In absence of a policy to govern regional tourists…
Tourism: In absence of a policy to govern regional tourists, the unprecedented growth of regional tourists over the years is being seen as a threat to dollar paying tourists.
According to tourism stakeholders, mass tourism has already entered Bhutan against the backdrop of the country’s high value, low impact tourism policy that mainly applies to dollar-paying or international tourists.
The stakeholders, once again, highlighted the need for a policy to govern regional tourists for better management and to offer them a meaningful trip.
Visitors from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives are referred to as regional tourists. Records indicate a steady increase in regional tourists over the years.
Last year 62.91 percent or 97,584 of all arrivals to Bhutan constituted of regional tourists, an increase of 49.21 percent from 2014. Among them, 92.98 percent were from India, 7.84 percent were from Bangladesh, and 0.07 percent from Maldives.
The tourism monitor states that about 73.32 percent arrived over land and the remaining 26.68 percent by air. Most regional tourists visited during May, October and December.
Similarly, from 50,722 regional tourist arrivals in 2012, it increased to 63,426 and 65,399 in 2013 and 2014.
Despite being promoted as a high-end destination, the country has recorded more regional tourists than dollar-paying tourists over the years. Dollar paying tourist arrivals has declined since last year and is expected to drop further this year.
In 2014, international tourist arrivals stood at 68,081 while last year it dropped to 48,800, which is about 28 percent less.
Unlike international tourists, regional tourists are exempt from paying the minimum daily tariff of USD 250 and 200 for the peak and lean seasons. They also do not require visas to enter the country and process their entry and route permits from the immigration department upon arrival.
Until a couple of years ago, regional tourists were not included in tourism statistics. However, now that their numbers are used as a yardstick for achieving targets, and tour operators say there should be certain regulations in place not just to monitor but also to effectively manage and optimise tourism benefits.
As most regional tourists enter the country unguided and drive their own vehicles without any restriction, tourism stakeholders said that this has started to have an impact on dollar-paying tourists.
All international tourists have to come through local tour operators and must be put up in a three-star category hotel and above, besides availing services of professional guides. However, such requirements don’t apply for regional tourists.
Tourism stakeholders said most regional tourists carry their own kitchen utensils to cook on their own and about three to five tourists share a room. They also attribute the increasing waste at popular tourist sites to unguided regional tourists.
With such concerns, tour operators have called for a policy and raised the issue with the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators following which the association had submitted a proposal to the government.
Other side of the coin
Such pressure from tourism stakeholders has left budget hoteliers that cater to the regional tourists concerned. While they agree on the need for a policy to govern regional tourists, they said it should not be made mandatory for regional tourists to route through Bhutanese travel agencies.
“If regional tourists come through local tour operators, our sustainability would be at stake,” a budget hotelier Sonam Dorji said.
Budget hoteliers said that they are not asking for tax incentives like high-end hoteliers but that they don’t want the issue of bad debt to affect them.
Citing an example of how a tour operator took about nine months to clear a Nu 700 bill for lunch, a budget hotelier said that they don’t want the existing issues of undercutting and bad debt to affect their businesses.
Budget hoteliers said that they witnessed an increase in the number of regional tourists visiting Bhutan this year compared to the previous year. They said regional tourists, especially those from India travelled to escape the summer heat in the plains and during the summer school break.
Budget hoteliers denied accusations about selling cheap and accommodating six to seven people in one room. Sonam Dorji said that their motive is also to make profit ultimately just like all other business entities. “As a small hotelier I would not want to compromise to that extent,” he said. “We play an equally important role in the economy.”
Budget hoteliers also said that they earn more through walk-in guests than those that come through tour operators in Jaigaon, India. They said it’s not just them but handicraft businesses, taxis and even some high-end hotels that benefit from regional tourists.
“Generalising the rest by selecting a few bad examples is not fair,” another said.
Budget hoteliers are categorised under cottage and small industries (CSI) in Bhutan. According to the cottage and small industries report 2014, CSIs constitute 96 percent of the total industry in Bhutan of which about 76 percent falls under the service industry. Among the 76 percent, about 46 percent comprises hotels and restaurants. There are 4,256 hotels and restaurants in the country as of 2014.
Growth of CSIs is mainly in the tourism and hotel industries with about a 69 percent increase in 2014 followed by other sectors.
The need for a policy to govern regional tourists has been raised before. It was discussed at various levels even before the country’s transition to democracy but it never materialised.
Tourism stakeholders said that there are many ways both direct and indirect to balance regional and international tourists. Making it mandatory for regional tourists to be accompanied by guides, monitoring carrying capacity of Indian registered vehicles that regional tourists drive to Bhutan, imposing green taxes and restricting Indian registered vehicles that are older than five years are some of the suggestions.
A transporter said that the same taxation and traffic regulations on vehicles should apply to Bhutanese if the government or Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) cannot come up with appropriate measures to regulate regional tourists.
“Both regional and international tourists cannot coexist unless the government studies the carrying capacity of the country,” he said.
Some suggested development of immigration counters at the border gates along with separate counters where tourists can avail brochures and the services of guides.
Guides Association of Bhutan’s chairman Garab Dorji said the increasing regional tourists also led to intrusions at tourist sites frequented by both international and regional tourists. “International tourists complain a lot,” he said. “As a high value, low impact destination, mass tourism has a greater impact on our unique tradition, culture and society at large.”
Just for a handful of hoteliers, Garab Dorji said the country should not compromise its livelihood. “We already have a policy in place, which should also apply to the regional tourists and it’s either now or never,” he said. “What if we receive half a million regional tourists, do we have the carrying capacity?”
Tourism Council of Bhutan officials refused to comment on the issue.