Social Media was abuzz on the evening of 17 October with outraged Bhutanese commenting on the picture of an Indian biker standing on the roof of one of the 108 Druk Wangyel Khang Zhang Chortens.
People have not only criticized him for his unethical behavior but also blamed the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) and the government for its lack of regulation on regional tourists, which has resulted in such incidents.
A total of 15 bikers visited Bhutan on 15 October from Phuentsholing lead by a local Bhutanese handler who is not a licensed guide. She became a part of the bikers as she was hiring her vehicle to them. As they had made an internal arrangement among themselves, the woman along with her helper was guiding the team wherever they went.
The bikers were on their way to Punakha when they stopped at the Dochula Pass, which is the most visited tourist site in Bhutan. It was learned that while guiding the bikers to park their bikes and waiting for other bikers, one of the bikers had wondered off on his own and was found to be standing on the Chorten.
Director General of TCB Dorji Dradhul said that the blame goes on all the parties, the tourist and the guide including TCB. “Being the Director of TCB, I fully accept that due to lack of strong tourism policy, the incident happened.”
He said that though the behavior of the tourist was disheartening, we cannot blame him entirely because even if tourists are required to follow certain rules, this was his first visit to the country, and maybe he was not aware about the significance of the structure on which he was standing and this incident happened out of ignorance.
The guide couldn’t be blamed either because she had briefed the tourists on dos and don’ts though she did not specifically inform the bikers that they are not allowed to climb on the structure. Even if there was licensed guide, the same incident could have happened, he said.
TCB Director said that according to the present regulation, tourists from the regional countries, like India, Bangladesh and Maldives don’t have to follow the minimum daily package or any tourism procedures. He said that it is not mandatory for them to come through a licensed tour operator, stay in a tourist standard hotel or to be guided by a licensed guide.
However, he said, “Since the last two years, we have also given options to the regional tourists that they can follow the partial procedure of international tourist by processing e-permit where they can come through travel agents, but they can either choose to come on their own or through tour operators.”
He said, “The lesson that we have to learn is that, we feel, if there was proper regulation we could have avoided the incident. In the past, there were many similar incidences in Paro Taktshang and Punakha Dzong, and this clearly shows that we really need a strong tourism policy.”
He said that TCB is seriously concerned and is working on the regulation that will not only regulate the unregulated tourists but also enable TCB to provide better services to the regional tourists. “Since we don’t have regulation in place at present, we are not able to provide better experiences to regional tourists,” he added.
The regulation ideas are around a SDF fee for regional tourists, vehicle entry fee, mandatory guides and others but their implementation will also depend on discussions with the Indian government.
According to TCB the regulation proposal is almost ready and the government will soon discuss this. “We are positive that the regulation will be approved and implemented as soon as possible. It is not so easy and we can’t do it immediate because we have to consult so many stakeholders,” he said.
Foreign Minister, Lyonpo Tandi Dorji, said that as expressed by people, it is a totally unacceptable behavior by the Indian biker. “We are really disappointed. This shows that we need a strong tourism policy in place, and the Tourism Council has already drafted the policy but what people have to understand is that it cannot be done overnight.”
According to the TCB, in 2014, 65,399 regional tourists visited Bhutan but in 2018 202,290 tourists visited Bhutan.