Pilgrimage season is approaching. When exams are over and schools close for winter vacation, Bhutanese families will plan pilgrimage tours to India and other neighbouring countries.
For the elderly and young and rich and poor alike, pilgrimage to sacred Buddhist sites is more than just important. For many, this means years of saving and planning.
Such excursions can be, however, risky. Bhutanese pilgrims have lost their lives in the past while on the journey to far-off pilgrimage places. Hardships that they face on foreign land can be excruciating. What with language barriers to negotiate and to escape the many goons and cons, challenges throw themselves in myriad forms. In some ways so, the journey itself is a pilgrimage.
But we can organise pilgrimage tours in a way that we are able to minimise risks to the pilgrims. Because many agents have walked into the business of packaging tours, safety and wellbeing of the pilgrims, to protect and promote rights and interests of the pilgrims is important.
Package Pilgrimage Regulation 2017 is, therefore, timely and welcome. The regulation binds the relevant agencies – Road Safety and Transport Authority, Royal Bhutan Police, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs – to the code of conduct and responsibilities.
According to the regulation, if a pilgrimage operator fails to provide travel insurance plan for the pilgrim, he or she is liable a fine of Nu 5,000 a pilgrim, and if an operator fails to provide options for pilgrimage package, he or she has to pay a fine of Nu 5,000. In the event of failure to provide proper accommodation and meal plan to the pilgrims, operator is liable to refund double the value of the accommodation or meal.
The main purpose of the regulation is to give space to the pilgrims’ rights, standardise services, and help operators build contingency plans. These are all good and necessary. It is about empowering both the pilgrims and tour operators, which means pilgrims have the right to demand for services equal to payment and that tour operators are provided necessary assistance in times of exigencies by relevant agencies.
However, the concern is that well-meaning regulations often end up being useless. When too many agencies are involved, implementation failures happen because there are fingers to point to. Licensing authority may go on issuing licences to operators, but who monitors how they comply with the regulation.
Monitoring would be easy and perhaps even effective if we are talking about pilgrimage tours to the many holy and sacred sites inside the country. How are complaints to be filed, to whom, pilgrims need to know. Some level of advocacy is urgently necessary.