During the Question-Hour session today in the Upper House of the Parliament, Deputy Chairperson of the National Council (NC), Jigme Wangchuk, raised concerns on issues related to tourism sector. He said there is a lack of comprehensive tourism policy and rapid surge in the number of regional tourists and its impact.
The Deputy Chairperson said that NC deliberated on issues related to the tourism sector during the 15th and 16th Session where various concerns were raised on the lack of a comprehensive tourism policy due to the absence of a law to regulate the sector. As a result, the long cherished policy of ‘high value low volume’ has been progressively eroded due to lack of clear policy directions.
He said NC also raised concerns on the rapid surge in the number of regional tourists in view of the fact that unregulated tourism could pose several social, cultural and ecological problems in the country. The council recommended the need to require regional tourists to use local agents, guides and transport companies for their safety and to ensure that unregulated tourists do not come into conflict with the laws and cause social, religious and cultural offences unknowingly.
“With the rapid increase in the number of regional tourists, there has been tremendous pressure on the existing infrastructure and public utilities such as water supply, sewerage and has also aggravated the housing shortage. There has also been growing public concerns on the overcrowding of temples and monasteries where our local people feel like foreigners in their own land as they are not able to observe prayers and religious ceremonies,” he added.
Minister for Foreign Affairs, (Dr) Tandin Dorji, who is also the Chairperson of the Tourism Council of Bhutan said that in 2018, a total of 274,097 visitors visited Bhutan and 71,807 were international visitors and 202,290 were regional visitors which shows that about 75 percent of the tourists visiting Bhutan are regional tourists.
Lyonpo said, “Not just International tourists contribute to the country’s economy but even regional tourists contribute substantially to the country’s economy. Regional tourists stay in the country for about 5 days on average, and if one tourist contributes about USD 80 in a day, around 200,000 tourists staying for about 5 days contribute about USD 80 million.”
Answering the MP’s question, Lyonpo said, “We we talk about regional tourists, although most of the tourists are from India, there are also tourists from Bangladesh and the Maldives. In 2018, 10,000 tourists were from Bangladesh and 3,000 from the Maldives.”
Lyonpo informed the House that as far as tourists go, all the tourists are same and there should be no differentiation between international and regional tourists. “When we discuss about regional tourists, we have to be careful because it might affect our foreign relation with our neighboring country,” he said.
As for a tourism policy, Lyonpo said that as the chairperson of Tourism Council of Bhutan, “We are consulting various stakeholders of tourism sector and we are currently working on the national tourism policy.”
Lyonpo said the rapid surge in the number of regional tourists in the recent years, both Indian and Bhutan governments are concerned on the matter. He said during the Prime Minister’s visit to New Delhi, the two countries discussed about the issue.
Lyonpo said, “Tourists who wish to visit Bhutan can either get the e-permit before coming to Bhutan or on reaching Phuentsholing. We are thinking about making it mandatory for regional tourists to produce passports instead of the voter card. We are also thinking about imposing a Sustainable Development Fund of Nu 300 per person in a day and imposing Green Tax on the vehicle as they bring their vehicle when they come to Bhutan.”
“However, the government of India suggested us to put a cap on the number of tourists. During peak season when the number of international tourists are more, they can send less regional tourists and when there are less international arrival, more regional tourists can visit Bhutan,” Lyonpo said.
NC member from Trashigang, Lhatu, said that most of the tourists visiting Bhutan visit places like Thimphu and Paro but eastern and southern parts of Bhutan barely receive any tourists. He questioned the minister on government’s plan to promote regional balance development saying most of the businesses in the east are dying due to no tourist arrival.
Lyonpo said that the government has a flagship program intended to promote the regional balance development and government has target four dzongkhags, like Gasa, Dagana and Lhuentse which receives less than 50 tourists in a year. Government has even allocated certain budget for it.