Majority of the handicraft shops in and outside Thimphu have been promoting and selling products that are imported from neighboring countries like India and Nepal to the tourists by branding them as ‘Product of Bhutan.’
Although this, according to the Department of Culture is illegal, there hasn’t been a strong policy intervention in place to address the issue either.
The Chief Executive Officer of the Agency for Promotion of Indigenous Crafts (APIC), Lam Kezang Chhophel said that there is no denying that majority of the products in the handicraft shops are imported from the neighboring countries.
“When arts and crafts are developing in this modern time, it is time for all of us to take ownership and majority of the products should be made in Bhutan as far as possible. But as we can see today, the products sold around the handicraft shops in the country are 90 percent imported from Nepal or India, and illegally claimed as made in Bhutan,” he said.
APIC is the premier agency in Bhutan which oversees the promotion of indigenous arts and crafts of Bhutan by facilitating the growth of craft sector and its industry and encouraging craftsmen to produce standard products for which there is a market. APIC also helps in building economically viable and sustainable craft enterprises, making it easier to market the craftwork.
Thus, Lam Kezang said that it would be difficult for APIC as a small organization to emphasize on policy intervention measures to curb the ever increasing rate at which the products are imported by the handicraft shops, but he said that APIC will always give vigorous priority and dedication to the local arts and crafts by promoting and producing authentic Bhutanese products available for the local market.
“In that way, we believe and hope as our only way forward that, it will greatly reduce the import of handicraft products from the neighboring countries and promote our own local made crafts by trying to meet the market demand, otherwise we cannot tax or penalize them for selling the imported products, because that is going to be very difficult and unfair,” said Lam Kezang.
Lam Kezang said that their vision and mission to witness more of authentic products made in Bhutan being displayed in the local crafts bazaar is a gradual process but he believes that it is very much doable and APIC can help achieve it in the near future.
APIC has also been supporting the rural artisans by providing skills promotion training, and started setting up several raw material banks that provide threads and yarns wherever needed. “We are trying to link and market productions from the rural areas to the craft bazaar in Thimphu so that even if in a small area, there are abundant and authentic products that are made in Bhutan for the tourist to admire and purchase,” said Lam Kezang.
The former Secretary of Ministry of Information and Communication, Dasho Kinley Dorji in his article titled, ‘The Story of Bhutanese Culture’ in the Druk Journal wrote, “We have the traditional handicrafts, crafts with a distinctly Bhutanese feature- traditional arts and crafts that were started and maintained by Royal patronage in the Royal courts of Bumthang and Trongsa and then Punakha and Thimphu, for several generations. This was modernized into the Zorig Institute – school of traditional crafts. Exquisite Bhutanese handicrafts have a niche demand, mostly for religious practice, but that is in very limited quantities.”
The article also states that the natural trend for crafts, including the creative industry, is commodification of products for the sustainability of the industry. “But more than 90 percent of the handicrafts on sale in Bhutanese bazaars and handicraft shops are mass produced items from India and Nepal. This is embarrassing,” read the article.
The Chief Cultural Property Officer from the Department of culture, Phendey Wangchuk also admitted that in the absence of a clear cut cultural policy, there is only so much that the Ministry can do to address such duping of the tourists by the handicraft shops. He, however, said that MoHCA is in the process of drafting a cultural and heritage bill which will be ready to be presented to the next government. “We are very positive that once the Cultural and Heritage Act come in place most of the issues can be addressed as it would have spelt out everything more specifically,” said Phendey Wangchuk.
He said so far nothing could be done on the mass import of handicraft products in Bhutan, but the department has plans to soon visit all the handicraft shops in Thimphu and Paro for verification of the products, educate the owners on the code of conduct and at least ask them to remove the branding, “product of Bhutan or made in Bhutan” from the imported products.
“Often times the tourist purchase the imported handicrafts believing it to be an authentic Bhutanese craft by paying almost thrice or four times the original price, and if they happen to travel to the country from where that particular product has been imported and spot a substantially lower price, an unfair representation of the Bhutanese handicraft market can be created, thus we want the handicraft shops to stop labeling imported goods as a product of Bhutan,” he said.
The profitable nature of this unethical business has led to the mushrooming of handicraft show rooms in Paro, Thimphu and other places.
He said that the department mostly verifies the handicrafts and ritual items purchased by the tourist that require their clearance as non-antiques to get through the custom by granting permit card.
Phendey Wangchuk added that it is important that preservation and promotion of culture should not be left only upon the Department of Culture and its relevant stakeholders, and rather every citizen should take responsibility.
The Chief Cultural Property Officer also said that they have carried out extensive research and are at the final stage in formulating a pronounced Cultural policy.