Measures are listed in the Draft Regional Tourism Policy and Regulations
The recent public outrage over an Indian tourist climbing on a Chorten in Dochula is just one in many cases, and it saw the public asking as to what the Tourism Council of Bhutan and the government is doing.
The Foreign Minister Lyonpo Tandi Dorji, who is also the TCB Chairman, said that the TCB has recently come up with a Draft Regional Tourism Policy and Draft Regional Tourism Management Guidelines.
He clarified that it was in fact the government that asked the TCB to come with this policy and regulations.
Lyonpo said that the tourism policy of Bhutan is now ‘High Value and Low Volume.’ This is going back to Bhutan’s original tourism policy before it was changed in 2009 to ‘High Volume and Low Impact.’
He said that in the two TCB Council meetings so far in February 2019 and August 2019, chaired by him, it was decided that Bhutan should have one tourism policy for all tourists.
The policy and regulations, for the first time, brings about regulations to the regional tourism sector that is equivalent to the regulations for tariff paying tourists.
The policy and regulation proposes a cap system to control the numbers of regional tourists from either entering the country or to certain overcrowded areas of the country.
Lyonpo said this is where the issue of ‘low volume’ comes in which depends upon the carrying capacity of the country and areas within it.
Lyonpo said that a number would not be set, but he gave the recent example of certain regional tourists having to head back to Phuentsholing from Paro after not being able to get rooms there during Paro Tshechu. He said that if a valley or Dzongkhag only has around 8,000 beds then it would not make sense to allow much higher numbers to go there as they would not get rooms.
He said that similarly if there was a landslide on a critical highway then again it would not be safe to allow regional tourists to take that route.
Lyonpo said that under the new policy and regulations regional tourists would have to make online bookings, and so this problem can be prevented in advance if the booking numbers well exceeded the carrying capacity of the country or a region within Bhutan.
The policy and regulation proposes a Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) for regional tourists on a daily basis which may either be the same as third country tourists at USD 65 a day or it may be lower.
Lyonpo said the advantage for the tourists here is that once they pay the daily SDF they would not have to pay the various entry fees for the various tourism sites and Dzongs within Bhutan. This would mean an equal treatment and access like tariff paying tourists.
The policy and regulations also propose an environment fee or tax for regional tourist vehicles entering Bhutan.
Instead, regional tourists will be encouraged to use TCB certified vehicles like in the case of tariff paying tourists.
Currently, Bhutan’s own tax regulations require all Bhutanese vehicles to pay a five percent green tax.
It would also be compulsory for regional tourists to come through Bhutanese tour guides and operators and to stay in TCB recognized hotels, rooms and accommodations.
The TCB mandates tariff paying tourists to stay in three star hotels and above, but the TCB has also started the process of rating tourist standard hotels below the three star so that they have some minimum standards to keep tourists.
Lyonpo said measures like this essentially mean to ensure the same tourism policy for all, be it tourists from the west or the region, so that there is no discrimination at all.
The Foreign Minister also clarified the attempt is not to keep anyone out but in fact it is to ensure that regional tourists have a good experience, get a good value and are safe.
The minister said that in fact the majority of complaints are from the regional tourists themselves who in the absence of the above measures complain of poor services, poor experience, non respecting of local culture and sensitivities, cheating and there were even cases of accidents and deaths.
The minister explained that a certain length of time had to be taken as the government has to think of the overall benefits and impacts -as tourism impacts a lot of people and all the relevant stakeholders like taxi drivers, guides, hotels, restaurants, home stays, police, immigration and others were consulted.
He said that in the past when the government takes a quick decision there are often issues and the government is criticized for not doing its homework, including by the media.
Lyonpo said that initially he was in favour of using the term ‘Unsustainable Mass Tourism’ but he opted to go along with the term Regional Tourism after the TCB meetings.
Lyonpo said that under the tourism policy Bhutan should be an exclusive high end destination and it should get the tourism that brings the value that Bhutan deserves.
He said that tourism in Bhutan should avoid bringing impacts like impacting of Bhutan’s culture and tradition, littering and other impacts.
Lyonpo said that tourism policy and regulations would be presented to the Parliament in the upcoming session by January 2020 as a resolution had been passed on it earlier. He said since it is a policy and not a law the government is not bound by the Parliament’s feedback but it will make the presentation anyhow.
He said that after that a period of six months would be sent in sensitization and preparation and then the policy and regulations would come into effect from July 2020. The minister said that there is no doubt that the policy and the regulations would be implemented.
However, given that the matter is to do with regional tourists there is also the question of the reaction of regional governments and neighbors like India, Bangladesh and Maldives.
Here the Foreign Minister said that consultations would be done with the three governments.
However, while the minister did not say it, the overwhelming majority of regional tourists are from India and so it is crucial as to what the official Indian counterparts say.
Lyonpo said that the informal talks between the two sides, including at the top leadership level, showed that the Indian side understood Bhutan’s issues and the need for some regulation.
He said that both the former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay and the current Lyonchhen (Dr) Lotay Tshering had discussed the issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi including on the issue of a cap on numbers and PM Modi agreed and was supportive of the need to do something.
Lyonpo Tandi said that with informal talks going well the issue would formally be taken up with the Indian counterparts later this year.
He said that both sides are aware that issues like the recent incident are not beneficial for both sides.
The tourism policy will also look at balancing tourism between the regions within Bhutan and it will also stress on promoting tourism in other areas of Bhutan through various measures and products in tandem with the Flagship tourism project.
Lyonpo said the effort in the policy is to also avoid seasonality in tourism with there being no high or low season but a flow throughout the year.
The minister also clarified on the recent TCB notification that Gelephu and Samdrupjongkhar can no longer be used as entry and exit points for international tariff paying tourists, which was allowed in the past.
Lyonpo said that as per Bhutan’s agreement with India only Phuentsholing was recognized as the point of entry and exit for international tourists but in the past India never enforced this but of late due to certain developments in Assam both the Assam state government and the central government was monitoring all its international borders which led to the issue and TCB notification.
The minister clarified that with a request from the RGoB the Indian government has allowed the entry and exit of international tourists from these two places until a formal agreement can be done by early next year. He said that the Indian side would then have to develop its own checkpoints.
The minister said that this was one of reasons why budget from Zhemgang had to be diverted as Gelephu would be an entry and exit point for international tourists.
The Minister again reiterated that the regional tourism policy and regulations will not stop people from coming or discriminate against anyone but it will enable equal treatment of all tourists and also the ability to give the best of services and experience and remove problems like littering, cultural insensitivity, prevent accidents and deaths and be beneficial to both sides.