TCB submits to the cabinet measures to manage and improve the experience for regional tourists which include mandatory e-permits, hiring only Bhutanese vehicles and guides, etc
In what is becoming a matter of increasing concern for Bhutan’s ‘high value and low impact’ tourism policy, the regional tourist numbers for the last 10 months from January to October 2017 have reached 152,896 as opposed to 54,641 international tourists.
This is the highest and record number till date where regional tourist numbers now number around three times that of international tourists. The numbers are expected to go up after November and December 2017.
The concern is not only with the huge numbers but also with the fact that back in 2012 regional tourists in fact numbered less than international tourists coming to 50,722 regional tourists versus 54,685 international tourists then.
While dollar paying tourist numbers have remained constant and increased slowly the story is quite different for regional tourists.
In 2016 regional tourist numbers increased to 146,797 as opposed to 62,773 international tourists. (see main box)
Regional tourist numbers also include regional visitors like visiting professionals, family friends etc but they form only a small and stable portion of the numbers. The regional tourist numbers exclude the labourers that come for hydro projects and construction activities as they come through the labour permit system.
The huge influx and growth of regional tourists became an issue in the last few years with its resultant impact on the high value and low impact tourism offering of Bhutan.
The impact is visible in the form of more trash even in sacred sites, high number of foreign vehicles and bikes on the roads, competition with international tourists, safety issues for regional vehicles and tourists as they get into various accidents, crowding of hotel rooms, cultural impact of higher numbers, disturbance in usually quite areas with increased vehicle traffic, traffic congestion and more.
There is overall concern on how Bhutan’s limited infrastructure can continue to take such huge numbers apart from the impacts mentioned above and also a very real fear of being turned from an exclusive destination into a Darjeeling of sorts.
As a result the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) has been discussing and coming up with measures to ensure that firstly the regional tourists coming to Bhutan get a good experience, and secondly to regulate their stay in Bhutan.
The TCB has already implemented the E-permit system for tourists whereby tourists have been getting permits online instead of having to stand in line.
The TCB recently submitted its recommendations to the Cabinet after discussions with various stakeholders like the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO), Guides Association of Bhutan (GAB), Hotel and Restaurants Association of Bhutan (HRAB), Department of Immigration and the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
Apart from the popularly discussed Nu 500 per night per regional tourist charge for the Sustainable Development Fund (SDF) there are other measures proposed by TCB.
The TCB has proposed that regional tourists will have to use valid passports to enter Bhutan instead of other identification documents like in the past.
It is proposed that regional tourists come through a licensed Bhutanese hander like a tour operator or TCB certified hotels who would ensure a Bhutanese guide, Bhutanese vehicle, approved accommodation and the SDF fee of Nu 500 per person per night. The SDF will not apply to children below 12 years.
This in other words would mean regional tourists having to use local vehicles inside Bhutan.
The proposal is to bring about full implementation from 1st January 2018 which requires all regional tourists to obtain e-permits to enter Bhutan.
TCB has said the new system would bring about safety, enhanced visitor experience and would ensure permits ahead of arrival for regional tourists. It said for the host which is Bhutan and the tourism sector it would mean better visitor management, fixed accountability and upkeep of the high value and low impact policy.
TCB, however, was at pains to explain that this policy is not to stop regional tourists from coming but to only better manage their entry and stay.
It has been proposed that for monitoring TCB will recommend e-permits for those Bhutanese handlers who submit online applications for their guests with a scanned copy of the passport, payment of SDF in full, full itinerary and identification of the approved hotel.
TCB will also carry out random monitoring to ensure that tourists are kept in approved accommodation facilities, guides are provided and Bhutanese vehicles are used.
The Department of Immigration is proposed to check and monitor the use of Bhutanese guides and vehicles for regional tourists.
One additional proposal has been that airlines should issue tickets to regional tourists based on e-permits only.
While ABTO and GAB have been supportive of the proposals there has been some pushback from the HRAB which is concerned about the impact on lower end hotels.
To partly address this issue the TCB and the MoEA are coming up with a B+ category for non three star hotels of a certain standard that would be allowed to keep regional tourists too.
Another issue pointed out was on the non regional tourist visitors like professionals, family members, friends, personal guests etc. Here too deliberations are going on between government agencies on how to deal with this category. One possible way out is how third country citizens can come to Bhutan without paying the visa fee as long as they are professionals coming for projects in Bhutan, family or invited friends.
The cabinet is yet to take a decision as some of the above issues are still being sorted out but the elephant in the room is the reaction of the Indian government with which Bhutan has a Free Trade Agreement which includes a transit provision for commerce.
Bhutan’s measures could be questioned if interpreted narrowly by officials in India but for Bhutan this is not a violation of the Free Trade Agreement as free trade will continue and the measures do not stop any regional nationals from coming into Bhutan but only regulates it to provide them with better experience and safety, as the free trade agreement itself gives some leeway to both India and Bhutan to regulate commerce.
This also raises the matter of reciprocity. The BBIN agreement failed to garner enough support in the Parliament specifically over concerns from MPs on matters of reciprocity since they felt that Bhutan being the smallest country cannot allow for reciprocal rights and numbers to much bigger countries. This was in spite of the current government saying nobody wanted reciprocity from Bhutan.
Any effort by officials in New Delhi to push for reciprocity on regional tourists may not only impact efforts to pass BBIN in the future but may also send a negative message as the dramatic rise in regional tourists and Bhutan’s ability to regulate them is becoming a sovereignty issue as well.
A TCB official said that given the good relations between the two countries India has been supportive of Bhutan on various issues in the past, and they are hopeful that India will support the Bhutanese government on this issue to improve the experience for regional tourists and keep them safe while preserving high value and low impact.