Making Bhutan the world’s top tourism destination but not at the expense of GNH

More investments needed in the sector

On 9th July 2019, the Journalist Association of Bhutan (JAB) held its first Monthly Dialogue for this year on Tourism where different stakeholders of the tourism sector were asked to discuss on where tourism in Bhutan is heading to.

Dorji Dhradhul, Director General of Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), Sonam Wangchuk, President of Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan (HRAB), Garab Dorji, Chairman of Guide Association of Bhutan (GAB), Sonam Dorji, Executive Director of Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO), Tshering Denkar from Bhutan Sustainable Tourism Society (BSTS) and MP Ganesh Ghimiray, Vice Chair of the Economic and Finance Committee of the National Assembly of Bhutan were the six panelists for the dialogue.

While some panelists said that Bhutan is heading towards the right direction considering the huge revenue it generates and employment it creates for the country, others shared concerns on the rapid surge in the number of regional tourists and the possible negative impact it can have on Bhutan.

“Reflecting on what we had 20 to 30 years ago and with the rapid increase in the number of regional tourists we have lost a lot of values that we had before especially in terms of culture and environment,” Garab Dorji said.

The two-hour dialogue discussed on varying issues such as the increase in the number of arrivals from the region and its negative impact, requirement to invest heavily in the industry, need for tourism policy and regulations and welfare of tourism personnel like guides among others.

Throughout the dialogue, the Director General of TCB repeatedly said that making Bhutan the number one destination in the world is a collective responsibility and not just that of TCB. He said Bhutan must always focus on providing exclusive or special services and experiences to its tourists in order to gain the title of an exclusive destination.

The DG said, “TCB has always focused on taking tourism to the top and we are going to take Bhutan’s tourism to the top by making Bhutan the number one destination in the world and making tourism the highest revenue generating sector in the country at the national level.” However, he said that it is important to note that while making tourism the highest revenue earning sector in the country, Bhutan should not compromise or sacrifice its Gross National Happiness (GNH) development philosophy. “We will do things very cautiously,” assured the DG.

He pointed out that Bhutan is at a critical juncture at this point of time and important decisions need to be made.

“For the last 50 years, tourism in Bhutan has been sustaining with the visionary policy of our Monarchs and now we need to continue this legacy but we are confronted with many threats. If we don’t do anything at this point of time, there is a big risk or threat that we will be derailing from this legacy which would mean we are going in the wrong direction.

There will then be no high value or exclusive tourism that we have been aspiring for so far,” the TCB Director said.

In the context of increasing number of regional tourists and its negative impact, Garab said that Bhutan must take cautious step from here because the number has already reached 274,000. “If we don’t restrict it now, even the visionary policy of high value and low volume would not help,” he added.

He said, “We need to be careful and play it well because I think we are heading towards something terrible.”

However, the hotel association said that the association is not really worried about the trend and feels that Bhutan is heading towards the right direction, as of now.

HRAB’s president argued that tourism has created about 25,000 direct jobs and it has also contributed in a big way for the country’s revenue.

“Today when the season of tourist arrival is going dry, most of the investment on infrastructure are at stake, our rooms are running empty and buses are being parked at the parking because the number of incoming tourists is slow,” he said.

The HRAB President said, “When I said that we are heading towards right direction, I do not mean opening to the extent of encouraging 2 to 3 million tourists annually. We definitely need to be cautious to how we open up our opportunities in the tourism industry but I personally feel that when we talk about high value and low volume, the noble vision needs to be supported and when we actually respect it, the policy, regulation and management that comes out to fulfill that vision needs to be properly streamlined.”

“When 274,000 tourists come in, instead of being alarmed by the number and restricting them, I think we should work on how can we benefit or make good use out of them,” he added.

MP Ganesh shared the same view and stated that realizing the important role played by the tourism sector in generating revenue and creating unemployment, the government has given importance to tourism sector.

Sonam Dorji from ABTO also shared the same concerns as pointed out by Garab. He said that there is only one Bhutan in the world and it depends upon Bhutanese citizens in terms of where tourism is heading to.

He said, “Tourism is the multi faceted industry with cross sectored issues affecting so many stakeholders. So it either contributes to its growth or its decline. In tourism there are 4 P’s: product, price, promotion and place. So far, since the inception of tourism in Bhutan in 1974, pricing policy has been the critical factor in maintaining the then high value and low volume policy and high value and low impact tourism now.”

He further stated, “For Bhutan, we are grateful to our Monarchs, stable government, strong environment standards, living culture and traditions and religious beliefs which has contributed to the growth of the tourism and has made Bhutan an exclusive destination in the world.”

However, he said that there are concerns on the negative impacts with the rapid increase in the number of tourists especially from the region.

Sonam said within the tourism industry they have their own issues like issues among stakeholders and issues with the government. “For instance, there are issues with the guides and tourism personnel, issues related to hotels like increasing number of hotels booming up, abrupt decision by local and central government and requirement to streamline immigration and legal laws affecting the tourism industry”, he said.

Nevertheless, he said that the association is optimistic with national tourism policy and regional tourist guidelines in the offing and also with the flagship program on tourism.

Garab also pointed out the need to invest heavily in this industry. He said that tourists who visit Bhutan are happy to a certain extent but their experience could be made worthwhile by spending more money.

He said, “Government has spent only around Nu 1 to 2 Billion on tourism in five years but tourism is an industry that requires huge investments.”

“In order to make Bhutan the best destination in the world as TCB claims, we need to invest heavily in this industry because at present, we don’t even have a good trekking trail, good roads and other services”, he added.

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