s possible or not to achieve self sufficiency, the issue is about sustainability,” he said.

For instance, most farmers choose to cultivate other cash crops like potatoes, cardamom and apples instead of rice, because they earned more from the cash crops, which require less work. “Rice cultivation is back-breaking and there are few things, which can’t be mechanised and still requires labour,” he said.

The only way forward, Ganesh Chhetri said, is to look at rice as a cash crop and let farmers earn more profit.  But this too was difficult, because production cost of rice is too high, mainly driven by labour costs, that people still would choose to buy Indian rice brands. “This is where the government subsidy should come in, if food security is important,” he said, adding the production so far is thriving on farmers’ effort.

Meanwhile, the trade statistics also reveal that Bhutan imported meat worth Nu 711M from January to October, last year.  In 2013, meat imports stood at more than Nu 1B.

The import figure for vegetables in the same period in 2014 was Nu 1.8M against Nu 3.2M in the entire year of 2013.

More than Nu 1B worth of dairy products were imported in 2013, against Nu 991M last year (January-October).

 

Tshering Dorji

Lhakhang Karpo case begins February 9

IMG_1493Lhakhang Karpo (file photo)

Questions are being raised about the way those involved in the case are dealt with

Corruption: The Haa dzongkhag human resource committee yesterday suspended budget officer, Wangchuk Tshering, and district engineer, Tashi Gyeltshen, for their alleged involvement in the lhakhang Karpo corruption case.

The committee’s decision was based on the order, the Anti Corruption Commission’s (ACC) issued on January 26, and their suspension comes with immediate effect, according to the orders issued.

While the civil servants, as per civil service rules, will be paid a subsistence allowance of 50 percent of their basic pay during their suspension, the foreign minister, who is also charged with alleged corruption, was granted authorised absence with benefits.

Tashi Gyeltshen was the project engineer and Wangchuk Tshering was the project manager for the lhakhang Karpo conservation project.

Both were charged with allegedly accepting bribes, embezzlement and abuse of functions.  The foreign minister, who was the then Haa dzongda, is charged with abuse of functions in three separate cases.

The case, which the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) registered with Haa district court on January 23, begins on February 9. “We’ve informed the parties to report before the court on February 9 for preliminary hearings,” district court judge Duba Drukpa said.

 

Suspension vs Authorised absence

However, even before it reached the court, the case has already sparked discussions on the issue of suspension.  Observers said that, based on the current positions of the three individuals involved, the alleged culprits were meted with two kinds of treatment, even though the alleged corrupt activities were committed when all three were civil servants.

Foreign minister Rinzin Dorje was granted authorised absence, while the two civil servants were suspended.

Those closely following the case ask if there was a separate law for civil servants and elected representatives, when it came to suspension, even though all are supposed to be equal before the law.

Article 7 Section 15 of the Constitution states “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to equal and effective protection of the law and shall not be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status.”

This means that all persons and things similarly circumstanced shall be treated alike, both in privileges conferred and liabilities imposed.

 

Laws and rules

But confusion cropped up with different institutions and agencies being empowered by their own ambiguous acts and rules.  For instance, the Anti Corruption Act, 2011 empowers the commission to suspend a public servant, who is charged with an offence, from the date of the charge till pending the outcome of any appeal.  Accordingly, ACC writes to the competent authority to suspend public or civil servants once the case is registered in the court.

The Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) or agency concerned suspends a civil servant, who is charged with dishonesty, grave misconduct, neglect of duty, or abuse of official authority and power, as per the Bhutan civil service rules and regulations 2012.

This confusion was aggravated after RCSC coined a bureaucratic jargon, ‘authorised absence’, when the government surrendered three secretaries to the commission.  The government later borrowed it in deciding the foreign minister’s case.

RCSC officials said suspension was different from authorised absence and while  the term doesn’t explicitly feature in the civil service rules or act, it’s ‘indirectly implied’ in one of the leave provisions.

The commission put the three government secretaries on authorised absence, since their case was under investigation with the commission, unlike the lhakhang Karpo case, which has reached the court.

A judiciary official described this newfound arrangement as a “political convenience” to allow the government a “high moral ground”, since there are no similar cases or a precedent set.

 

Supreme court’s guidelines ignored

Some ACC officials pointed out that the Supreme Court’s (SC) guideline on suspension issued in 2013 after the Gyalpoizhing land allotment case also aggravated the confusion.

The SC’s guideline states that suspension of the person investigated might be necessary during the course of the investigation to ensure noninterference and prevent possible destruction of evidence or continuance of malfeasance by an individual while in office.

“However, it is not necessary to suspend public or civil servants once the case was filed before the court,” a SC official said.  This, he said, was to ensure at all times that the exchequer is not burdened in having to pay subsistence allowance, with the public official doing no beneficial work for the government.

The guideline stated that once charges were filed, suspension must be based on whether the public servant while in office had the opportunity or was in a position to impede or frustrate prosecution or commit further acts of malfeasance or both.

“Bhutan has a very small proportion of qualified people and a small bureaucracy, in which automatic suspension may not be efficient and pertinent in the public and national interest,” the guideline stated.

However, SC officials said that, at the conclusion of a trial, if a public servant is found guilty and sentenced, then the suspension of a public servant must be automatic.

The SC, being the final authority on its interpretation, issued an order on July 17, 2013 to revisit the issue related to suspension by Parliament. “However, both the parliament and the executive haven’t complied with the court order,” SC officials said. “It’s the mandate of the Parliament to enact laws, for the executive to implement it, and the judiciary to interpret the laws.”

The SC order stated that the simplistic approach to suspension to correct the mischief that officials were not being suspended by agencies, as incorporated in the ACC Act, was ill conceived and illogical, as it did not consider all the factors associated with suspension.

“In the relevant provision “shall” must be replaced with “may”, making suspension discretionary and not automatic once charges are filed,” it stated.

In cases, where the official concerned has engaged in activities prejudicial to the interests on the “security and sovereignty of the nation”, or is charged for “an offence of or above felony of the second degree,’’ suspension then must be automatic.

Going by the SC guideline, the minister charged in the lhakhang Karpo case will have to seek his own private jabmi (legal counsellor) to defend him in court, and can appear in court only as a witness, or if summoned by the court.

“If the minister desires to attend court, he must do so at his own expense. The resources of the state cannot be used to attend court in the matter related to adjudication of a case charged in an individual capacity with no correlation to official function,” the guideline stated.

Meanwhile, ACC this week also suspended trade and CDB licenses of four business entities – two in Haa and another two in Paro in connection with the lhakhang Karpo construction project.

Rinzin Wangchuk

Picture story

Rising from the ashes: Workers erect the door frame of the Kunerey (congregation hall) of the Wangduephodrang dzong yesterday. The Tshokey Lopon performed prayers during the installation.

     

BoB opens e-payment gateway

The system is certified with international security standard requirements

Banking: With the Bank of Bhutan introducing an e-payment gateway, Bhutanese merchants will now be able to sell their services and products online.

To date, Bhutanese have been availing online shopping services from dealers and websites outside the country, while merchants at home were deprived of such facilities to sell their products online.

Bank of Bhutan Limited introduced the e-payment gateway earlier this month.

The bank’s public relations and media head, Passang Norbu, said through the e-payment gateway, one could sell their products online and boost sales of local products.

“One can not only shop online, but can also purchase airline tickets, book hotel rooms and pay for utilities too,” Passang Norbu said.

Business establishment, airline companies, tour agents, handicraft shops and hoteliers have to date availed the e-payment gateway facility.

VISA and MasterCard holders will be able to avail this facility.

BOBL provides an internationally recognised e-payment gateway, certified with international security standard requirements, Passang Norbu said.

“All payment information, including credit card number, name and address are encrypted through a secure socket layout (SSL) when orders are placed,” he said. “SSL is industry standard technology, which ensures that all information sent to us remains private and can’t be read by any third parties during transmission.”

The e-payment gateway will directly connect the website and bank, which means all payments will be deposited straight into the bank account of the merchant, Passang Norbu said.

For local merchants, a merchant management fee of Nu 1,000 will be charged on a monthly basis by the bank.

“However, the installment and set up of the e-paymet gateway will be free of cost,” Passang Norbu said.

For a private employee, Yeshi, 31, who has been shopping online for more than three years, said it was time that the country started availing online shopping.

Tshering Zangmo, 29, a government employee, said such payment system becomes a hassle when transaction process is not streamlined.

“It’ll definitely make shopping easier and I hope it will be convenient and easier for the customers,” Tshering Zangmo said.

As of 2014, there are 2,500 VISA international debit cardholders and over 400 international credit cardholders with BoB.

By Thinley Zangmo

 

New guidelines to iron out old problems

Forest: Forest officials at the districts, divisional offices or parks will conduct joint annual monitoring and audit books and accounts of community forest management groups (CFMG), hereafter.

This team will also evaluate the community forests every five years and if found unsatisfactory, would revoke it.

This is one of the sections in the general guidelines for the community forest establishment and implementation that resumed in September last year after it was suspended for a year.

Chief forestry officer of social forestry, Gyeltshen Dukpa, said the new guidelines were prepared after an extensive study of the existing system.

The forest department conducted a two-month independent study in April and May last year after the processes was suspended in September 9, 2013.

“After discussions within the department and considering all the issues in the study report, the guidelines were framed to address the loopholes in the system,” Gyeltshen said.

Gyeltshen said the report identified, besides the many positive aspects, weaknesses in about seven broad aspects of CFMG from planning, implementation to monitoring, and group governance, among others.

Problems in area identification and boundary demarcation rose from lack of proper consultation with stakeholders, site selection criteria not applied as a result of which some community forests are far from communities, and unclear boundaries leading to overlaps and conflicts, among others.

Some of the members didn’t understand the management plans or the policies, poor implementation of the planned activities, poor book and records keeping.

The CFMGs will now be translated into Dzongkha and the gewog forest extension officer will have to help the CFMGs to prepare and implement these activities hereafter. He will also retain the tree marking hammer to curb illegal felling in the CFMGs.

“In the Zhemgang case, the chairman was accused of embezzlement whereas after investigation we discovered the money was spent but it was not recorded properly,” the chief forest officer said.

The study also found that monitoring and evaluation were not done as mandated.

The dzongkhag forest officer will now organise two coordination meetings each year with the division forest officer or the park manager and other relevant parties to sort out issues. The CFMGs can’t sell standing trees.

To allow members to generate more income, the area ceiling of 2.5 hectares is lifted and the community forest areas would now be guided by forest type, resource availability, and management objectives.

The community forests within tsamdro and sokshing would be processed upon enforcement of Tsamdro and Sokshing guidelines.

The executive members of the CFMGs would be trained to help better implement the plans and activities.

“With the new guidelines we hope there would no major problems hereafter,” he said.

Besides improving the livelihood of the members, one major achievement was decline in forest fire incidents.

“After the establishment of community forests, there has been no incidence of forest fires in them for the last five years, which goes to show that the members have taken care of the community forests,” Gyeltshen Dukpa said.

The division has a target of establishing 750 CFMGs by the end of the 11th Plan.

“We’re certain to reach 600 by May end,” Gyeltshen said.

The forest department would dedicate the accomplishment, with a celebration, to the 60th birth anniversary of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo who founded the community forest initiative through a Royal decree in the early 1980s.

There were 556 community forests in September 2013, and 561 today. The division has 40 proposals at hand.

Community forest establishments gathered momentum from 2007

Lifting the suspension in September last year, the forest department director general wrote that while the pending plans are to be critically reviewed, those dzongkhag forest officials are asked to personally review the final drafts before submitting for final technical review to the Social Forestry and Extension Division.

The highest number of community forests was seen in 2012 when 136 of them were formed.

By Tshering Palden

Back to basics

Not so long ago, we believed that as a small country with a small population, food self-sufficiency wasn’t a huge concern, and that it was within our grasp.  That was when our farms were the source of livelihood, and farmers stayed back to produce food.

A lot has changed since then.  We achieved impressive growth rates, at times to the envy of many countries.  But as the stats start flowing from the central bank, there are worrying revelations.  One figure that demands immediate attention is the imbalance in food trade.  Within two years, our food trade imbalance has increased by 24 percent.  The deficit is Nu 5.2B.  Out of this, Nu 1.5B was spent on rice.  At this rate, the dream of food self-sufficiency will remain out of reach.

The only consolation is that some of the imports were fake, yet self-sufficiency in rice, our staple food, is only around 50 percent.  As we begin to get a good understanding of our exports and imports, we are reminded of the risks ahead.  The growth, we were all happy about, was mostly driven by loans and grants.  This is an artificial forward movement.

While we se a lot of activity, we are drowned in debt.  Total debt today is eight percent higher than the country’s GDP size.  Experts keep reassuring that our debt is still very much in a manageable situation.  That loans are all soft term and self liquidating.  There are others warning us that we are putting everything in the hydropower basket and not diversifying.  We might have a few mega hydropower projects bringing in hard cash in a few years time, but will money guarantee self-sufficiency?

Farmers are beginning to feel that it is cheaper to import rice than to cultivate.  There are factors that force farmers to feel so.  Producing rice has become arduous and expensive.  But as a landlocked country, over reliance on import is risky.  Our food security is then determined by forces that are beyond our control.  What if prices shoot up in India for reasons like natural calamities or conflicts?  We can only panic and wait for the situation to normalise.

Every year, alarming figures are published, decision makers are alerted and we tend to forget our priorities.  It is a good time for some serious introspection.  We have a generation that is still around that survived without having to import much.  We have failed to build on that.  Agriculture seems to take the backstage in our race for development.  Sooner or later, we will regret it.

With wise leadership at the helm, Bhutan’s agriculture policies were at centrestage in the past.  The emphasis on rural development was important of our development plans.  The balance has now tipped and now we have new priorities.  With elected governments, priorities could change and probably with their mandates and promises.

Fortunately, officials are starting to realise the importance of the agriculture sector.  Perhaps it is time to go back a few years and initiate subsidies and incentives for food producers.  Our focus today may be on the need of irrigation and agricultural techniques.  Like we say, it is better to be late than never.

400 power tillers sought in first instalment of govt. wish list

hough the Japanese govt. has agreed in principle to the request, a decision has yet to be taken

JICA: The government has requested the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for 400 power tillers to be delivered in a first batch, under its request for 1,450 of the machines made to the Japanese government.

Agriculture Machinery Centre (AMC) programme director, Karma Thinlay, said that the request for a first batch of 400 power tillers, following the discontinuation of the KR-II grants that supplied Bhutan with power tillers, has been agreed to “in principle” by the Japanese side.

It has been proposed that supply of the 1,450 power tillers be supplied in four batches of consecutive years, with 400 in the first, then 350, 300, and lastly, 400.

The request for the 1,450 power tillers is yet to be officially accepted by the Japanese government.

JICA adviser Masanori Sunada said that the request was still being discussed and considered.

He said it might take some time for an official decision, as the Japanese cabinet would have to make it.

But he also pointed out that JICA is only an implementing agency and is also awaiting instructions from the Japanese government.

However, he said that power tillers would now be provided under the general grant aid assistance programme, which also covers construction and repair of bridges and schools, among others.

A response was not received from the Embassy of Japan in New Delhi as of last evening.

Meanwhile, the last batch of 239 power tillers being provided under the discontinued KR-II grant assistance, has arrived in the country.

The power tillers are currently being assembled at the AMC in Paro, according to Karma Thinlay.

These 239 power tillers are likely to be distributed to locations where there are less numbers, like central and southern Bhutan.

Karma Thinlay said, with the 239 power tillers, all 205 gewogs will be covered.  He said 166 power tillers have been distributed so far for hiring purposes, along with 70-80 tractors, and various other kinds of equipment like weeders, water pumps, among others.

Asked how mechanisation efforts would be disrupted if the Japanese assistance is delayed, Karma Thinlay said that efforts would be affected.  However, he said, there were back up plans.  For instance, he said, there were talks with a Japanese company Kubota tractor corporation to be their dealer in Bhutan.  He said talks were also underway with a company in Myanmar.

He also pointed out that the private sector in Bhutan is also now supplying farm equipment and that it could become a viable source and driver of farm mechanisation.

The country has so far been receiving power tillers and other farm machinery from Japan through the KR-II grant assistance that began in 1984.

So far, Bhutan has received 2,795 power tillers through KR-II.

With the aid of the KR-II grants, 13,099 acres of farmland have been mechanised. Each acre of farmland that has been mechanised is equivalent to six people who would have otherwise been required there. It has also led to a 15 percent increase in crop yield and 49 percent reduction in farm production costs.

By Gyalsten K Dorji

Safety equipment and clothing to be mandatory for road workers

DoR: By the end of this financial year, every person employed by the Department of Roads (DoR) will have to wear a uniform, reflective jacket and helmet when at work.

This was decided during the departments’ quarterly meeting early this month. All the regional offices of the department were reminded of the requirement with an office order on January 19.

The office order stated that every person who leaves for work in the morning is expected to return home in good heath. “However, it is observed that we’ve not taken seriously about the safety at workplace,” the order stated. “The consequences are huge both on workers and employers.”

Chief engineer of the maintenance division, Tshering Wangdi B, said that one of the main reasons for providing reflective jackets and making workers wear it compulsorily is because of the increase in vehicles.

“In the 80s and early 90s road workers did not have to wear it because then the number of vehicles plying were less,” he said. “But today it is important to make sure drivers see a worker working on the road,”

He added that although there are no reported cases of vehicles hitting road workers, it was better to prevent it as early as possible.

More than a decade ago when road workers, initially employed under the Public Works Division (PWD), received rations from the World Food Program (WFP), they were also provided with uniforms, helmets and gumboots.

Although the government continued to provide them with gumboots and safety helmets after WFP phased out sometime in 2004, uniforms could not be provided.

The cost of buying jackets would be borne by the works and human settlement ministry and each region will procure on its own. “The cost implication will be very minimal,” the chief engineer said.

Currently there are about 2,000 regular road workers with DoR. During the months of January-March the department employs about 3,000 more workers on a temporary basis because that is when road maintenance is carried out.

Temporary employees would also be provided with the safety jackets and other equipment. “We’ll not penalise them for not complying but after certain instances labourers might be asked to leave the job,” Tshering Wangdi B said, adding that it might take sometime to make it a habit among the workers.

By Nirmala Pokhrel

Bumthang goes for hazel in a big way

IMG_0137A Hazelnut plantation in Tangsibi

More and more farmers are planting the nut tree to turn their fallow fields to orchards

MHV: If fallowing land is a growing concern in the country, the prospect of cash income from selling hazelnut is encouraging farmers to turn their fields into hazelnut plantations.

Since early 2013, Thinley from Tangsibi in Ura, Bumthang stopped worrying about leaving his 1.5 acres of dry land fallow, on which cultivation stopped 13 years ago.  The farmer has planted over 420 hazelnut saplings, distributed free of cost from the Mountain Hazelnut Venture (MHV).

Before 2013, Thinley cultivated only 1.5 acres of total three acres with potato, buckwheat and barley.  The other half was left fallow. “I couldn’t cultivate all, as there is a shortage of workers and wild animals damaged the crop,” he said.

Another farmer, Sonam Tenzin, planted over 420 hazelnut saplings in an acre of fallow land. “Since I’m growing old and can’t work, I want to capitalise on hazelnut,” Sonam Tenzin said.  Like him, his neighbour Dorji Wangchuk is counting on the 200 hazelnut saplings he planted in 2013. “It’s like my pension,” he said.

Most farmers are now switching to growing the nut than regular crops like potato, barley and buckwheat.

Most of the villagers in Ura Dozhi and Pangkhar also turned to hazelnut plantation since 2013.

All the 56 households from Dozhi would have planted at least some hazelnut trees, of which over 20 households would have cultivated around 0.70-1 acre, according the to village tshogpa, Gembo Tshering.

Every chiwog in Chumey also ventured to hazelnut plantation according to its gup, Tandin Phurba.  Villages like Phurjoen where over 40 acres of land were left fallow are now capitalising on hazelnut.

According to MHV, about 323,500 hazelnut trees were distributed to 668 farmers in Bumthang.  The project has brought 693 acres of private fallow land under plantation.  Five-acres of distribution centre with a capacity of 1.5 million saplings was also opened in Bumthang.

So far, MHV has distributed almost 3 million trees to over 5,000 farming households with a registered area of over 8,000 acres in 11 dzongkhags of eastern, central and western Bhutan.  MHV director, Lhatu, said that the project still encouraged absentee landlords to take interest in hazelnut plantation on fallow as well as barren lands.

“We strongly encourage that as an activity to generate alternate income,” Lhatu said.

The director also said the project encourages young entrepreneurs to venture to large-scale plantation of hazelnut trees, by taking government or private lands on lease to make sustainable income through self-employment to help curb rural-urban migration.

For 2015, MHV plans to add an additional 1.5 million trees to its nursery space, besides commencing factory development in Mongar.  The project also targets distribution of over 3.5 million trees by 2015 across the country.

Farmers are welcoming the initiative.

“I’ve applied for more saplings because I want to cultivate hazelnut trees on another half an acre of my fallow land,” Sonam Tenzin said.

By Tempa Wangdi

Understanding Malaysia’s community based tourism

IMG_8926Bhutanese delegates attending a talk on community tourism

A 36 member delegation from Bhutan is on a study tour in Malaysia

Visit: Despite witnessing two airline tragedies last year, tourist arrivals in Malaysia recorded a growth of about 9.6 percent from the previous year and an earning of about USD 15B.

The arrivals include 2,051 Bhutanese tourists in 2014 from January to October, records with Malaysia’s tourism and culture ministry show.

Bhutanese tourists visiting Malaysia increased by almost six fold since 2013, during which time the country recorded only about 357 Bhutanese tourists.  Bhutan saw 2,029 Malaysian tourists visiting Bhutan in 2013, up from 1,307 in 2012.

The figures were shared during a meeting with the Bhutanese delegation on January 29.  The Bhutanese delegation from the tourism sector includes guides, tour operators, hoteliers, community tourism representatives and officials from the tourism council of Bhutan, association of Bhutanese tour operators (ABTO) and NERD.

The 36 Bhutanese are on a study tour to Malaysia to experience and learn best practice initiatives in community tourism, and the involvement of private sector in developing tourism.

“This is the first time we’re receiving Bhutanese delegation in such a huge number,” head of policy unit of the tourism policy unit, Nor Arlinda, said, during a presentation on an overview of tourism industry in Malaysia.

Executive director of ABTO, Sonam Dorji said the study tour was organised in Malaysia since it has immense experience in  community based tourism.

Nor Arlinda said Malaysia had done exceptionally well, when it came to tourism.  In terms of UNWTO ranking, Malaysia was ranked 11th in terms of arrivals, and 13th in terms of tourism receipts in 2013.

In 2013, tourist arrivals stood at 25.72M, while in 2014, from January to October 22.9M tourists visited Malaysia.  The target this year is to bring in 29.4M tourists and about USD 25B as tourist receipts.

The figures for October to December, according to tourism and culture ministry officials, are yet to be updated.  However, last year until October, the country recorded about USD 15B in earnings.

“Despite the unfortunate incidents, we’re still resilient when it comes to the tourism industry with about 9.6 percent increase in arrivals and earnings,” Nor Arlinda said. “We remain optimistic.”

Officials said, by 2020, in line with the Malaysia tourism performance plan, they have a target to bring in 36M tourists with earnings of about USD 46B.  Malaysia offers diverse products for tourism in food, affordable luxury, nature and adventure besides islands and beaches.

“We believe in diversity as our strength although we’re a multicultural country,” Nor Arlinda said, adding that was why they brand Malaysia as truly Asia.

Malaysia also adopts the best practices on sustainable tourism like Bhutan.

“Bhutan will have more to share with us when it comes to preservation and conservation of culture and heritage sites,” Nor Arlinda said. Malaysia is also ranked as the top Muslim-friendly holiday destination, while it’s the 12th most competitive economy for doing business, according to the 2013 World Bank report on “doing business.”

Malaysia retains its position as the top 10 meeting destination in Asia Pacific. “The Middle East is a major source market for Malaysia especially after the September 11 incident in the US,” an official said.

Executive director of ABTO, Sonam Dorji, also shared Bhutan’s tourism policies and spoke on Gross National Happiness as requested by the Malaysian counterparts. “We don’t have skyscrapers, huge shopping centres and multinational chains in Bhutan, but what we offer is authenticity and quality services, ensuring responsible tourism,” Sonam Dorji said. “This is why you should visit Bhutan to get the real experience that you have travelled.”

Meanwhile, ABTO initiated the study tour, which is funded by the European Union Switch Asia Programme, the largest international donor and also the strongest global advocate of sustainable development.

By Kinga Dema, Kuala Lumpur