Bhutanese tour operators are calling for more stringent regulations to manage regional tourism, which has seen an explosion in numbers in recent years with most coming through tour agencies outside the country or on their own.
According to the 2016 Bhutan Tourism Monitor report, a total of 146,797 regional tourists visited Bhutan in 2016 of which 138,201 were Indians and 8,596 Bangladeshis. Of the total, 69 per cent arrived over land and the rest by air. Regional visitor arrivals increased by 50 per cent from 2015.
While international tourism is regulated by a minimum daily tariff mechanism, mandatory need to come through a licensed tour operator route and use of local guides, regional tourists are exempted from such requirements. Some regional visitors come through package tours offered by Bhutan tour operators but a growing number travel independently.
The 2016 Tourism Monitor points out that only 24.5 percent of the regional arrivals availed packages offered by Bhutanese tour operators, the rest 75.5 percent came through non-Bhutanese operators. This particular trend is pushing certain stakeholders of local tourism industry to call for a stronger policy to govern regional tourism.
Several months ago the government launched a trial online Regional Permit System as an optional channel to process entry permits from Phuentsholing and Paro, which is issued on arrival.
“The system will facilitate online processing of permits for regional tourists through registered Bhutanese tour operators and TCB certified hotels,” an official from Marketing and Promotion Division of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, said. “Visitors who avail this facility will be able to obtain their permit clearance and route permits ahead of their arrival in Bhutan like international tourists. Visitors must produce hotel booking receipt and only those who have hotel booking receipt can avail for an online regional permit.”
Vice Chairman of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan, Sonam Wangchuk, said a more uniform regulation is needed to route regional visitors through local tour operators and tour guides to ensure they have access to high quality services and experiences as provided to international tourists and also to ensure safety and security.
“Regional tourists drive their own vehicle to overcrowded tourist sites and often times, several tourists share a single room and toilet,” he said.
Tour operators agreed that to streamline and regulate regional tourism, all the regional visitors should come through hotel and tour local operators. CEO of Tragopen Tours and Travels in Paro said while tourism should be promoted we should also make sure that it does not have an adverse impact on stature of Bhutan as high-end travel destination.
“ While online regional permit system would help regulate regional tourism, we feel TCB should come up with more strong measures,” he said.
Another tour operator from Paro shared the same view. “Considering the growing number of regional visitors and increasing complaints on social media from both private sector and residents it is imperative to ensure that this issue be addressed to avoid unnecessary backlash in future. Bhutan must learn from the experiences from other parts of the world on the consequences of unregulated tourism,” he said.
The Review Report on Tourism policy and Strategies identified points out that “One of the major anomalies that have become more pronounced in recent years due to the lack of a comprehensive tourism policy is the issue of unregulated regional tourism”.