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.
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.