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Rethinking tourism

By early yesterday morning, the image of an Indian tourist atop a choeten in Dochula posing for photographs has gone viral. Together with it came an outpour of anger, frustration and disappointment some calling to ban all regional tourists.

The emotions can be understood. Choetens are revered and sacred and not respecting the sanctity, forget desecrating it, can cause anger. The conduct of the tourist, member of a biking group, is totally unacceptable and the people made it known. What is also surprising is a Bhutanese had helped him climb the choeten.

The tourist had claimed ignorance and apologised. Many wanted him to be detained and taught a lesson. The expectation was he would be charged. There is no point in punishing a curious ignorant tourist who has regretted his actions and will never forget to respect other’s culture.

What we have learnt from the incident is that it is becoming difficult to regulate the increasing number of tourists thronging our sacred religious sites. The tourists had taken it too far by standing on a choeten, but many are finding that our dzongs and monasteries and other religious sites are over crowded. This is also common at scenic viewpoints, roads, footpaths and even restaurants.

We cannot restrict them visiting because there are some who are genuine devotees, but the majority takes it like any other tourists sites. It is worse when tourists in large numbers with children run amok shouting and disturbing the sanctity of the place.

All regional tourists are not bad. Some tourists have appreciated the beauty and the serenity of Bhutan and had even helped, not only promoting Bhutan, but warned their countrymen of what shouldn’t be done while in Bhutan. A lot of us appreciated the move like we are criticizing the man atop a choeten.

The Dochula incident may be an isolate case, but it is a warning that regional tourists should be organised.

We were warned of the implications of unregulated mass tourism. Concerns were raised that our pristine nature and rich culture would be under peril. That concern now seems to be real.

We have discussed the repercussions of the onset of mass tourism. The irony is that we have not come to a decision. Our visionary leaders had a vision for tourism long before the concept of sustainable tourism was discussed. It was high-value low volume, but now we are driven by high-volume low-impact. The volume is realised, but the supposed low impact has become high impact.

Discussion of regulating regional tourism is sensitive. There are lobby groups who are good at influencing decisions based on vested interests and not driven by reasoning.  Meanwhile, the profile of the tourist visiting Bhutan has changed. The biggest impact is that high-end tourism, which we lauded for so long, is taking a bash.

Tour agents who have organised hundreds of tours to Bhutan are rethinking. They are finding it difficult to sell Bhutan as an exclusive destination. They are attracting tourists with their luxurious property, not with Bhutan.

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