One major source of worry for Bhutan’s high value and low impact tourism has been the huge explosion in the numbers of regional tourists coming to Bhutan and its related side effects.
However, the figures from the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) shows that in 2018 there was only a ten percent increase in the numbers of regional tourists.
According to the information provided by the tourism council, the provisional total tourist arrival in 2018 was 274,097 with a growth of around 8 percent over 2017.
Of the total, 202,290 were regional tourists and 71,807 were international tourists inclusive of leisure, official, business and others.
This is compared to 24.9 percent growth of regional tourists in 2017, 50.4 percent in 2016, 49.2 percent in 2015, 3.1 percent in 2014 and a 25 percent increase in 2013.
The regional tourist numbers had increased dramatically from 2013 onwards. 2011 saw 16,418 regional tourists compared to 47,610 dollar paying tourists but by 2015 it became 97,548 regional tourists against 57,537 international tourists.
The regional tourist numbers then ballooned to 183,287 in 2017 almost doubling within two years.
Worried that its high value and low impact tourism is under threat Bhutan has been coming out with a number of soft policies and regulations like introducing entry fees at various locations and bringing online permits that encourage tourists to come through local guides.
The TCB, Association and Bhutanese Tour Operator (ABTO) and Hotel Association of Bhutan (HRAB) say the increasing number of regional tourist arrival is not alarming at present; however, they all want a new and strong policy to avoid the impact of over tourism or mass tourism faced by other countries.
The impact of the large numbers of regional tourists is already visible with many regional vehicles visible on the highways also adding to the traffic jams and limited parking in Thimphu.
There have been issues of increased waste, violation of cultural and religious norms in holy places, more noise and the crowding out of popular tourist destinations. There is also worry on the strain that such huge numbers are placing on a limited infrastructure in Bhutan in terms of roads, water, sewage and other facilities.
The increase in regional tourists has also led to a huge hotel construction boom that may not be sustainable in the long run (see separate story on page 1).
The Director General of the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), Dorji Dhradhul, said, “Despite numerous unparalleled tourism product and destinations, the number of international tourists visiting Bhutan is very less compared to regional tourists.
This is because we lack promotion at international level and not much has been done to attract tourists. So if we want the number of international tourists to increase, firstly we should promote tourism at the international level.”
He said, “With the vision to take tourism to the top, Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) will now focus on ‘high volume and high-value tourism’ which means that in future the number of tourists who are going to pay the minimum tariff is going to increase substantially.”
“For instance, a country like Singapore receives tourists of about 15 mn annually and Bhutan which is about 53 times bigger than Singapore receives only about 200,000 to 300,000 tourists in a year. So in this way, Bhutan has so much potential and if more tourists come in, it is good for us”, he said.
A tour operator and spokesperson of Association of Bhutanese Tour Operator (ABTO) Tandin S Wangchuck said, “We should not be alarmed with the increase in tourists’ arrival in Bhutan but instead we should be happy that there are people interested to come and visit Bhutan. What we should do as a country is to make sure that their trip to Bhutan is memorable and certain standards are maintained.”
He also said that tourism will always have both positive and negative impact but Bhutanese should prepare to ensure that the negative impact of tourism is always lower than the positive impact.
“Since the classification of hotels is for the dollar paying tourists and because there are no policy or rules and regulations for regional tourists, the negative impact of tourism will be higher,” said Tandin.
“Everyone should be concerned about the increasing number of regional tourists because when large numbers of unregulated regional tourist come in, it will have an impact on so many things like environment, culture, and heritage, society and security among others. So, it is important to have a strong policy in place,” said Tandin.
He said that instead of blaming the regional tourists, it should be the policymakers that deserve the blame as they are responsible for carrying out a thorough study on the number of tourists visiting Bhutan over a certain period, but no studies have been done so far he said.
Tandin also said that ABTO submitted numerous recommendations to the tourism council to come up with the new policy but he said that nothing much has been followed-up.
“The past two governments tried but were focused on the pricing of tariff instead of developing the infrastructure,” he added.
While the tour operators are worried about the high numbers of regional tourists, the hoteliers have a different view.
Jamyang Khyentse, a hotelier, said, “We work with regional travel agents especially in India and a few in Bangladesh. Regional tourism is booming in Bhutan and I see this as a good thing for us because it is a sign that we have good diplomatic relation with our neighboring countries.”
Another hotelier said, “In places like Thimphu and Paro, more budget hotels are coming up which shows that the number of regional tourists visiting Bhutan is also increasing because regional tourists come in huge numbers and it is regional tourists that contribute more to our national revenue.”
He said, “Increasing number of regional tourists is good for us because when large groups of regional tourists come in, especially during festival like Tshechus, most of the hotels that are left almost vacant get occupied and during off-season when few tourists come, it affects hoteliers with many having difficulty in repaying the loans”.
Karma Lotay, a hotelier said, “The number of regional tourists that we receive at present is not alarming but in future, it can be a concern if we do not regulate it as it can impact Bhutan’s status as a high-end destination.”
He said that if matters get out of hand, financial institutions like banks should intervene and stop providing loans for the construction of hotels and resorts which has shot up as high as housing and construction loans in the recent year.
In addition to the construction boom of new hotels and resorts, he said, even old houses and building are also being converted into hotels. “This has to stop one day or it will have severe implications on us,” he said.