Figures with the regional road safety and transport authority (RSTA) office in Phuentsholing show that around 1,240 Bhutanese left for Bodhgaya, India, on pilgrimage from the border town of Phuentsholing through licensed Bhutanese tour operators.
The figure does not include pilgrims who avail services directly from adjoining Indian town of Jaigaon and pilgrims or who went directly from Thimphu or Paro.
Last year, more than 3,000 pilgrims left from Phuentsholing between late November and February. Pilgrims prefer to go directly from Jaigaon where the same pilgrim tour by bus to Bodhgaya by road and visits to several other holy sites is cheaper by nu 200.
There are 32 licensed pilgrim tour operators in Phuentsholing of which only half is active according to the Phuentsholing Dungkhag administration officer, Jigme Singye. They have their counters near the RSTA office in Phuentsholing and a few operate without an office.
He said that in the past there were cases of accidents and deaths and complaints of poor services offered by tour operators.
But with the launch of the Package Pilgrimage Regulation 2017, an initiative of the Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) under Ministry of Economic Affairs, they have not received any issues as of now nor received any feedback from returning pilgrims.
They received one complaint from a Bhutanese tour operator stating that Jaigaon operators were not allowing them to hire direct bus directly from Bihar, India.
He said that until now buses were hired through tour operators from Jaigaon who would get the bus from Bihar and the responsibility of the Bhutanese tour operators were to find customers and do ticketing.
He said the charges depends on capacity and is around Nu 60,000 for a 60-seater bus.
Bhutanese tour operators now want to hire buses directly from Bihar without using the Jaigaon middleman and save around Nu 15,000.
But Jaigaon tour operators were not happy and threatened that they won’t allow the directly hired buses from Bihar to enter Bhutan.
After several consultation meetings with all the stakeholders and tour operators, it was concluded that established Bhutanese tour operators could hire direct buses from Bihar. “But I think it will be hard for Bhutanese to hire direct bus from Bihar as there are lots of associated challenges,” he said.
He said the Jaigaon operators have been cooperative and the local police immediately agree to help if anything happens to pilgrims in India.
Nisha Rai who runs Hill View adventures in Phuentsholing said she started the pilgrim business last year. She said that this year she did not receive even 40 percent of last year’s pilgrims.
This year so far she could only send 40 pilgrims on the 10 days package and 12 days package.
“I have not received any complaint from my customers with regard to any discomfort, however, I heard from few saying that their meals were not provided as promised by the tour operator,” she said.
Sudeep Kumar, who runs Kuenley Wangdi Adventures, said this was his first time in the business and he has sent 75 pilgrims so far. He said that it was not as easy as they see and hear.