In a recent Kuensel article, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that to develop tourism in the Eastern sector, more research is required. “We cannot send equal number of tourists to all the areas, but what we can do is send more tourists to areas where they are willing to go…”
“…where they are willing to go,” is the key phrase in his speech. As a foreign tour operator that has led 39 tours to Bhutan since 2001, most of which have been to the Eastern side, I am a stakeholder in this discussion. The industry needs to be more proactive about developing something that appeals to tourists and we must act fast. I have four suggestions to cause more tourists to be “willing to go” beyond Bumthang. I like to call these suggestions the four pillars of Eastern tourism.
First: Give them something to do once they get there. There is lovely scenery beyond Bumthang but that alone is not worth the long drive. Stakeholders should develop tourism products that are attractive to foreign visitors much like the Highlander Festival, The Haa Summer Festival, The Mushroom Festival, and The Rhododendron Festival. Perhaps we could develop the Mongar Cultural Festival. Let’s get creative and feature local culture and history in made-for-trade events that appeal to the curiosity of tourists. Let’s not be shy about using the culture of night hunting, much like we now use the phallic symbols associated with Drupka Kunley and a visit to Chimi Lhakhang. Invite farmers to display their prize bulls and have a ploughing competition using traditional methods.
Second: Finish the road at a meteoric pace! I can’t understate the importance of working around the clock, seven days a week to finish the road. When my Photographer’s Tour of Bhutan made the drive from Bumthang to Mongar last October it took six hard hours of driving, eight when I added stops for lunch, photo ops and tea breaks to make it more comfortable. That takes up an entire day of the itinerary, and when you break down the total cost of a tour to cost-per-hour its an expensive roller coaster ride. When the road is completed it will be a safer and faster ride to get to the hotel in Mongar and then again on to Trashigang.
Third: Druk Air must take responsibility of cancelled or delayed flights from Yongphula with a viable plan B. Last October, after a flight was cancelled because of bad weather, my tour of 16 foreign visitors who had travelled 13 days from Paro in eight cars to get to Yongphula had the dreadful task of riding all the way back to Paro in a very uncomfortable race to get there to catch our flight back to Bangkok. Fortunately our eight drivers were the best in the business, safety before comfort was their mantra. I am happy to see that Druk Air has added more daily flights in anticipation of obtaining another ATR for their fleet–I was told by a Druk Air official in Paro that this should cure the problem. With this new plane in service a cancelled flight can be rescued the next day. At present Bhutanese tour operators are very worried about this situation and will not write itineraries that go to Trashigang.
Fourth: The royalty waiver of $65 per day per tourist should be given to the Bhutanese tour operator, not the tourist. After all, the tourists depend on the tour operator to write a compelling itinerary and then select or reject that itinerary, not based on cost but based on value. They ask one simple question–is the itinerary and it’s inherent comforts and safety worth the money asked? No Bhutanese tour operator would risk losing a potential account by offering an itinerary that has no exciting event to attend, has hours of endless driving on a dusty and pothole laden road, and worst of all, at the end of their journey is a hidden obstacle and hollow promise of catching a flight back from Yongphula. After analysing this worrisome itinerary, no high-end tourist who is a seasoned world traveller would think, “But wait! I will save $65 a day beyond Bumthang.” But if the Bhutanese tour operators would get the incentive of the $65 per day and the first three pillars are completed then they would be anxious to advise more of their guests to travel the Eastern circuit.
As a lifelong salesman I understand the marketing principal of up selling, that is to take a customer from – “I want to spend seven days to I want to spend fifteen days.” I sell the sizzle, not the steak, and Bhutan’s western side puts a lot of sizzle in my sales kit. The Eastern side needs to give us tour operators some sizzle.
I firmly believe that if Bhutan adds these pillars to the Eastern Side Tourism Action Plan then foreign tour operators like myself will be more willing to sell this fascinating journey that takes our guests above the clouds, beyond the heartland to the Eastern side of the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
Contributed by Robin Smillie,
President and Founder
Tampa, Florida, USA