Crowded Dochula ( Courtesy: Carpetblogger1)

As Bhutan stands in danger of losing exclusive tag govt contemplates moves

For many years, Bhutan has been making it to the top of international destinations and it has also been used to getting rave reviews from international news outlets, travel magazines, blogs, celebrities and tariff paying tourists.

However, the edges are starting to fray as Bhutan’s exclusive tag is now increasingly being questioned as the numbers of low-budget regional tourists grow and grow.

A Bhutanese tour operator who is currently abroad promoting Bhutan to tariff paying tourists wrote in a Tourism WeChat group saying, “Marketing Bhutan as an exclusive destination is no more accepted. In 10 days, I visited around 50 travel company partners and got very bad feedback on Bhutan.”

He said that four of the biggest travel companies who bring 600 to 900 high end Vietnamese and western tourists to Bhutan every year are cutting off Bhutan from their product list saying it is too expensive and at the same time a noisy and crowded destination.

The questions posed by foreign tour companies to the Bhutanese tour operator was on why some tourists travel freely without royalty, why the road are full of Indian taxis, why other tourists can laugh and take pictures in holy places, but the tariff paying tourists are forbidden from doing the same and why it is difficult to get rooms while regional tourists get the same rooms at much cheaper rates.

In another indication Robin Smillie, the President of Rainbow Photo Tours that gets American tourists to Bhutan in a comment sent to The Bhutanese said he is ending his tours to Bhutan from April 2020 saying Bhutan has ‘lost its appeal to high end tourists.’

He complained of large numbers of Indian tourists crowding out tourism sites like Tiger’s Nest, Dochula, Punakha Dzong and other places.

Already, the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) and Guides Association of Bhutan (GAB) have expressed concerned about Bhutan turning into a mass tourism destination.

A tourist who came to Bhutan and tweets by the name @carpetblogger in a tweet said, “If you come to Bhutan hoping to escape mass tourism, you are going to be sad.” The tweet was accompanied by a picture showing a crowded Dochula.

The same tourist also wrote on Twitter saying, “I came away thinking, with the exception of the out of the way hiking I did, Bhutan was a very poor value.”

Ritu an Indian tour operator of Ease India Travel who occasionally organizes high-end regional tourists to Bhutan wrote on twitter saying, “Mass tourism from India, in particular, is killing Bhutan and you mustn’t say “regional” because no one here gets it. This influx beats the very tourism policy that Bhutan keeps harping about. I feel so so sad when I see the Bhutan of today.”

She said that she first visited Bhutan in 2012 and it was untouched by tourists from India. “On my first trip itself I realized that it’s not a country for backpackers. Their rules are so clear. But they didn’t expect this tsunami of visitors from India,” Ritu added.

Another Indian on twitter named Rustam Yadu asked Bhutan to make itself super expensive or it would end up becoming like the Indian hill stations of Shimla, Manali, Nainital, etc. He said, “These short term tourist destinations destroy the entire eco system of the environment and the local culture. Please don’t open up.”

Tushar Rawat who promotes community based tourism in India wrote, “Saving the Himalayan region from over tourism is our collective responsibility. Sustainable tourism only, zero tolerance for mass tourism.”

He asked Bhutan to save itself from mass tourism. “Mussorie is about to get battered by summer season crowd,” he added.

Mathew Joseph C. the associate professor of Academy of International Studies in Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi also wrote in saying, “Uncontrolled tourism will only destroy the natural scenic beauty of any country. Bhutan cannot be an exception in this.”

A twitter account name Ecofemme Owl from India said, “Shimla is in heartbreaking state, the water crisis, excessive motor vehicles. Now we are losing places like Dharamkot to mass tourism too. It is unsustainable and Bhutan should be saved from it.”

This is on top of testimonies by many Bhutanese tour operators in Bhutan on how tourism sites are getting crowded out and that Bhutan is in danger of losing its exclusivity tag, if nothing urgent is done.

If one thought that Indian tour operators selling Bhutan at Nu 1,000 a day is cheap then a Travel Facebook page from India called Tripoto with 1.8 mn followers posted an article of how an Indian tourist enjoyed Bhutan at Nu 4,000 for 7 days calling it a ‘Backpacking adventure across Bhutan.’

A Pritam Pandit claimed that he spent just Nu 1,450 for six nights stay in Bhutan by sharing his room.

Yeshey Norbu of Norbu Bhutan Travel which is arguably the largest travel agency in Bhutan said that the numbers are more a management issue, but he did admit that regional tourists were affecting tariff paying tourists in terms of crowding out of tourism sites, booking out of hotels by large tour companies from India and difficulty in getting air tickets.

Govt action

Lyonchhen (Dr) Lotay Tshering in the context of Bhutan is being sold cheaply in the region said that what foreign operators do is their business, but the same questions must also be asked of the Bhutanese.

He said one issue is that there are no clear cut laws on issues of regional tourists taking private houses for rent for a night or two except mandating tariff paying tourists to stay in three star hotels and above.

He said that as a result businesses take advantage of this.

Lyonchhen said that he has asked the Foreign Minister Lyonpo Tandin Dorji (who is also the Tourism Council of Bhutan Chairman) to look into the issue.

“We have to study the scenario closely and and look at the impact,” said the Prime Minister.

The Foreign Minister Lyonpo (Dr) Tandin Dorji said that Bhutan is not distinguishing between regional and tariff paying tourists but the focus is on ensuring ‘high value and low impact.’

The minister said, “This is not only a concern for us but when we went to India, PM Modi himself said Bhutan should limit its tourists as too many are coming.”

He said that even during the time of Bhutan’s former PM it was an issue of concern for both sides for the last few years.

The minister in his capacity as the Chairman of the TCB will be deliberating on various measures recommended by the TCB to bring down and prevent mass tourism in Bhutan.

Lyonpo said that he will in fact be meeting with TCB next week to discuss the issue.

Lyonpo said during the TCB board meeting they will come up with strategies to ensure high value and low impact.

He said that the issue is not just about numbers as Bhutan is willing to get 300,000 or even 400,000 tourists as long as they are high end but that the ground reality is that a majority of tourists do not fall in the high value category.

Lyonpo said the TCB Council has representation from ABTO, GAB, HRAB and others.

The government is considering measures like capping the numbers of tourists to a certain number every year and this could be through an entry point like Phuentsholing. Another is imposing a minimum fee or SDF for regional tourists as recommended by the Pay Commission.

One measure is to see if foreign vehicles can be stopped at a point and only Bhutanese vehicles allowed thereafter or if only vehicles below a certain age be allowed. Fees like a green tax as per local laws could also be looked at and another possible move is to ensure that foreign cars do not carry more than five people in a car as per Bhutan’s vehicle rules.

TCB could also look at standardizing even budget hotels so that only a certain category can keep regional tourists. For this TCB is planning to bring all hotels under it from the MoEA. Currently, TCB only has control over around 200 three star and above hotels, while another 600 or 700 budget hotels come under the MoEA.

A major issue has been monitoring to ensure that hotels are following the law as the very cheap travel rates are only possible due to illegal residential apartments, Airbnb and hotels offering very low rates.

Here, the TCB will be looking at strengthening and getting tougher on monitoring by hiring inspectors to monitor and penalize these establishments.

The TCB would also seek the help of Trade officials under the MoEA, as well as from the Royal Bhutan Police to monitor establishments.

The DG of TCB, Dorji Dhradhul said that he does not want to be over excited or over-react to some of the online testimonies and posts as the majority of tour operators numbering around 3,000 have not said the same.

“Having said that, as far as I am concerned I am going to keep this information to myself,” he said.

The DG said that Bhutan is still one of the top international destinations and he not as worried by some of the testimonies.

The DG said that to sell Bhutan as a high end destination at a more global level he said the TCB is looking at partnering with agencies like CNN, BBC and National Geographic.

Another important agency connected to the tourism sector is the MoEA. Here the MoEA minister Lyonpo Loknath Sharma spoke plainly on the issue.

Lyonpo Loknath said that one problem is the lack of a comprehensive Tourism Policy apart from ‘high value and low volume.’

“We need to develop a comprehensive and workable tourism policy,” said Lyonpo.

Lyonpo said that while not segregating regional and others, the sector has brought in revenue but an uncontrolled flow would affect GNH.

He said that Bhutan needs to apply GNH to tourism and see how many tourists should come and what kind should come.

On hotels, the minister said that the fiscal incentives have lead to excessive hotels coming up in already crowded areas like Thimphu, Paro and Punakha while there are no hotels in other places.

The minister said that people are even converting residential buildings into hotels and as a result on one hand rents are affected but on the other hand hotels complain of low occupancy.

The minister said that the fiscal incentives should be relooked at as only a handful have benefitted.

A senior government official, on the condition of anonymity, also questioned the National Assembly resolution of opening up additional border entry points as it would lead to increased regional tourists and, as a result, other associated problems.

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  1. Hello sir..
    I am impress with your artical. It is all true what you have wrote in your artical. Even me as a bhutanese i feel the same. Even we want to ask the government why there is diffrent price for different tourists that comes our country. Why we cant decrease the number of indian and south aisa countries tourism because of them the annual number of tourists is low which basically effect the economy and environment around. They like to vist the holy places but the dont respect it as we do. Which effect the mind of young people in bhutan yet our government never thinks of it rather they want to strengthen the bond between two countries by giving low price vist and free visa. I as a bhutanese and Buddhist i feel ashamed because my religion says treat everyone equal. But why we treat some with high priority and other with low. It is a big question that government need to answer.. Government should really impose some rule and regulations to impose good tourism spot to all the human being in this world. And it also cut off indian with low visa and low price.. Evryone deserved to be treated same. Buddha treated everyone same and Bhutan is a Buddha country..

  2. then why do you even take financial aid from India? you have so many concerns, but you have nothing to talk about your own achievements, then you depend on Indian aid to survive. think before you blame anyone from India.

    everyone knows what will happen if India does not support you guys, you are the easiest target in asia for China. and we have been supporting you without getting even one penny in return or any expectation whatsoever.

    you cannot even fight the chinese for 1 day. stop and think about what you write and think of people who stand up and have helped you for last several decades. its ur wisdom if you want to cut the branch you are sitting on.

  3. The cause of Mass Tourism is failer from poor vision of the Government . Allowing of too many hotels construction , transforming residential into Hotels , No rules of Indian Taxi coming Bhutan and no licenses required for operating regional tourist are main cause of mass tourism. When there is too many hotels, prize of the hotels goes down and becomes the cheap hotels , Increasing institute for guide training and producing mass tour guide are again cause of mass tourism , new guides working at low rates , Now it will be difficult to bring back the charm of High value low impact policy . This policy is now History , Is like death to us .

  4. In the article it says: “The DG of TCB, Dorji Dhradhul said that he does not want to be over excited or over-react to some of the online testimonies and posts as the majority of tour operators numbering around 3,000 have not said the same.”

    Well…uhh…what have the other 3,000 foreign tour operators said about Bhutan, la? We really would like to know about the good reviews, we would like to read for ourselves, la. Perhaps writer Tenzing Lamsang could drill deeper and give us some hope that all is going well regarding dollar-paying tourists that pay the official tariff and royalty. The best way to overpower negativity is with positive comments, for the sake of transparency let’s hear them. Or are we acting “over excited?”

  5. Hemanta Kumar

    Is the article ‘Backpacking adventure across Bhutan’ at 4000 Nu real ?

  6. It is very sad, but very true. In 15 visits to Bhutan over more than a decade and in visiting almost all corners of the country and all seasons I have observed that during the last couple of years one can see Bhutan now starting down the path to becoming another Sikkim, Nepal or Myanmar…where an extraordinary country with extraordinary people seems on the road to becoming just one more overcrowded tourist spot. The country is simply too small, and too fragile to allow massive numbers of tourists, especially from India where their special status allows them free reign of Bhutan while paying almost nothing compared to the fees and charges that kept a reasonable limit on tourists from almost all,other countries. This is not meant to discriminate against Bhutan’s great neighbor, simply to point out that there is no possible way for Bhutan to permit ANY massive influx of visitors from ANY country. Whatever means are available to Bhutan to limit volume— by legislation, by supply and demand pricing, by whatever means—it must be done, and quickly. The country and its people are among the most extraordinary I have come to know and admire in decades of traveling the seven continents and living for years is Asia, North and South American, Europe, Africa, etc. But its unique culture and philosophy are very clearly threatened by the current practice of allowing massive numbers of visitors who contribute little to the economy and erode traditional values will surely put an early end to the goal of Gross National Happiness…and Bhutan with be left with nothing of its traditional self. Look at Nepal, or Bangkok of 4 or 5 decades ago and imagine Bhutan becoming just one one more crowded mass of humanity scrambling for the tourist dollar and exchanging their culture and heritage for a few more rupees, dollars, yuan, dong, etc. the world will be a far poorer place.

  7. Thomas Gentry-Funk

    Thank you for the article. As in thousands of places around the world, tourism is problematic in the best cases. I have traveled to Bhutan with school groups from the U.S. since 2010. The concerns everyone has are valid. However, our perspective is somewhat different. In the years I’ve traveled to Bhutan, the numbers of regional travelers has increased AND this change does not ruin the experience for international travelers. I bring students to be immersed in the culture and community that is Bhutan. Our experiences have NOT been negatively impacted by seeing and talking with regional tourists. Quite the opposite, in fact; regional tourists and their experiences have enriched my student’s engagement with Bhutan. No place in the world is a pristine Shagrala waiting to be discovered by some white guy in a suit. Bhutan is unique and special for many reasons and what this place and who these people are hasn’t changed dramatically.

    My advice is to accept the fact the Bhutan is changing and be a part of the experience without judgement or blame. If the problem is too many people at important sites then create a system to manage those sites. Let’s remember that the problem often isn’t the people wishing to see shrines and sacred sites; it’s the management of how those sites are cared for that matters.

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